Hearing Board Recommends Suspension For Poor Communication With Clients

The ARDC Hearing Board has recommended a four-month suspension for a lawyer who, it found, did not properly communicate with his clients and engaged in a conflict of interest in violation of Rule 1.7(a)(2). The lawyer represented a restaurant and four employees (servers) who were accused of violating a local ordinance. The lawyer attended a hearing and agreed to a resolution of the claims. The employees claimed that the lawyer did not have their consent to resolve the cases on their behalf.

Rule 1.7(a) provides: (a) Except as provided in paragraph (b), a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest. A concurrent conflict of interest exists if: (1) the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client; or(2) there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer.

The ARDC’s Summary stated:

“A local ordinance prohibited persons from exposing their buttocks while acting as a waiter, waitress or entertainer in a business with a liquor license. A restaurant retained Respondent to represent it and four of its servers on charges of violating that ordinance and agreed to pay any fines imposed on the servers if they were found to have violated the ordinance. Without fully informing the servers of their rights and options, Respondent entered pleas admitting that the restaurant and the servers violated the ordinance. Respondent thereby failed to properly consult with his clients concerning the objectives of the representation, failed to properly inform and explain matters to his clients, and improperly represented clients despite a conflict of interest.”

The Opinion continues to describe the testimony of the servers.

“Based on the testimony of Sarah, Briana and Allison, Morales or another manager collected their citations and told the servers they did not have to go to court. Management staff told the servers that Twin Peaks would take care of the situation and the servers would not have to deal with it. None of them ever met with Respondent or expected that anyone would admit to the charge on their behalf. Given the opportunity, Sarah, Briana and Allison each would have sought to present a defense. All three considered any violation the restaurant’s responsibility, not hers, as she was dressed as her employer required. Further, Briana was unaware of the prior police warning. Sarah testified that management told the servers to wear the lingerie despite that warning. While Allison and Briana indicated otherwise, Morales believed that all servers were clad in compliance with the ordinance, and Sarah denied that any portion of her buttocks was exposed. According to Morales, photographs of the servers with their buttocks covered depicted how they were dressed when police arrived on February 11, 2017. (Tr. 59-75, 110, 130-37, 141-43, 151, 176-78, 192, 223-25, 236-39, 317-24, 334-39; Resp. Ex. 6).

Sarah, Briana and Allison first learned that a plea of liable had been entered well after the fact. They were able to obtain information about the disposition of the citations. They were concerned about having any record of this violation and having to disclose the violation when applying for school or jobs in the future.  (Tr. 80-93, 146-47, 152, 170, 173, 325-28).

Based on Respondent’s testimony, he met with the servers on March 9, 2017, told them he represented Twin Peaks, and Twin Peaks authorized him to represent them, at no cost to them, if they did not want, or already have, another attorney. Respondent informed the servers of the March 14 court date, that there were citations against them individually and, if they wanted, they should get counsel to represent them. He told the servers they did not have to use him as their attorney. All agreed to have him represent them. (Tr. 279-83, 288-89, 512). Respondent did not inform the servers of the material risks of joint representation or advise them that they should consult with independent counsel. (Ans. at pars. 16, 17). Respondent did not believe there was any conflict of interest between Twin Peaks and the servers. He did not consider whether the servers might have a cause of action against the restaurant. (Tr. 283-86, 297, 509).

Respondent testified that, during the March 9 meeting, he told the servers that he would see if the village would dismiss the cases against them, but that would require an agreement from the village prosecutor. He recognized that was the servers’ first choice. Respondent believed that no one had any viable defense or was apt to succeed if the case went to hearing, as the police report indicated that these servers all were dressed in a way that violated the ordinance and all covered their buttocks after police issued the citations. Respondent understood that the photographs were taken after the citations were issued, not before. Respondent explained that to the servers. Respondent did not believe the servers had a defense to the citations based on lack of notice to them. While recognizing its potential as mitigation, Respondent was not certain whether the fact that the restaurant dictated the servers’ attire might have been a legal defense to the citations against the servers.

Respondent informed the servers that, if a plea had to be entered, Twin Peaks would pay any fine against them. Respondent saw that as the only real option, absent an agreement from the village prosecutor to dismiss the citations against the servers. Respondent noted that the servers were not familiar with the legal system. From his perspective, all the servers preferred to not spend money for an attorney and to avoid having to go to court or see him on an ongoing basis. Respondent thought he had the servers’ authority to enter a plea on their behalf. (Tr. 280-88, 295- 96, 510-11, 531-33, 542-43, 546-49).

Respondent did not communicate directly with any of the four servers after March 9, 2017. He relied on local managers, particularly Morales and Tony Gutierrez, to communicate with them. (Tr. 279, 288, 522-23). Respondent did not inform the servers of the status of the administrative hearings, Huguelet’s refusal to dismiss the citations against them or his negotiations with Huguelet. (Ans. at par. 20; Tr. 297). Respondent did not inform the servers that he had pled them liable to the ordinance violation, what that plea meant or the time within which to appeal. Respondent sent copies of the disposition to Gessner, but not to anyone at Twin Peaks Orland Park. (Ans. at par. 27;Tr. 292-93, 530).”

Comments: The Panel found a violation of Rule 1.7(a)(2) Conflict of Interest and recommended a four-month suspension. In other words, it was impossible for the attorney to represent both the servers and the restaurant. The restaurant’s goal was to have a speedy resolution of the municipal dispute which the lawyer obtained. The servers’ goal would have been to resist any acceptance of responsibility because it might impact their ability to obtain work in the future. The panel found that the lawyer’s representation of the servers was limited by his representation of the restaurant. The lesson here is to think carefully about conflicts of interest and to retain separate counsel for each party to the municipal proceeding.

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