ARLENE VIOLET - Legal lapses, lame excuses

ARLENE VIOLET - Legal lapses, lame excuses

Lawyers are supposed to give their clients utmost loyalty and competent representation. If they lapse, chances are they may be on the receiving end of a malpractice suit. Sometimes, lawyers may be sloppy, since they won’t suffer any harm if they work for the state. States have various immunities which render them immune from lawsuits, so most of the time taxpayers can’t sue the state’s agent, i.e. the state lawyer, for losing them money. Hence, the recent case where a Health and Human Services Dept. (HHS) lawyer didn’t file a timely appeal which may result in a $24 million judgment against the state (actually you, as the taxpayer) will,no doubt, see him sashaying out of the case without any legal harm to his pocket suffered as a result of any malpractice. He may be tagged with a misdemeanor for the unauthorized practice of law since he was delisted by the R.I. Supreme Court in January 2018 and will not be able to practice law, but he will suffer no financial harm as a result of any negligence.

This case raises the issue of the due diligence of agency heads. State lawyers who work for the state should produce annual statements from the R.I. Supreme Court that they are in good standing in order to continue on the job, a practice now mandated by the governor on June 8. What is pretty surprising also in the HHS lawyer case above is that for over 10 years the attorney didn’t submit the forms to a Commission with an executive director and staff and whose job it is too monitor compliance with a state practice requirement that lawyers secure 10 Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credits each year in order to maintain a legal license. An investigation into that office should be instituted as to why it took so long to catch up with the miscreant lawyer.

The Commission also failed to find out in a timely manner that another HHS lawyer who also missed taking the requisite courses was still working as an attorney for two years after his delisting. The Providence Journal also discovered that the chief legal counsel in the R.I. Department of Education is not licensed to practice law in the state. That department acknowledges that it knew she wasn’t licensed but gave the lame excuse that her role is supervisory and she doesn’t go to court. How somebody who hasn’t passed the R.I. bar is supposed to “supervise” lawyers who do the litigation remained unanswered. It also is a lame excuse. David Logan, a law professor at Roger Williams University is quite correct in observing that Rhode Island law is quite clear that a lawyering is practicing law even when outside the courtroom, including supervising the work of other attorneys.

Jim Hummel of the Hummel Report also uncovered that the state lost a case this month because a RIDOT attorney didn’t object in a timely manner to a request for admissions by a plaintiff suing the state. A projected $4 million may have to be paid because of letting the time lapse.

The governor’s issuance of an executive order to check the law credentials of attorneys who work for the state is a right first step as well as the new monitoring mechanism of the central registry of cases which put the state on the hook for $100,000 or more, if lost.

Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.