Bonnie Sweeten, the infamous “hoax mom,” is back in the news following her guilty plea to a count of wire fraud and a count of aggravated identity theft. Ms. Sweeten used her position as a paralegal to steal nearly $1 million from clients of the law firm, the law firm itself, and a relative (not to mention faking a racially tinged abduction while travelling to Disney World). The sobering news for attorneys is the ramifications for Ms. Sweeten’s former employer. Former attorney Debbie Ann Carlitz has faced multiple lawsuits and has been disbarred upon consent, largely because of the actions of Ms. Sweeten.
Ms. Carlitz was originally suspended in March 2008. According to the disciplinary opinion, Ms. Carlitz was practicing law while on inactive status due to failure to comply with CLE requirements. Ms. Carlitz was found to have violated Rules of Professional Conduct 5.5(a) (practicing law in violation of the regulation of the legal profession), 7.1 (false communication about the lawyer’s services), 8.4(c) (it is professional misconduct to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation), and 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to administration of justice). Ms. Carlitz was suspended for one year and one day.
Ms. Carlitz later claimed she did not know she was on inactive status because Ms. Sweeten received the notice of the transfer to inactive status, signed it, and sent it back without informing Ms. Carlitz. Moreover, Ms. Carlitz claimed she did not even know about the disciplinary proceedings, and the consent suspension was entered into without her knowledge. The entire disciplinary action was handled by Ms. Sweeten without Ms. Carlitz’s knowledge. The suspension was vacatedfollowing an emergency petition for review. There is no opinion stating why Ms. Carlitz is now disbarred.
The suspension was not the only problem Ms. Sweeten caused for Ms. Carlitz. Ms. Carlitz was sued by a client whose settlement check was cashed by Ms. Sweeten. Ms. Carlitz was sued by other clients for legal malpractice around the same time. Ms. Carlitz was also sued by a mortgage company for a loan taken out by Ms. Sweeten in Ms. Carlitz’s name.
The lesson here is that we are responsible for what goes on in our offices. There may be defense that can be mounted by claiming ignorance, but that does not mean that the misdeeds of others in your office will not cost you hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars, or that the defense will ultimately be successful. Malpractice avoidance requires knowing what is going on in your office, and taking swift action as soon as you suspect a problem.