Greenberg, Matter of

Decision Date17 July 1998
Citation155 N.J. 138,714 A.2d 243
PartiesIn the Matter of Joel GREENBERG, An Attorney at Law.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Michael J. Sweeney, Deputy Ethics Counsel, on behalf of the Office of Attorney Ethics.

Joseph H. Kenney, Cherry Hill, for respondent (Kenney & Kearney, attorneys; William J. DeSantis, on the brief).

Jay H. Greenblatt, Vineland, for amicus curiae, New Jersey State Bar Association (Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, attorneys; Mr. Greenblatt and Frederick J. Dennehy, Woodbridge, of counsel; Mr. Greenblatt, Mr. Dennehy and Megan K. Gajewski, Woodbridge, on the brief).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

PORITZ, C.J.

This matter is before the Court for review pursuant to R. 1:20-16(a) of a decision of the Disciplinary Review Board ("DRB") recommending that respondent, Joel A. Greenberg, be disbarred. Based on information provided by Greenberg and on its own investigation, the Office of Attorney Ethics ("OAE") filed a formal complaint against respondent, alleging violations of Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(c) ("RPC "), conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation. The complaint asserted that, during a sixteen-month period in 1992-1993, respondent fraudulently obtained law firm funds for his own personal use. Before the Special Ethics Master appointed to hear the matter for the District XIV Ethics Committee, Greenberg asserted that he "suffer[ed] from a mental illness which deprived him of the ability to comprehend what he was doing and the will to prevent it." The Special Ethics Master, and later the DRB, found that respondent had not demonstrated "by competent medical proofs that [he] suffered a loss of competency, comprehension or will of a magnitude that could excuse egregious misconduct that was clearly knowing, volitional and purposeful." In re Jacob, 95 N.J. 132, 137, 469 A.2d 498 (1984).

We find that Joel A. Greenberg knowingly caused his firm to disburse monies to him that belonged to the firm without the consent of his law partners and that he knowingly misappropriated fees due the firm to his own use. We reaffirm the rule set forth in In re Wilson, 81 N.J. 451, 409 A.2d 1153 (1979), and extended in In re Siegel, 133 N.J. 162, 627 A.2d 156 (1993), that misappropriation of client or law firm funds will almost invariably result in disbarment. We hold that disbarment is warranted in this case.

I

Joel A. Greenberg was licensed to practice law in New Jersey from 1975 until September 22, 1993, when he consented to the temporary suspension of his license. At the time of his suspension Greenberg was a partner with Horn, Goldberg, Gorny, Daniels, Paarz, Plackter & Weiss ("Horn, Goldberg" or "the firm") in Atlantic City. Greenberg primarily represented health-care providers in medical malpractice actions.

In June 1991, Greenberg received a referral from Rochlin & Settleman, a Maryland law firm, and accepted the representation of Charles and Theresa Harrison in the matter of Harrison v. Cairn. When Greenberg settled the matter for a total of $42,500, he requested two checks from the insurance company, one for $35,000 made payable to the Harrisons and one for $7500 made payable to Greenberg personally. The insurance company refused and, instead, issued two checks for $21,250 payable to both Greenberg and the Harrisons. Rather than depositing the checks in the firm's trust account and issuing a firm check to the Harrisons, Greenberg endorsed the checks and forwarded them to the Harrisons accompanied by a request that they return a check in the amount of $7500 made out to him. When the Harrisons complied, Greenberg kept the fee without the authorization or knowledge of his law firm.

When Rochlin & Settleman subsequently sought a referral fee, Greenberg presented a check request to the firm bookkeeper, dated June 25, 1992, in the amount of $3000 payable to Rochlin & Settleman. On the request form, Greenberg indicated that the check was needed for the "reimbursement of expert fees pursuant to Court Order--Dr. Flynn." In the transmittal letter accompanying the request form, Greenberg explained that the check was for "reimbursement of expert testimony" in the matter of Pasquale v. Schwing.

Thereafter, from August 1992 until August 1993, Greenberg obtained an additional $27,025 in law firm funds for his personal use without the firm's knowledge or consent. The method he used was simple: he submitted a series of false disbursement requests to the firm's bookkeeping department. Respondent would either instruct a secretary that he needed a law firm check or dictate the check request on tape, after which an expense account voucher would be prepared and signed, either by Greenberg himself or by a secretary on his behalf. In support of the check request, Greenberg would also prepare a transmittal letter addressed to the payee. Once Greenberg received the firm checks, he would endorse them and retain the funds for his personal use or deposit them in the corporate checking account of Southern Shore Medical Supply ("SSMS"), an entity incorporated by Greenberg in December 1992. Respondent submitted eight such similarly structured requests in the twelve months preceding and up to August 17, 1993.

Three of the false disbursement requests made by Greenberg were sought as payment to local physicians. On August 31, 1992, Greenberg presented an expense voucher in the amount of $2000 payable to Dr. Denay Marino, along with a transmittal letter explaining that the check constituted payment for a deposition fee; on December 14, 1992, Greenberg submitted a check request in the amount of $2500 payable to Dr. Alan Forman, purportedly in payment for expert testimony; and, on July 23, 1993, Greenberg requested a check in the amount of $1875 payable to Dr. Glen Budnick for expert fees. Greenberg endorsed the Marino and Forman checks by forging the physicians' signatures. Because his wife worked part-time for Dr. Budnick at home, Greenberg had access to the Doctor's business stamp, which he used to endorse the Budnick check without Budnick's or his wife's knowledge or consent. In all three cases, Greenberg kept the funds for his own personal use.

Greenberg also requested a check made out to the bank holding his mortgage. On September 14, 1992, Greenberg requested $2900 payable to Investor Savings, with the submitted purpose of paying the State Division of Taxation in the matter of the estate of his uncle, Stanley Greenberg. Instead, respondent sent the check to Investor Savings to cover three months of mortgage payments on his home.

Greenberg made four additional fraudulent check requests during this period, each for payment to SSMS. At the District Ethics hearing, Greenberg denied that SSMS was "a fictitious corporation" set up for the purpose of laundering the Horn, Goldberg checks. 1 He claimed that he incorporated SSMS with his wife and a third person as a legitimate business for the sale of medical supplies to physicians. He conceded, however, that the business was not a client of the firm, was dormant, and that, aside from "minimal transactions" of which there is no proof in the record, "it's [sic] business activity consisted of--of accepting these payments and in turn paying them out" to respondent.

The record discloses that Greenberg established a corporate checking account for SSMS in the spring of 1993, just prior to making his first check request payable to the corporation. By requests dated May 20, May 28, and June 17, 1993, Greenberg received, endorsed, and deposited SSMS checks in the amounts of $1750, $3500, and $12,500, respectively. Though the initial bank statement for the SSMS account is not available, the bank statement for May 28, 1993 through June 30, 1993 shows that the $12,500 check was deposited and that the account balance at that time was $12,821.65. The June 30 statement also shows that Greenberg issued two checks on this balance: one for $3750 payable to himself on June 18, 1993, and one for $9000 payable to Investor Savings on June 22, 1993, noting in the memo portion of the check that it was intended to cover his May, June, and July mortgage payments.

By mid-June, Greenberg had fraudulently obtained $34,525 that belonged to his law firm. Then, on August 17, 1993, he made his final check request payable to SSMS in the amount of $23,500. The transmittal letter indicated that the disbursement was the "final installment" for the purchase by Sawyer Electric, a firm client, of an interest in SSMS. This time William Colavito, the firm's Chief Financial Officer, questioned Greenberg about his request. Respondent explained that the disbursement was to be counted against a $90,000 retainer from Sawyer Electric placed in the Horn, Goldberg business account earlier that year. When pressed on how the transaction could be charged against firm funds, Greenberg said, "If anyone ever found out about this I would be disbarred." Colavito reported the conversation to the firm's managing partner, Jack Plackter, who subsequently met with Greenberg. The firm reviewed respondent's check requests for the prior six months and discovered the three SSMS disbursements with his endorsements, but apparently took no action.

Three weeks later, on September 11, 1993, Greenberg approached friend and attorney Paul D'Amato during a function at respondent's synagogue. The two men retired to the parking lot for privacy where, D'Amato reports, Greenberg began to cry and shake, saying to his friend, "I don't know what I'm doing. You got to help me." D'Amato agreed to help, but Greenberg would not explain what was wrong. D'Amato found Greenberg's wife, who promised to have Greenberg meet D'Amato at his office the following morning.

At D'Amato's office the next day, Greenberg admitted that he had taken law firm funds. He told D'Amato that he could not remember when it started or how much he had taken but did mention an accident case and...

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  • In re Wade
    • United States
    • New Jersey Supreme Court
    • June 7, 2022
    ...misappropriation, when shown by clear and convincing evidence, will warrant the Wilson sanction of disbarment."); In re Greenberg, 155 N.J. 138, 148, 714 A.2d 243 (1998) ("[S]ince Wilson, the Court has consistently and unwaveringly disbarred attorneys who knowingly took their clients’ funds......
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    ...it was for reimbursement of expert witness fees, when it was actually a referral payment to another law firm. See Matter of Greenberg, 155 N.J. 138, 714 A.2d 243 (1998). The attorney continued to obtain law firm funds for his personal use by submitting false disbursement requests. He deposi......
  • People v. Katz
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    • November 13, 2002
    ...of partnership law that may otherwise apply. The Supreme Court of New Jersey, in a disciplinary case, In the Matter of Joel Greenberg, 155 N.J. 138, 714 A.2d 243, 252 (1997), resulting in the disbarment of an attorney for knowing misappropriation of law firm funds, addressed a similar defen......
  • Bd. of Prof'l Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tenn. v. Daniel
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    • Tennessee Supreme Court
    • June 8, 2018
    ...and that only the most exceptional mitigating circumstances would result in a sanction less than disbarment. Matter of Greenberg, 155 N.J. 138, 714 A.2d 243, 244 (1998). We have not adopted that policy in Tennessee. See Bd. of Prof'l Responsibility v. Bonnington, 762 S.W.2d 568, 570–71 (Ten......
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2 books & journal articles
  • Opinions
    • United States
    • Colorado Bar Association Colorado Lawyer No. 32-1, January 2003
    • Invalid date
    ...of partnership law that may otherwise apply. The Supreme Court of New Jersey, in a disciplinary case, In the Matter of Joel Greenberg, 714 A.2d 243, 252 (N. J. resulting in the disbarment of an attorney for knowing misappropriation of law firm funds, addressed a similar defense advanced by ......
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    • United States
    • Colorado Bar Association Colorado Lawyer No. 32-4, April 2003
    • Invalid date
    ...factors, the New Jersey Supreme Court was asked to abandon its strict conformity to the same rule we uphold today. See In re Greenberg, 155 N.J. 138, A.2d 243, 250 (1998). That court declined to do so: Today we reaffirm the rule announced in [Matter of] Wilson [81 N.J. 451, 409 A.2d 1153 (1......

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