Gary Wong v. George V.H. Luu, SJC-11789: Trial Court Judge Cannot Sanction Attorneys for Ethical Violations

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (“SJC”) has recently reversed a lower court’s decision to sanction a Massachusetts attorney. In Gary Wong v. George V.H. Luu, the parties were attempting a settle several consolidated cases regarding the sale of three supermarket stores in Boston. However, shortly before the parties were scheduled to finalize a settlement agreement, an attorney representing several creditors involved in the lawsuit sent solicitation letters to other unsecured creditors of the supermarket.

 

The letters advertised that the attorney was about to conclude an agreement, whereby his clients would recover “100 cents on the dollar” from the supermarket, and invited the recipients to contact him to pursuing similar recourse. Some of the individuals solicited were parties to the lawsuit, who were attempting to settle in order to avoid further litigation and potential bankruptcy. Once they learned of the threat of future suits, settlement negotiations halted.

 

The attorney’s conduct was reported to the trial court judge, who imposed monetary sanctions against him. The judge also sent a copy of his order to the Board of Bar Overseers (“BBO”) for review of any ethical violations committed by the attorney. The attorney appealed the judge’s decision, claiming that the power to sanction attorneys for ethical violations is beyond the judge’s authority.

 

The SJC granted the attorneys application for direct appellate review, and reversed the judge’s order.  The Court reasoned that there is an innate risk, when entering into settlement talks, that an agreement might not be reached. Further, parties have a right to litigate their claim, but do not have a right to a settlement. Because the actions of the attorney did not interfere with the parties’ ability to litigate their claim, any discipline for ethical violations needs to be handled by the BBO, and imposing sanctions was beyond the judge’s discretion.

 

Gary Wong v. George V.H. Luu