Attorney Discipline & Grievances
By Legal Malpractice Lawyers at The Kassab Law Firm
Attorneys in most states have the obligation to maintain a high standard of ethical conduct toward their clients and others. To enforce this standard, most states have a Disciplinary Agency that will investigate and prosecute grievances and complaints of professional misconduct against attorneys licensed in their state, pursuant to their own state’s disciplinary rules as promulgated by their state supreme court. Depending on the states, these Disciplinary Agencies may be known as:
What rules are lawyers required to follow?
For purposes of professional discipline, each state has a written set of rules that are usually posted on their Disciplinary Agency website. See the link on this page for your state’s agency.
Should I file a grievance?
Reporting unethical behavior of lawyers helps reduce and prevent harm to the public and the legal profession. In order for the Disciplinary Agency to investigate the attorney’s conduct, the person seeking to complain about the attorney must file a written grievance describing the attorney’s conduct with the State bar.
Is there a statute of limitations on filing a grievance?
Yes. With a few exceptions. In Texas, there is a four-year statute of limitations on filing a grievance. This means that you have four years from the time the alleged misconduct occurred to file a grievance with the Texas State Bar. Check with your state’s Disciplinary Agency for your state’s statute of limitations.
Must I be the person who hired the lawyer in order to file a complaint?
No. Any person with knowledge of what they believe to be professional misconduct by a lawyer has the ability to file a complaint.
How do I file a grievance?
Typically, the first step in filing a grievance is to complete a grievance form and mail it to the Disciplinary Agency for the state. Visit your state’s Disciplinary Agency website to request or download a grievance form. If you are reporting the conduct of a lawyer who is or was representing you in a legal matter, it is very important to know that signing the grievance form waives the attorney-client privilege that would otherwise keep discussions between you and your lawyer confidential. Waiver of this privilege is necessary for the Disciplinary Agency to review your grievance in its entirety.
Are grievances confidential?
Information about a pending grievance against a lawyer is confidential and not subject to disclosure unless it is ordered by a court to do so or the lawyer complained about waives confidentiality. However, if the lawyer is found to have committed professional misconduct and receives a public sanction, information about the grievance is no longer confidential.
Can I file a grievance anonymously?
It is difficult for the Disciplinary Agency to pursue a complaint successfully without the ability to communicate with and gain needed additional information from the complaining party.
What happens after I file a grievance?
The Disciplinary Agency for the state will review the grievance to determine whether what is claimed that the lawyer did or failed to do violate any of the ethical rules. This is called the “classification stage” of the disciplinary process.
A grievance that does not allege a violation of the ethical rules is classified as an “inquiry” and dismissed. You will be notified of the dismissal and the matter may be referred to a voluntary mediation and the matter will be referred to a voluntary mediation and dispute resolution procedure.
Can I appeal the dismissal of the grievance?
Yes. In most states, you have one opportunity to file an appeal of the dismissal of a grievance. In Texas, you can file an appeal to the Supreme Court’s Board of Disciplinary Appeals (BODA) within 30 days from notification of the dismissal. BODA will review the grievance and make an independent determination about whether the grievance states a violation of the ethical rules. BODA may agree with the Disciplinary Agency’s decision or it may reverse the classification decision. If BODA grants the appeal and reverses the classification decision, the grievance is referred back to the Disciplinary Agency for the state for investigation. Check with your own state’s Disciplinary Agency for their specific procedure.
Can I amend and re-file my grievance?
Yes. In Texas, if BODA denies your appeal and affirms the dismissal of your grievance, you can amend the dismissed grievance with new or additional information and resubmit it to the Disciplinary Agency within 20 days of your receipt of BODA’s notice. The amended grievance must contain new or additional information and may be amended one time only. Check with your own state’s Disciplinary Agency for their specific procedure.
What happens if my grievance does state a rule violation?
If it is determined that the grievance does state a rule violation, it is classified as a “complaint.” The lawyer complained about is sent a copy of the complaint and asked to respond to the allegation(s) and submit a response in writing (in Texas, within 30 days). The Disciplinary Agency will then conduct a “just cause” investigation, reviewing all of the information received from the complaining party and the accused attorney and any additional information gathered in order to decide whether there is just cause to believe that professional misconduct occurred.
What happens after the just cause investigation is completed?
If the Disciplinary Agency concludes that there is just cause to believe professional misconduct occurred, the lawyer is notified of what conduct is complained about and what ethical rules are alleged to have been violated.
In Texas, the lawyer is given a choice of whether to have a panel of a grievance committee or a district judge hear the case. If the Disciplinary Agency concludes that just cause does not exist to believe that the attorney committed professional misconduct, the matter is presented to a Summary Disposition Panel with a recommendation that the complaint should be dismissed. Neither you nor the lawyer has the right to appear before the Summary Disposition Panel. The Panel reviews the complaint, together with any information, documents, and evidence deemed necessary for it to make its ruling. No testimony is taken at the hearing. If the Panel determines that dismissal is appropriate, all parties are so notified. Check with your state’s Disciplinary Agency how this is handled in your state.
What is a Summary Disposition Panel and who is on it?
In Texas, State Bar grievance committees are composed of voluntary lawyers and members of the public which serve in district disciplinary districts across the state. Each committee is composed of lawyer members and public members. The committees act in panels that are also composed of lawyer members and public members. The Summary Disposition Panel is a panel of a grievance committee that is responsible for deciding whether a complaint should be dismissed based upon the recommendation of the Disciplinary Agency or should proceed. Check with your state’s Disciplinary Agency for how this is handled in your state.
Can I testify at a Summary Disposition Panel meeting?
No. In Texas, the Summary Disposition Panel reviews the case without oral testimony from any party. Check with your state’s Disciplinary Agency for how this is handled in your state.
Can either party appeal a decision by the Summary Disposition Panel?
No. In Texas, there is no appeal from a determination by the Summary Disposition Panel that the complaint should proceed or be dismissed. Check with your state’s Disciplinary Agency for how this is handled in your state.
What happens if just cause is found?
In Texas, a petition is filed with either an Evidentiary Panel or a district court by the Disciplinary Agency on behalf of the Commission for Lawyer Discipline. The case will then be set for trial either before an Evidentiary Panel of a grievance committee or a district court. Check with your own state’s Disciplinary Agency for their specific procedure.
What happens if my complaint proceeds to an evidentiary hearing?
In Texas, an Evidentiary Panel is a panel of a grievance committee composed of lawyer members and non-lawyer members who hear and consider the evidence and decide whether the lawyer has committed professional misconduct, much like a district court judge. Witness examination may be conducted only be the Commission for Lawyer Discipline, the Respondent, and the Evidentiary Panel members. The admission or exclusion of evidence shall be in the discretion of the Evidentiary Panel chair. After conducting the Evidentiary hearing, the Evidentiary Panel will issue a judgment of its decision within 30 days on whether or not the attorney is found to have committed professional misconduct. All parties are notified of the Evidentiary Panel’s decision. Check with your own state’s Disciplinary Agency for their specific procedure.
Can I appeal an Evidentiary Panel’s decision if I don’t agree with it?
No. In Texas, evidentiary decisions are not appealable by the complainant. Check with your state’s Disciplinary Agency for how this is handled in your state.
What happens if my complaint proceeds to a trial in district court?
In Texas, the process is much the same as in civil cases of other types – including the fact that a jury may be requested by the Commission for Lawyer Discipline or the accused lawyer. Evidence in a district court trial may include your testimony and possibly the testimony of additional witnesses in addition to any documented evidence submitted to the court. The trial court will enter judgment after the close of evidence or after the return of the jury’s verdict. Check with your own state’s Disciplinary Agency for their specific procedure.
If I disagree with the result reached at a district court trial, can I appeal?
No. In Texas, District Court decisions are not appealable by the complainant. Check with your state’s Disciplinary Agency for how this is handled in your state.
How will I know what happens with the grievance that I file?
In Texas, you will receive notification in writing about the status of your grievance throughout each step of the grievance process. Check with your state’s Disciplinary Agency for how this is handled in your state.
What happens to lawyers who have been found guilty of professional misconduct?
In Texas, the lawyer may receive one or more of the following sanctions, depending upon the severity of the case. These include: (1) a reprimand, which may be public or private; (2) suspension from the practice of law, all or part of which may be probated; or (3) disbarment. Any sanction an attorney receives for professional misconduct will become a permanent part of the attorney’s record. Check with your own state’s Disciplinary Agency for their specific procedure.
Does the Disciplinary Agency offer any avenue of recourse for a complainant who has a dispute with a lawyer that is not resolved through the attorney disciplinary system?
Possibly. In Texas, at any stage of the grievance process at which a complainant’s grievance is dismissed, the matter is referred to a voluntary mediation and dispute resolution procedure, the Client-Attorney Assistance Program. Should that occur, you will be provided further information about that program. Check with your own state’s Disciplinary Agency for their specific procedure.
Can anything be done for clients whose money has been stolen by their attorney?
Yes. In Texas, the Client Security Fund is a discretionary fund maintained by the State Bar that may provide some relief to clients under certain circumstances. In order to seek relief, application must be made with the Fund and the applicant must have participated in the attorney disciplinary process (unless the lawyer is already deceased, disbarred or resigned, or on an indefinite disability suspension prior to completion of the applicant’s complaint against the lawyer). Under certain circumstances, clients may be eligible for financial relief from this source. The Client Security Fund does not address legal malpractice damages, disputes over the amount charged for legal services, dissatisfaction with the outcome achieved by the lawyer, or recovery of monies paid to another attorney for work that was not done by the lawyer complained about. Check with your state’s Disciplinary Agency for how this is handled in your state.
Who do I contact if I have other questions about the disciplinary process?
If you have questions prior to filing a grievance, please contact your state’s Disciplinary Agency.
What if I believe I have a claim for legal malpractice?
Disciplinary Agencies will not advise you regarding what claims, if any, you may have for legal malpractice. The attorney disciplinary system is not designed to be a substitute for or in any way address claims of legal malpractice, if any. The Disciplinary Agencies do not have any ability to pursue or in any fashion become involved in whatever claims you may have with regard to legal malpractice on the part of the lawyer.