Lawyers accused of using paralegal to friend litigant on Facebook are facing ethics probe
Ethics regulators may pursue a case against two lawyers accused of using a paralegal to friend a litigant and access nonpublic Facebook pages, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled in a decision on the power of the Office of Attorney Ethics.
The supreme court ruled that the ethics office could investigate the grievance even though the secretary of a local district ethics committee refused to docket the matter, report the New Jersey Law Journal (sub. req.), the Wall Street Journal Law Blog and the Legal Profession Blog.
The lawyers, John Robertelli and Gabriel Adamo are accused of using the paralegal to obtain private Facebook information about a plaintiff in a personal injury case who was represented by counsel. The plaintiff was injured after being struck by a police car; Robertelli and Adamo represented the governmental body being sued.
After the plaintiff changed his privacy setting, the paralegal allegedly obtained access by friending the plaintiff. The paralegal used her real name but didn’t disclose that she worked for the Rivkin Radler law firm in Hackensack, ethics officials say. The litigant learned his private Facebook information had been accessed after the lawyers sought to add the paralegal as a trial witness and disclosed Facebook printouts.
The litigant filed a grievance, but the secretary of the local ethics committee refused to docket it because she believed that the allegations, if proven, didn’t constitute unethical conduct. The director of the Office of Attorney Ethics nonetheless filed a complaint against the lawyers, who said in their answer that they were unfamiliar with the privacy settings on Facebook. The lawyers acknowledged asking the paralegal to monitor the Facebook page but denied asking her to friend the litigant. They said they thought the friend request was an automatic process.
The New Jersey Supreme Court allowed the ethics case to proceed. The court noted that the matter presents a novel ethics issue that has not been the subject of any reported case law in the state.
“Consistent with the goals of the disciplinary process,” the supreme court said, “the court rules do not close off further inquiry if a [district ethics committee] secretary declines to docket an important, novel issue as to which there is little guidance, or mistakenly declines to docket an allegation of egregious, unethical conduct.”
A lawyer representing Robertelli and Adamo, Michal Stein, told the Wall Street Journal Law Blog that the opinion highlights a lack of “playbook or precedent for how these attorneys should have dealt with the circumstances they were confronted with in 2008.”
Stein noted that a hearing on the merits of the ethics complaint has not yet been held.