A New Jersey appeals court is considering whether the Office of Attorney Ethics has the power to file ethics grievances against lawyers after district ethics committees have declined to do so, and whether the judges themselves even have the authority to get involved in the dispute.
If the panel decides that the Superior Courts can exercise jurisdiction over ethics matters, it will then have to decide whether OAE Director Charles Centinaro violated the rules governing the disciplinary process when he filed a complaint against two lawyers in Hackensack, after District II-B Ethics Committee secretary Doris Newman concluded their actions did not constitute unethical conduct, New Jersey Law Journal reports.The OAE alleges the attorneys violated ethics rules by using Facebook “friending” to get information about a man who sued in a personal injury case after being struck by a police cruiser in the driveway of a firehouse. The young man suffered a fractured femur and needed multiple surgeries, according to the Law Journal. Court documents say a paralegal was instructed to “friend” the plaintiff so the lawyers could get access to his Facebook page, which contained information not available to the public. During a deposition, one attorney questioned the plaintiff about travel, dancing and other activities that would refute his claims about the seriousness of his injuries. The defense supplied photos and a video, taken from Facebook, of the plaintiff wrestling with his brother.
The attorney for the two lawyers said the rules for ethics complaints do not allow an appeal. Presiding appellate judge, Jack Sabatino, said attorney discipline matters are normally handled by the Supreme Court and its appointed bodies, such as the OAE and the Disciplinary Review Board. “We’re out of the process ordinarily,” he said.
The two attorneys sued the OAE for bringing an ethics case against them after the district panel had declined to do so. Bergen County Superior Court Judge Harry Carroll dismissed the lawsuit, saying he had no power to review OAE actions. When the lawyers appealed, the OAE moved to throw it out, claiming the Appellate Division, like the lower court, lacks jurisdiction.