Lawyer accused of relying on staffer to take CLE classes gets sanction reprieve if he accepts indigent cases

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A solo practitioner in Maine may find it difficult to comply with the terms of an ethics sanction imposed for relying on his assistant to take his continuing legal education classes.

In an order earlier this month, Justice Thomas R. McKeon of the Maine Superior Court imposed a one-year suspension on lawyer Donald F. Brown of Brewer, Maine. But the suspension will be stayed if Brown completes CLE requirements and accepts court-appointed work, including criminal defense and protective-custody cases.

But Brown isn’t eligible, at this point, to accept court appointments through the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which oversees indigent defense appointments, according to the Maine Monitor.

The commission’s executive director, Justin Andrus, told the Maine Monitor that the agency was not a party to the ethics case and isn’t required to contract with Brown.

Unlike 49 other states, Maine hires private lawyers to represent indigent defendants and has no public defenders, according to the Maine Monitor. In his ethics ruling, McKeon said he was considering “the impact on the public of suspending an attorney qualified to accept court-appointed criminal defense work in these times.”

According to McKeon’s findings, Brown became aware in late February 2020 that he had to complete 12 hours of CLE. Brown signed up for four live seminars that require watchers to acknowledge their presence when prompted. But Brown realized that he had scheduling conflicts at the time of the classes, so he asked his assistant to sign on to the online classes in his place.

Text messages between Brown and his assistant are strong evidence that he was asking her to take the classes, rather than to simply download them for future viewing, McKeon said. The assistant took at least three of the courses, McKeon concluded.

McKeon reprimanded Brown for a second ethical violation for representing a client in a divorce case after they were in a sexual relationship, reported in its coverage of the ethics case. They discussed the ethical issues, but Brown did not get the woman’s consent to representation in writing.

Brown had three instances of prior discipline, according to the Maine Monitor and McKeon’s decision. Brown received a warning in 2002 in connection with client communication, a public reprimand in 2006 for allowing the statute of limitations to expire without filing a lawsuit or telling his client, and a public reprimand in 2016 for failure to serve a party with court filings.

Brown didn’t immediately respond to the ABA Journal’s phone message seeking comment.

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