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DON'T SAY "F**K YOURSELF" TO AN ETHICS OFFICIALBruce D. Greenberg

Non-lawyers don’t always believe that there are Rules of Professional Conduct by which attorneys must abide. One of those Rules is RPC 3.2, which states that “[a] lawyer … shall treat with courtesy and consideration all persons involved in the legal process.” Recently, in a case where the facts are truly unbelievable, though undisputed, the Supreme Court of New Jersey reprimanded an attorney who had egregiously violated that rule in dealing with the Office of Attorney Ethics (“OAE”).

Michael Rychel, who was admitted to the New Jersey Bar in 1992, had filed grievances with the OAE against his former employer and others. The OAE had dismissed those grievances, and Rychel was, to say the least, unhappy with that result. He believed that there was corruption on the part of the ethics officials who had handled those grievances.

Venting his spleen, Rychel sent an e-mail to Scott Fitz-Patrick, an OAE investigator. That e-mail said:

Hi Scott: Given my spare time I went through my evidence files. I had discovered something that I did not share with you, but may have some relevance if in [sic] the event you’re looking to do justice. Attached hereto you’ll find a memo that was circulated around the office post JH’s alleged “going crazy.” Take note that they make fun of this guy because he opposes/es [sic] “State Offenses,” “Insurance Fraud,” and “Ethics Violations.” Do me a big favor and tell Director [of the OAE, Charles] Centinaro THANKS FOR THE BACKUP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I really appreciate his f*****g lack of concern. THIS IS A F88888G ATROCITY THAT AN HONEST LAW ABIDING ATTORNEY SHOULD HAVE TO GO THROUGH THIS S**T!!!!!! TELL CHARLES CENTINARO THAT I SAID TO GO F**K HIM SELF [sic] !!!!!!!! QUOTE ME IN YOUR REPORT!!!!!! NO OFFENSE AGAINST YOU, I KNOW YOU’RE A DECENT HONEST GUY.

Rychel was not confident that Fitz-Patrick would convey those tender sentiments to Centinaro as Rychel had demanded. Thus, a few minutes after sending that message, Rychel e-mailed directly to Centinaro as follows:

Hey Charlie, here’s an example of what you’re [sic] f*****g AMBULANCE CHASING attorneys and their minions do to honest hardworking attorneys who comport their conduct to the RPC’s, 2C and the IRS code. Thanks so much for the back up [sic]. Look personally between me and you GO F**K YOURSELF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
 
Ethics charges were brought against Rychel relating to those two e-mails. In connection with a hearing before the District Ethics Committee, Rychel admitted that the message to Centinaro violated RPC 3.2, since it “evidenced a clear lack of civility and courtesy.” Rychel contended, however, that the message to Fitz-Patrick did not violate RPC 3.2. He said that he and Fitz-Patrick had developed a friendly relationship during their dealings regarding Rychel’s grievances against others, and Rychel “was just using language that [he] always used with Scott. It was not big deal. He’s not a Girl Scout, I can assure you.” Rychel also noted that he had not asked Fitz-Patrick to “go f**k [him]self,” but only to tell Centinaro to do so.

Questioned about that position, Rychel testified that he thought it was “civil” and “under the circumstances … the correct thing to do” to tell Fitz-Patrick to tell Centinaro, his superior, to “go f**k [him]self.,” and he did not feel bad or remorseful about having done that. Instead, he said that he was “proud” that he did that.

The Disciplinary Review Board (“DRB”) ruled that both e-mails had violated RPC 3.2. They both contained “the very same offensive message.” The DRB rejected the argument that Rychel and Fitz-Patrick’s “rapport” with each other made “the use of foul and offensive language” acceptable. “[T]he entire tone of his e-mails was unprofessional, not simply the expletives contained in them.” The DRB cited numerous cases in support of its ruling that Rychel should be subjected to discipline, specifically, a reprimand. Among those cases was In re McLaughlin, 144 N.J. 133 (1996), which I have previously discussed here.

On review, the Supreme Court agreed that Rychel should receive a reprimand. The Court also dismissed the grievance that Rychel had filed, “there being no reasonable prospect of proving unethical conduct by clear and convincing evidence.”

Rychel had stated that he would accept a reprimand, since “I don’t practice law [and] I would never practice law again after what happened to me here.” Whether he practices again or not, he provided a lesson for all attorneys: what not to do.