Legal Ethics

Lawyer suspended for conduct 'far beyond a lack of civility' by top state court

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The Minnesota Supreme Court has rejected a recommendation of a reprimand and imposed a 60-day suspension on a lawyer accused of yelling at court staffers and wrongly claiming a judge was trying to set her up.

The lawyer, Lynne Torgerson, was suspended in an Oct. 21 per curiam opinion (PDF). The Legal Profession Blog links to the case and publishes highlights.

The state supreme court found that a referee’s conclusions in the case were not clearly erroneous, though it found the referee’s recommendation of a public reprimand to be too lenient. “The record adequately supports the referee’s conclusions that Torgerson violated a myriad of rules of professional conduct,” the state supreme court said.

“Contrary to Torgerson’s view of her own conduct,” the court said, “her actions went far beyond a lack of civility.”

Torgerson’s accusations about the judge, who presides in Ramsey County criminal trials, began outside the presence of the jury when she accused the judge of trying to intentionally prejudice her, according to the state supreme court.

When jury deliberations began, the judge said he wanted counsel to “be available within 10 minutes of a phone call.” Torgerson didn’t follow the instructions and drove to Minneapolis for an interview, the state supreme court said. When a law clerk and then the judge called Torgerson to return to court, she said she wouldn’t do so without additional information. The judge declared a mistrial and fined Torgerson $250 for contempt of court.

In pleadings filed afterward, Torgerson claimed another lawyer had told her the judge was treating her poorly for political reasons; the judge was trying to make her look bad before the jury; and the judge was trying to set her up. The statements were made with knowledge they were false or were made with reckless disregard of the truth, the state supreme court said.

Torgerson had maintained she had a genuine and sincere belief that the judge was treating her inappropriately.

In another case, Torgerson wasn’t notified of a changed hearing date because she filed a petition for expungement without a certificate of representation. When Torgerson called the courthouse and learned of the changed date, she yelled at two different staff members, the supreme court said. Torgerson had argued she merely spoke to the staffers and didn’t yell.

In another case, Torgerson used a retainer agreement stating a flat fee was her property, subject to a refund of unearned fees. The contract said that within 24 hours of signing, all fees paid have been earned. She has since changed the agreement.

In yet another case, the court said, Torgerson made false statements in an ethics complaint she filed against an assistant county attorney. Torgerson had argued her statements were based on her honest, good-faith belief about the relevant facts.

“The bulk of the referee’s findings of misconduct follow a central theme: Torgerson lacked professionalism in dealing with judges, court staff and other attorneys,” the state supreme court said. “She also repeatedly made knowingly false statements in several matters.”

The court concluded Torgerson’s conduct had reflected adversely on the bar and wasted judicial resources.

Link to opinion updated on Oct. 29.

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