I. NATURE OF CASE
The issue presented is what discipline should be imposed on Gregory A. Pivovar, respondent, for his violation of certain provisions of the Nebraska Rules of Professional Conduct and his oath of office as an attorney. Judgment was previously entered on the pleadings as to the facts. Briefing and oral argument were ordered on the issue of discipline.
Upon consideration, we adopt the referee's recommendation of a 45-day suspension followed by 2 years of monitored probation.
On September 12, 1979, respondent was admitted to practice law in Nebraska. He has received four previous private reprimands.
The instant disciplinary proceedings relate to formal charges filed on December 12, 2012, by the Counsel for Discipline of the Nebraska Supreme Court, relator. In these charges, relator alleged that certain acts of respondent during his representation of Danny Robinson violated respondent's oath of office as an attorney and Neb. Ct. R. of Prof. Cond. §§ 3-501.1 (competence), 3-501.3 (diligence), 3-501.4 (communications), and 3-508.4 (misconduct). Respondent admitted certain allegations, but he denied that he had violated his oath of office or any of the Nebraska Rules of Professional Conduct.
On August 16, 2013, a hearing was held before a court-appointed referee. Based on the evidence adduced at the hearing, the referee filed a report.
The referee's findings may be summarized as follows: In March 2008, respondent was appointed to represent Robinson on a motion for postconviction relief from Robinson's first degree murder conviction. Respondent represented Robinson at an evidentiary hearing on the motion for postconviction relief.
The district court denied Robinson's motion, and respondent sent a letter to Robinson informing him of that decision. Respondent advised Robinson that respondent
On March 18, 2010, the district court granted Robinson's application to proceed in forma pauperis and appointed respondent as counsel on appeal. On March 22, respondent received notice of the appointment. The following day, upon reviewing Robinson's file, respondent discovered that no notice of appeal had been filed.
Respondent testified that after he discovered that there was no appeal, he "`"[s]tuck [his] head in the sand."'" He did not contact the district court to discuss the fact that he had not received notice of his appointment until after the deadline for filing an appeal had passed. Respondent researched the problem but "`did nothing more.'" At the hearing before the referee, respondent testified that he "`"[a]bsolutely"'" should have done more to resolve the problem.
In the months following respondent's appointment to serve as Robinson's appellate counsel, Robinson made "`numerous attempts'" to contact respondent by telephone and letter. Respondent did not answer "`[m]ost'" of these communications. Respondent testified he told Robinson that he was "`"working on whether [Robinson] had an appeal or not."'" However, Robinson testified that respondent said he was working on writing the appellate brief. The referee determined that respondent waited until November 27, 2010, to inform Robinson that an appeal had not been timely filed.
The referee concluded there was "`no dispute that the respondent "put his head in the sand" and failed to communicate with ... Robinson.'" The referee noted that the main problem was the lack of communication with Robinson, not the missed opportunity to appeal. The referee explained that "even though the appeal time was apparently blown in the first instance, subsequently, ... Robinson's appeal was permitted and the appeal was properly docketed."
The referee found by clear and convincing evidence that respondent had failed to (1) competently represent Robinson, (2) act with reasonable diligence, and (3) properly communicate with Robinson. The referee determined that respondent had engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. Thus, the referee concluded that respondent had violated his oath of office as an attorney and §§ 3-501.1 (competence), 3-501.3 (diligence), 3-501.4 (communications), and 3-508.4 (misconduct).
The referee recommended discipline in the form of a 45-day suspension followed by 2 years of probation with a practice monitor. The referee took into account respondent's four prior private reprimands arising from five separate complaints. The referee also considered the "overwhelming showing of support" for respondent by members of the legal community and the fact that respondent was cooperative and "generally remorseful."
No exceptions were taken by either party to the referee's report. As such, pursuant to Neb. Ct. R. § 3-310(L), the relator moved for judgment on the pleadings and asked this court to impose the recommended sanction. We granted the motion
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
A proceeding to discipline an attorney is a trial de novo on the record.
IV. ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR
Neither party has taken exception to the referee's report. Neither party assigns any error.
Because the motion for judgment on the pleadings was granted as to the facts, the issue before us is the appropriate discipline.
To determine whether and to what extent discipline should be imposed in an attorney discipline proceeding, we consider the following factors: (1) the nature of the offense, (2) the need for deterring others, (3) the maintenance of the reputation of the bar as a whole, (4) the protection of the public, (5) the attitude of the offender generally, and (6) the offender's present or future fitness to continue in the practice of law.
Each attorney discipline case must be evaluated individually in light of its particular facts and circumstances.
2. RESPONDENT'S CONDUCT
Respondent's conduct surrounding Robinson's appeal fell below the standards expected of an attorney under the Nebraska Rules of Professional Conduct.
Respondent was not thorough in preparation of the materials necessary for Robinson to appeal from the denial of postconviction relief or in communicating with Robinson about how to proceed with an appeal. Although respondent provided Robinson with several of the documents necessary to perfect an appeal and provided Robinson with some pertinent information, respondent failed to provide Robinson with a notice of appeal or to inform Robinson that he had only 30 days to appeal.
Respondent's representation of Robinson on appeal lacked competence, diligence, and promptness. On the day after receiving the order of appointment, respondent
Our main concern is respondent's lack of communication with his client. Section 3-501.4(a) states that an attorney must do the following:
Respondent's interaction with Robinson did not meet these standards. After respondent was appointed to represent Robinson on appeal, respondent did not reply to Robinson's repeated attempts at communication via telephone and letter. Additionally, respondent did not keep Robinson reasonably informed about the status of the appeal. Respondent waited over 8 months before he told Robinson that his appeal had not been perfected. This delay is far from diligent or prompt.
3. AGGRAVATING AND MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES
As the referee noted, respondent's prior instances of discipline are aggravating factors.
In December 1997, respondent was reprimanded for violating the provisions of the then-existing Code of Professional Responsibility relating to misconduct
In July 2002, respondent was retained to prepare an application for modification of child support. Respondent prepared the application but failed to use the client's proper name. Thereafter, he failed to make the necessary revisions to the application. He did not appear at a scheduled meeting with the client or respond to the client's attempts at communication. The client terminated respondent's services and requested an itemized statement and return of her deposit. Respondent failed to comply with these requests, and when the client submitted a request for fee arbitration with the help of the Nebraska State Bar Association, respondent did not reply. In May 2003, respondent was privately reprimanded for violating the provisions of the Code of Professional Responsibility relating to misconduct
Most recently, in December 2012, respondent was privately reprimanded for violating §§ 3-501.4 (communications) and 3-508.4(a) and (d) (misconduct). Respondent had been retained to represent an individual on his motion for postconviction relief, but he did little work on the case. At one point, respondent went almost 6 months without taking any action in the case. When respondent conducted depositions, he did not inform the client that he was doing so. The client repeatedly contacted respondent without reply. Based on these actions, respondent was "sternly reprimanded."
The referee identified several mitigating factors, including respondent's remorseful attitude and cooperation throughout the disciplinary proceedings. The referee also considered the overwhelming showing of support for respondent from members of the legal community. Letters were received in support of respondent from 21 members of the legal community, including retired district court judges, an assistant attorney general, public defenders, county attorneys, and individual attorneys. Several letters were also received from individuals attesting to respondent's involvement in the community.
Based on these factors, the referee concluded as follows:
We agree with the referee that respondent's remorseful attitude and cooperation in these proceedings are mitigating factors.
4. SANCTION IMPOSED IN SIMILAR CASE
In State ex rel. Counsel for Dis. v. Seyler,
5. CONCLUSION AS TO DISCIPLINE
The evidence establishes that respondent's representation of Robinson violated his oath of office as an attorney and §§ 3-501.1 (competence), 3-501.3 (diligence), 3-501.4 (communications), and 3-508.4 (misconduct). Respondent's representation was not competent, prompt, or diligent. Furthermore, respondent failed to keep Robinson informed and to promptly respond to Robinson's repeated attempts at communication.
The evidence shows that respondent is well respected by the legal community, that he is generally remorseful, and that he cooperated with relator. However, respondent has four prior private reprimands, three of which involved a failure to communicate with clients.
Given the pattern of poor communication exhibited in respondent's prior reprimands, we find that the referee's recommendation of a 45-day suspension followed by 2 years of monitored probation is appropriate. No exceptions have been taken to this recommendation, and we hereby adopt it.
Upon due consideration of the record, we find that respondent should be and hereby is suspended from the practice of law for a period of 45 days, effective immediately. Respondent shall comply with Neb. Ct. R. § 3-316 (rev.2014), and upon failure to do so, he shall be subject to punishment for contempt of this court. We also direct respondent to pay costs and expenses in accordance with Neb.Rev.Stat. §§ 7-114 and 7-115 (Reissue 2012), § 3-310(P) (rev.2014), and Neb. Ct. R. § 3-323(B) within 60 days after an order imposing costs and expenses, if any, is entered by this court.
At the end of the 45-day suspension, respondent may apply to be reinstated to the practice of law, provided that he has demonstrated his compliance with § 3-316 and further provided that relator has not notified this court that respondent has violated any disciplinary rule during his suspension. Upon reinstatement, respondent shall complete 2 years of monitored probation. During the period of probation, respondent will be monitored by an attorney licensed to practice law in the State of Nebraska and approved by relator. The monitoring plan shall include but not be limited to the following:
(1) On a monthly basis, respondent shall provide the monitoring attorney with a list of all cases for which respondent is then currently responsible, said list to include the following information for each case: (a) the date the attorney-client relationship began, (b) the type of case (i.e., criminal, dissolution, probate, contract, et cetera), (c) the date of the last contact with the client, (d) the last date and type of work completed on the case, (e) the next type of work and date to be completed on the case, and (f) any applicable statute of limitations and its date;
(2) On a monthly basis, respondent shall meet with the monitoring attorney to discuss respondent's pending cases;
(4) If at any time the monitoring attorney believes respondent has violated a disciplinary rule or has failed to comply with the terms of probation, the monitoring attorney shall report the same to relator.
It is the judgment of this court that respondent should be and hereby is suspended from the practice of law for a period of 45 days, effective immediately. It is the further judgment of this court that upon completion of the period of suspension and reinstatement to the bar, respondent shall be placed on monitored probation for 2 years, subject to the terms set forth above.
JUDGMENT OF SUSPENSION.
McCormack, J., not participating.