Lawyer disbarred for destroying his computer, altering metadata before ethics hearing

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The New Hampshire Supreme Court has disbarred a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, lawyer based on allegations that he destroyed his computer before an ethics hearing and altered metadata. (Image from Shutterstock)

A New Hampshire lawyer has been disbarred based on allegations that he destroyed his computer before an ethics hearing and altered metadata to make it appear that he had provided conflict letters to a client when borrowing $275,000 from her.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court disbarred Portsmouth, New Hampshire, lawyer Justin P. Nadeau in an April 16 opinion noted by the Legal Profession Blog.

The state supreme court said it agreed with a hearing panel, which found that Nadeau engaged in “a deliberate, multiyear effort to deceive the disciplinary authority” by falsifying evidence and failing to preserve evidence.

Nadeau was formerly a Democratic congressional candidate, according to the New Hampshire Journal’s coverage of the disbarment.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court’s Professional Conduct Committee found that Nadeau violated nine ethics rules for transgressions that included entering into a business transaction with the client, failing to obtain an informed waiver of conflicts of interest, failing to provide the client with a statement of fees for the personal injury case that she transferred to him, and commingling of personal funds with trust account funds.

The client was a vulnerable person who had suffered a brain injury in a traffic accident that caused cognitive deficits, according to a hearing committee that considered the evidence and recommended disbarment to the Professional Conduct Committee.

When he met the client, Nadeau was facing financial pressure, according to the hearing board report. Nadeau’s law office was encumbered with more than $290,000 in state and federal tax liens, his attorney trust account had a shortfall of more than $31,000, and he faced a deadline if he wanted to buy the home that he had been renting, according to the hearing board.

He used the $275,000 loan from the client for the down payment. In addition, Nadeau failed to timely disclose that he collected a $165,000 referral fee in the client’s personal injury case, the hearing board found.

But the New Hampshire Supreme Court said it didn’t have to address alleged ethics violations involving the client because Nadeau falsified evidence in the ethics case.

Nadeau had disposed of his laptop and hard drive after agreeing to preserve electronic data related to the client. According to findings of fact, Nadeau provided conflicts documents with false dates to disciplinary authorities and then altered metadata with special software to make them appear authentic.

The disciplinary counsel relied on an expert who examined the computer of Nadeau’s paralegal, along with the lawyer’s file server.

A dissenter on the hearing panel called Nadeau a “tragic figure” who had practiced for decades “with high accolades.” The dissenter, Robert Dabrowski, said in July 2022 he did not see evidence that Nadeau “acted as a malicious attorney to defraud anybody.”

Dabrowski noted testimony that Nadeau had a “history of saving clients where so many prior attorneys failed” them and said he should be suspended, rather than disbarred.

The ABA Journal was unable to reach Nadeau for comment. The phone number for his former law office has been disconnected, and an email sent to his law office address was returned as undeliverable.

Nadeau’s lawyer, Ragnar Huffmann, did not immediately respond to the Journal’s voicemail.

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