Complaints Against Florida Attorneys: The General Process
Jan. 15, 2021
As with all licensed professionals in the Sunshine State, Florida attorneys must adhere to the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar, which establish professional standards and requirements. The Rules also include the procedures for discipline when a complaint is filed against an attorney. Any lawyers who run afoul of these standards or exhibit any other unbecoming behaviors may have to face disciplinary action by the Florida Bar’s Lawyer Regulation Department.
Attorney Consumer Assistance Program (ACAP)
All complaints against members of the Florida Bar originate in the Florida Bar’s ACAP division. Complaints, also known as grievances, may be made here by judges, other attorneys, or clients. Once a complaint is filed, Bar Counsel conducts a preliminary investigation and either recommends no action or opens a file for the complaint and notifies the subject of the complaint. The attorney has 15 days to respond. This is a crucial time in the process, and I strongly recommend that an attorney not respond to a complaint on their own behalf. The reason for this recommendation is because attorneys typically are not familiar with the specifics of the Rules and tend to be defensive in responding. On many occasions I have seen responses to complaints which fail to address the rules being violated and result in a complaint going forward rather than being dismissed at its inception.
If there is no response or Bar Counsel determines a Rule may have been violated the complaint is forwarded to the appropriate branch of the Florida Bar.
Roughly one-third of the complaints received by the ACAP are eventually forwarded to a branch of the Florida Bar. At that point, local Bar Counsel begins another investigation. The result of this investigation is generally one of three routes:
The allegations are dropped and the case is closed.
Bar Counsel recommends a diversionary program for minor offenses.
Bar counsel finds that a violation has been committed and submits the case to a grievance committee for a determination of probable cause.
The grievance committee, which is an arm of the Florida Bar, functions much like a grand jury. This committee conducts yet another investigation where one of the members of the grievance committee interviews witnesses and gathers evidence. Upon completion of the investigation, the investigating member issues a report and makes a recommendation to the rest of the grievance committee members. The grievance committee may issue one of several findings, including no probable cause, a minor violation resulting in a letter of advice, or a finding of probable cause warranting disciplinary action against the attorney.
Florida Supreme Court Trial
If the grievance committee finds that the subject of the original complaint should be disciplined, the attorney will be notified and may engage in negotiations for discipline or elect that a complaint be filed in the Florida Supreme Court. The state’s highest court has the final say on attorney discipline in Florida. Once a complaint is filed, the Supreme Court will direct the Chief Judge of the local circuit courts to appoint a referee to manage the trial. Upon conclusion of the trial, the referee issues a report and recommendation to the Supreme Court. The attorney who is the subject of the complaint has 60 days to appeal the decision of the referee. Finally, the Florida Supreme Court may choose to impose disciplinary sanctions on the attorney and he or she may be reprimanded, placed on probation, suspended or even disbarred.
Addressing a Florida Bar Complaint
Many attorneys feel they have the expertise to handle the process of responding to a complaint. However, like all areas of the law today, the Florida Bar’s process for handling a complaint is both complex and nuanced. Don’t leave your livelihood to chance - trust your professional future to an attorney who has decades of experience representing members of the Florida Bar in these matters. Reach out to Barry M. Wax, Attorney at Law by calling. Our firm is currently offering free consultations to prospective clients.