Backlog of attorney complaints in Nevada objectionable

The backlog of attorney discipline proceedings in Nevada reached a point of ridiculousness around four years ago.

Complaints alleging attorney misconduct languished for as long as three years, sometimes even five. Clients complained. Other attorneys complained. Even judges privately complained their referrals of certain lawyers to the State Bar of Nevada seemed to drop into Neverland.

There were two places where backlogs emerged — the State Bar and the Nevada Supreme Court, which made the final decisions.

The State Bar counsel lacked adequate staff to handle the growing number of complaints. The Supreme Court lacked time to make the final decisions about appropriate discipline.

Those two points of delay meant some lousy lawyers were allowed to keep practicing for years because no action was taken by the State Bar or Supreme Court. On the other hand, some good lawyers had disciplinary actions hovering over them unnecessarily.

In June 2014, the bar’s board of governors decided to make reducing the backlog of attorney discipline grievances a priority.

I’ve written for years about complaints going nowhere. The answer I always received: not enough staff.

When Rob Bare headed the Office of State Bar Counsel between 1993 and 2011, he had 10 staffers, including three attorneys and four legal assistants. After he became a judge, David Clark took over and the backlog, which had grown under Bare, increased under Clark.

When State Bar President Laurence Digesti took office in 2015, the numbers were horrifying. As of July 1, 2014, there were 415 grievances pending that had been screened and were ready for hearings. Of those, 38 were more than six months old and involved a total of 114 attorneys — an unacceptable backlog.

However, as discipline cases are resolved, more are filed, so the bar added new staff to the Office of Bar Counsel.

New State Bar Counsel Stan Hunterton, hired in October, has hired a retired Internal Revenue Service financial expert. Another attorney has been hired. By the end of January, there will be eight lawyers and five paralegals among the total staff of 18 in Las Vegas and Reno.

“We’ve made significant progress in 2015, but we haven’t reached our goal,” Digesti said. “We are on schedule to complete 110 attorney discipline hearings in 2015, a 72 percent increase over 2014,” he wrote in the bar’s publication, Nevada Lawyer. Pending investigations were reduced from 441 to 240, a reduction of 46 percent.

While the bar hasn’t met its goal of having no cases ready for hearing that are more than six months old, he’s pleased with the progress.

The bar also proposed, and the Supreme Court approved, substantive changes that will make attorney discipline more open. No more private letters of reprimand, the lightest form of discipline. Those letters will be public. No more informal hearings. And if an attorney is disbarred, the most serious discipline, the disbarred attorney cannot apply for reinstatement.

Hearing panels will be cut to three people from five — two attorneys and a lay person — making it faster and easier to schedule disciplinary hearing panels together.

Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty credited the new Court of Appeals with giving the justices more time to reduce the discipline backlog. The appeals court has been assigned 816 cases since it began work last year, and it has resolved 712.

“We had 25 discipline cases pending as of Jan. 1, 2015,” Hardesty said. Meanwhile, throughout 2015, 113 more discipline cases were filed. The court disposed of 126 discipline cases last year. Only six of the pending 25 are older than six months. “A lot of these cases went back three years,” he said.

“There is no question these improvements by the State Bar and the court will better protect the public,” Hardesty said, referring to reducing the backlog as well as process changes.

“For bar discipline to be effective, it has to be timely,” the justice said.

Hardesty was one of the leading proponents of the appellate court, which flopped with voters in 1972, 1988 and 2010 before winning voter approval in 2014. “I am delighted with the performance of the Court of Appeals,” Hardesty said.

Hardesty said the court started seeing the backlog at least four years ago. When he was first elected in 2004, about 30 to 35 bar cases were sent to the court. Then it increased to 70 a year. “This year alone we saw 113,” Hardesty said.

When a lawyer is no good, people are harmed.

“We made a commitment to get this problem fixed,” Digesti said. “I see some improvement, and it’s not where I’d like it to be, but we’re getting there. We owe it to the public.”

Client complaints range from the attorney won’t call them back to the attorney stole from their client trust funds. Maybe they lost their home because the lawyer didn’t flle the right paperwork on time.

At times, I became aware that multiple complaints had been filed against a particular attorney. Bankruptcy attorney Randolph Goldberg comes to mind. Clients began filing grievances against him starting in 2007. Bankruptcy judges sanctioned him in 2009, 2010 and 2013. Two of his clients grew so frustrated, they went to the Internal Revenue Service, which moved faster than the bar had. He went to prison in 2013 for tax evasion and was suspended from practicing.

Goldberg was released from prison in May, if anyone cares.

A judge in Louisiana recommended in September 2013 the Nevada bar investigate personal injury attorney Glen Lerner in connection with alleged unethical behavior in the British Petroleum oil spill case. Lerner denies any wrongdoing.

At this time, no complaint has been filed against him, more than two years after a judge asked the bar to look at him.

Hunterton said speeding the process up to discipline attorneys is like “turning a battleship around. It’s one thing to give the order to turn it around, but it takes time to turn that big boat.”

The numbers at the end of 2016 will tell whether the efforts of the State Bar and the Supreme Court turn the battleship and succeed in protecting the public from unethical, even criminal, lawyers.

The math is telling. If 115 complaints against lawyers made it to the Supreme Court in 2015, and hundreds more were screened and dismissed as without merit, and there are about 11,500 attorneys, then there’s a minuscule number of rotten attorneys in Nevada.

Still, the public needs to be protected from the bad lawyers who ruin people’s lives.

Dillydallying is not acceptable.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column runs Thursdays. Leave messages for her at 702-383-0275 or email jmorrison@reviewjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter: @janeannmorrison

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