ODC v. Sexual Harassing Attorney/ No. 74 DB 2019

Last updated on February 18th, 2022 at 10:12 pm

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On August 10th, 2020, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania suspended Philadelphia attorney M.B. for one year, based on a criminal conviction for “harassment by offensive touching or threat,” a petty disorderly persons offense in New Jersey. M.B. is a lawyer with decades of experience who arranged to meet a young female lawyer to his boat to assist her with drafting a complicated motion in a case in which they represented co-defendants. Once on the boat, he locked her in, threatened her and assaulted her by grabbing her and kissing her. The young lawyer escaped, brought charges, and filed a disciplinary complaint.

After a hearing, a Hearing Committee found that Respondent violated the indicated Rules, described his criminal actions as “unfortunate” and his failure to disclose them a “serious omission” but recommended only a Public Reprimand as the corresponding discipline. The Board ultimately imposed a more serious sanction citing factual evidence, major aggravating factors, and negligible mitigation in reaching its decision to suspend Bradley for one year.

The young lawyer testified that she was “angry, upset, scared, petrified,” felt that her trust in an older, more experienced lawyer had been betrayed, and was so afraid of repercussions in her career based on Respondent’s stated connections in Philadelphia that she considered quitting the legal professional altogether. The sexual assault and further trauma of testifying caused her to suffer such anxiety and fear that in addition to seeking professional counseling, she stopped practicing law in Pennsylvania and moved back to New Jersey.

The Board found that the public reprimand imposed by the Hearing Committee and the six month suspension sought by ODC were both insufficient and that “a one-year period of suspension will make clear to the bar that intentional nonconsensual touching of another, in this case a fellow member of the bar, will not be tolerated.”

The case raises these questions for me:

  • Why did the Hearing Committee feel that no period of suspension was warranted for a lawyer who expressed no remorse, had minimal mitigation, and exploited the balance of power in a professional relationship to deceive, attack, humiliate and traumatize a fellow attorney?
  • Was any investigation done by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel into whether this was an isolated incident?
  • As the sanction of one year permits reinstatement without the necessity of going through the process of a reinstatement hearing, why did the Board feel that an attorney who failed to accept responsibility did not have to prove his fitness to practice law through a reinstatement hearing?

With the advent of Rule 8.4(g) defining this type of sexually harassment and assault in the practice of law misconduct in and of itself, will we begin to see harsher penalties for this type of behavior?