How to Lose a Career Over $1,000
Granted, Michael Gisriel did a bad, bad thing. Gisriel cashed a $1,000 check made out to his former clients by forging the client's name, then deposited the funds into his firm bank account. That's theft, pure and simple. But does it justify disbarment?
Yes, affirmed the Maryland of Court of Appeals in Maryland Attorney Grievance Committee v. Gisriel.
As explained in Maryland's Daily Record, Gisriel had received the $1,000 check from the court after he had ended representation of his clients, at their request. During the course of Gisriel's representation, the court had entered a sanction against Gisriel and his clients, which Gisriel paid without telling them. When the $1,000 check arrived in the mail, Gisriel assumed it represented partial repayment of money for the sanctions, and with "not more than five seconds of thought" according to his attorney at the Court of Appeals, Gisriel deposited the check.
Needless to say, the "five seconds of thought" defense didn't play well with the Grievance Committee or the Court of Appeals, which found that Gisriel's lack of thought "is not mitigation -- it is aggravation." In addition, the court described Gisriel's handling of the check hubris, a final culmination of many other errors he'd made in the underlying case. Accordingly, the court agreed that disbarment was an appropriate sanction. Two judges dissented -- retired Judge Eldridge and Chief Robert Bell, who noted that Gisriel had practiced for 30 years with an unblemished record prior to this incident.
As I said at the opening, Gisriel's cashing of the check was theft pure and simple, the same as if he'd pick-pocketed $1,000 dollars in cash from his client's wallet. Still, disbarment is, in my view, overly harsh in this case. For starters, bad as Gisriel's action was, it was a one-time incident. There wasn't any evidence that Gisriel had acted dishonestly or botched other cases -- and even if there had been such evidence, only the check cashing was at issue in the case. From reading the opinion and its tone, it seemed that the Court inferred from the check cashing incident that Gisriel had been a bad actor before and just never been caught. But something as serious as disbarment should be based on fact, not speculation.
Second, Gisriel made restitution. He returned the money to the client and apologized. The client had no interest in pursuing Gisriel further -- and that too should have served as a mitigating factor.
Gisriel was once a lobbyist and member of the Maryland House of Delegates. My guess is that the court used him as an example, to send a signal to lobbyists and politicians that they're not above the law. However, a suspension would have had the same effect. Disbarring Gisriel from ever practicing law crosses the line from deterrence to retribution.
What do you think?
Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 18, 2009 at 04:17 PM | Permalink
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