Friday, August 26, 2011

Forbidden Love

In re Margaret Strouse, Esq., 2011 VT 77

 Ah the power of love!  Today’s case illustrates one of the downsides to practicing in a small state.  In early February of 2008, Attorney began dating a man she had met at her gym.  Several weeks into the romance, while looking over the client list at the Burlington law firm where she worked, she discovered that her firm represented the soon-to-be ex-wife of her beau in the pending divorce action. 

To Attorney’s credit, she immediately informed her senior partner of the situation, asking him to erect a Chinese wall to shield her from the client’s file so the she could continue the relationship without creating a conflict for the firm.  The answer from on high was swift: lose the man or lose your job. 

The following day, on February 19, Attorney told her senior partner that her relationship with the client’s husband was history.  The partner, presumably breathing a sigh of relief, then called the client/wife and disclosed the affair.  The client thought it over, consulted with other counsel, and decided to continue to employ the firm to represent her in the divorce. 

That could have been the end of it, but love leads the will to desperate undertakings.  On February 26, Attorney ordered a box of chocolates delivered to her beau.  She also visited him at the health club pool, and sought the forbidden tryst, staying with husband in the marital home.  None of which she disclosed to her senior partner.

The wife’s family found out, and on March 11 they contacted the senior partner and told him that Attorney was living with husband in the marital home.  The partner confronted Attorney, she admitted that she was staying at the house with husband, and that they were romantically involved.  Strouse was immediately fired.

Love is no crime, but deceit is a violation of Rule 8.4(c) of the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct.  A Hearing Panel of the Professional Responsibility Board found Strouse in violation of Rule 8.4(c) and suspended her license for six months. 

On appeal, Attorney argued that she should receive, at most, a public reprimand, while disciplinary counsel argued for disbarment.  The majority of the SCOV, noting that Attorney’s secret relationship with the husband put her firm into an imputed conflict of interest with its representation of the wife, agreed with the Panel’s finding that Attorney had engaged in deceit and violated Rule 8.4(c). 

But the majority could not find it in its collective heart to disbar or suspend her.  The SCOV compared Attorney’s ethical lapse to a parade of horrors including a lawyer who advised his client that he could make arrangements to have her husband killed in lieu of bringing a child custody suit.  Attorney’s lapse did not rise (or rather, sink) to that level, says the SCOV: “The Panel found that respondent’s behavior was selfish, and it was.  But it was mitigated, to be sure, by the fact that she acted not for greed or glory, nor for malice or lucre, but apparently for romantic reasons.”  Her conduct was further mitigated by her relatively brief professional experience and her lack of any other disciplinary actions.

The SCOV noted that as Attorney was immediately fired, her firm’s exposure to any ethical violation was brief.  One might suppose that the loss of her job also influenced the SCOV’s consideration of whether Attorney had been sufficiently punished for her forbidden love affair, because although it affirms Panel’s determination of a violation of Rule 8.4(c), it reduces her penalty to a public reprimand.                 

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