Behavioral Science and the Duty to Report Misconduct

report-or-silence-switch-277x300Too often ignored, Model Rule 8.3 imposes a mandatory duty to report a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct that “raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthy or fitness” to practice law.  When teaching this rule, I discuss many of the behavioral reasons — such as obedience and conformity pressures — that can discourage reporting misconduct, especially by young lawyers early in their careers.  After all, it is not easy for any lawyer, much less a subordinate attorney, to accept the personal and professional risks associated with reporting misconduct by a colleague or superior.

This discussion with my students is enriched when we consider Kelly v. Hutton & Williams, No. 97-CV-5631 (JG), 1999 WL 408416 (E.D.N.Y. June 17, 1999), which is excerpted in the course book that I use. In that case, a young lawyer claimed he was fired for refusing to stay silent in the face of serious over-billing violations by a senior partner at his firm (the case ultimately settled under a confidentiality agreement, so we do not what would have happened at trial. As an interesting aside — the partner accused of over-billing later became a fugitive from justice for running a multi-million dollar ponzi scheme. He was recently arrested after more than two decades on the lam). In discussing the case with my students, we explore some of the reasons why the plaintiff in Hunton & Williams seemingly was able to resist the behavioral pressures to stay silent, including that he acted as part of a group of associates at the firm who together reported the misconduct internally. Another salient point is that the associates obtained advice from an outsider (a federal judge for whom one of them had clerked) before reporting the misconduct. We consider how these factors — acting as part of group and finding a trusted outsider who can act as a sounding board — can help reduce the obedience and conformity pressures that make reporting misconduct so difficult (for more discussion, see pages 775-78 and 800-01 of Insights from Psychology: Teaching Behavioral Legal Ethics as a Core Element of Professional Responsibility).

For those looking for a more recent case that raises similar issues, Joffe v. King & Spalding, just hit the news. According to a complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan, Joffe was wrongfully terminated and denied other benefits after he complained to the firm’s general counsel (and outside counsel) about unethical misbehavior he had observed inside the firm.  Specifically, Joffe claims the firm retaliated against the him after he reported that a partner had made false statements and misrepresentations to a federal judge in a pending proceeding. King & Spalding has recently answered the complaint, denying the charges. Interestingly, the legal theory in Joffe’s complaint — that the firm’s retaliatory conduct violates precedent set forth in a 1992 New York Court of Appeals case, Wieder v. Skala — is the same legal theory put forth in Hunton & Williams. It will be interesting to see how the case proceeds (updates to come).

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