Board of Overseers of the Bar v. Edwin R. Jonas, III
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Docket No.: CRT# 13-301
Issued by: Grievance Commission
Date: March 21, 2014
Respondent: Edwin R. Jonas, III
Bar Number: 003553
Order: Reinstatement Recommended
Disposition/Conduct: Reinstatement Petition
REPORT OF FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE BOARD OF BAR OVERSEERS
The undersigned convened a hearing on March 4, 2014 concerning Petitioner Edwin R. Jonas III’s petition for reinstatement, pursuant to Maine Bar Rule 7.3(j)(5). Mr. Jonas appeared pro se; Bar Counsel was represented by Aria Eee, Esq. The panel received a number of exhibits offered by both the Petitioner and Bar Counsel. All were received in evidence, except for Petitioner’s Ex. 1, a fragment of a per curiam decision, not for publication without approval, Linda B. Jonas v. Edwin R. Jonas, III, date stamped Dec. 19, 1997, by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division. Petitioner’s exhibits were not individually marked, but are referenced by description in the record of the hearing. Bar Counsel’s exhibits are numbered 1-22.
Petitioner is almost 66 years old. He graduated from Rutgers School of Law in Camden, NJ in May 1974, after serving with distinction in the United States Air Force. His father was an attorney for the Veterans Administration. He became licensed to practice law as follows: Pennsylvania (1974), New Jersey (1975), Maine (1987) and Florida (1991). Until 1995, his law practice was primarily in New Jersey, where he was an active and successful civil litigator, with a number of large commercial clients. His New Jersey license was suspended in 2005, as a result of proceedings described below in greater detail. His Florida license was suspended for one year, by an order dated October 10, 2007, after earlier being administratively suspended. The Florida suspension was based upon his misconduct in New Jersey. (Board Ex’s. 12, 13.) We have not been informed of the status of Petitioner’s Pennsylvania law license. His Maine law license was administratively suspended as a result of his failure to complete his annual registration in 1995.
In 1990, Petitioner’s marriage to Linda Jonas ended in divorce. That proceeding spawned “one of the ugliest marital property disputes in Camden County”. Affidavit of Lawrence Engrissei, Esq., (para. 12). The divorcing couple also battled over custody of their three children, all boys. Unfortunately, the Jonas’ strife over property, support and custody issues did not end with their divorce; it has continued with nearly unabated intensity ever since.
The narrative of Petitioner’s bar rule infractions begins on August 10, 1995, at a hearing before New Jersey Family Division Judge Robert Page. (These facts are meticulously recounted in a July 21, 2005 decision by a disciplinary review board of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, Board Exhibit 10.) Linda Jonas’ motion to-show-cause alleged Petitioner was selling off assets, hiding funds in the Cayman Islands and preparing to abscond there with his sons. Petitioner denied these allegations and assured Judge Page that he would not leave the country or transfer/liquidate certain assets.
On September 15, 1995, Petitioner flew to the Cayman Islands with two of his sons, who remained there until September 25, 1995, following a hearing on September 21, 1995 at which Judge Page found Petitioner in violation of his August 10 order, and issued a bench warrant for his arrest. (Board Ex. 10, pp. 9-12.) At subsequent hearings on October 25 and 27, Judge Page ordered that Petitioner deliver $120,000 to his ex-wife’s counsel, to be held in escrow for alimony and child support, to execute deeds transferring his ownership of a 7-Eleven store, and his interest in homes in Medford, NJ and Florida to his ex-wife, to secure his future obligations for spousal and child support. The Court also prohibited him from contacting his children. (Board Ex. 10, pp. 13, 14.) After his release from arrest between Nov. 1 and 6, 1995, secured by compliance with the preceding orders and posting a bond, Petitioner relocated to Florida, where he practiced law until 2005. Judge Page ultimately imposed a constructive trust on Petitioner’s real property in New Jersey and Florida, for the benefit of his former spouse, “to pay past-due obligations and to ensure compliance with future support obligations.” (Board Ex. 10, p. 17.)
After a lengthy delay in New Jersey’s bar disciplinary proceedings, which had to await final disposition of appeals in the matrimonial litigation, New Jersey’s Disciplinary Review Board issued a 42 page decision, culminating in an order suspending Petitioner’s law license for 6 months. The panel determined there was insufficient evidence of any misrepresentations to the court by Petitioner about selling his property or removing his children from the jurisdiction. However, the disciplinary review board found that he was guilty of conduct intended to disrupt a tribunal, and prejudicial to the administration of justice. (Board Ex. 10, p. 35.) The panel noted Petitioner’s “flagrant disregard for court orders”, which it characterized as “only a small sample of the mayhem that (he) caused in the Camden County Family Division..”. (Board Ex. 10, p. 40.)
At his hearing before our panel on March 4, 2014, Petitioner acknowledged and expressed regret for his violation of Judge Page’s orders. He noted that this conduct was a flagrant and unique discontinuity in a long and otherwise unblemished legal career. He explained his poor judgment in 1995 primarily as the culmination of a contentious and acrimonious relationship with his ex-wife and his fear of losing his relationship with his three sons. Petitioner also explained his exasperation with what he believed was a corrupt New Jersey judiciary that retaliated against him for his earlier testimony against the reappointment of another Family Court judge.
The panel concludes that Petitioner fully appreciates and sincerely regrets his misconduct in New Jersey’s Family Court. We conclude that similar misconduct by Petitioner is very unlikely to be repeated in the future.
Bar Counsel also notes that Petitioner has been involved in litigation in Florida, Montana, the United States Tax Court and most recently, again in New Jersey. The litigation in Montana appears to have directly or indirectly resulted from Linda Jonas’ efforts to enforce a New Jersey judgment resulting from the divorce against cattle and ranch property Petitioner and his new wife own through a corporation situated in that state. (Board Exhibits 14-19.) According to Petitioner’s testimony, most of the difficulties and wasted efforts in the Montana litigation were the fault of his local attorney, who repeatedly missed deadlines and filing requirements. Petitioner is still pursuing a libel suit at the trial level in Montana, as well as a legal malpractice suit.
Mr. Jonas’ Florida litigation centered on the duration of his suspension, and was only concerned with his misconduct in New Jersey’s Family Court.
Litigation before the U.S. Tax Court involved whether or not Petitioner properly took a substantial deduction for alimony. (Board Exhibit 23.) According to Petitioner, the Tax Court has not sought to enforce its claim for underpaid income taxes, pending resolution of Petitioner’s 38 page “Amended Complaint for Legal Malpractice, Fraud and Violation of 42 U.S.C. 1983”, filed in New Jersey’s federal district court against Linda Jonas, her divorce lawyer Nancy Gold, and Gold’s law firm. (Respondent’s Exhibits.) (This lawsuit was originally filed as an adversary complaint in a Ch. 11 bankruptcy case brought in Montana, ultimately dismissed on procedural grounds. See last exhibit in Petitioner’s Exhibits.)
The panel does not believe it is necessary to await the disposition of the New Jersey lawsuit, or any other litigation to fairly dispose of this Petition for Reinstatement. Several affidavits submitted by Mr. Jonas, without Bar Counsel’s objection, attest to his good character and fitness to practice law, based on long professional and personal acquaintances. Petitioner’s Exhibits: Affidavit of Roderick Hannah, Esq (a Florida attorney); Affidavit of Peter J. Snyder, Esq. (a Florida attorney); Frederick Popovitch, Esq. (a New Jersey attorney); Lawrence Engrissei, Esq. (formerly an attorney in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, currently an insurance company executive).
In support of its concern regarding Petitioner’s past and ongoing litigation, Bar Counsel cites the Law Court’s denial of Thomas Mangan’s Petition for Reinstatement. In that case, the petitioner was disbarred and allowed to seek reinstatement after two years. He had misused client escrow funds, neglected legal matters entrusted to him, failed to account for receipts related to client matters and had a sexual relationship with a client that adversely affected the client’s case. Without minimizing Ed Jonas’ transgressions in New Jersey, they are not comparable in seriousness to the reasons for Mangan’s disbarment.
Mangan’s post-disbarment misconduct included multiple lawsuits against a complaining witness, Bar Counsel and Associate Bar Counsel. (There were also several other serious infractions.) After his case was dismissed in state court, he renewed the litigation in federal court, appealing to the First Circuit. These suits, and his testimony to the Grievance Panel, ultimately showed that Mangan “failed to accept responsibility for the loss of his license to practice.” (April 11, 2011 Order of Supreme Judicial Court, at p. 6.) By contrast, Ed Jonas has consistently and convincingly expressed remorse for disobeying the orders of Judge Page in 1995. Unlike Mr. Mangan, Jonas has never sought legal retribution against either Judge Page or the New Jersey Bar Discipinary Board.
While the purpose of Thomas Mangan’s lawsuits against Bar Counsel made little sense other than as a tool to exact personal revenge, Ed Jonas’ litigation in every jurisdiction has had at least a plausible explanation and legitimate objective. With one minor exception, in a final Montana appellate decision, no court has found his conduct sanctionable. (Board Exhibit 18.) If our legal system permits and even encourages criminal convicts facing lengthy sentences or the death penalty to avail themselves of every legal avenue of redress, it should allow someone facing financial catastrophe, like this Petitioner, to avail himself of every plausible legal remedy.
Bar Counsel has also asserted that Petitioner improperly attempted to practice law in Montana, where he was unlicensed, by representing a corporation owned by himself and his wife. The corporation owned their cattle ranch. Petitioner alleges that he had a bona fide belief that he would be allowed to represent the family corporation as a pro se litigant. The fact that a court in Montana eventually rejected his position and required the corporation to hire a licensed attorney is in our view, a de minimis or technical violation of the prohibition against practicing law without a license.
Our review of the testimony and exhibits leads us to conclude and recommend Petitioner’s Petition for Reinstatement should be granted. Although Bar Counsel’s concerns are valid, we find that clear and convincing evidence supports the petition, taking into account all the requirements of the rule. We recommend that Petitioner’s reinstatement be conditioned on his payment of all costs still due the Florida and New Jersey bar disciplinary boards. We also recommend that the Board of Bar Overseers condition reinstatement on Petitioner’s providing a full response to Question 6 of Board Exhibit 4, a financial disclosure requirement. All Petitioner’s personal and corporate income tax records since 1995 should be produced for Bar Counsel’s review, and any final action on the petition should await Bar Counsel’s determination whether those records afford any new grounds to believe the Petitioner may be unfit to practice law in Maine.
Maurice Libner, Esq., Grievance Commission Chair
Clarke Hambley, Esq. Panel B Regular Member
Kenneth Roberts Panel B Lay Member