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Leoni v. State Bar - 39 Cal. 3d 609, 217 Cal. Rptr. 423, 704 P.2d 183 (1985)


Cal. Bar. R., Prof. Conduct Std. 2-101(A) states that a communication is a message concerning the availability for professional employment of a member or a member's firm. A communication made by or on behalf of a member shall not contain any untrue statement; or contain any matter, or present or arrange any matter in a manner or format, which is false, deceptive, or which tends to confuse, deceive or mislead the public; or omit to state any fact necessary to make the statements made, in the light of the circumstances under which they are made, not misleading to the public or be transmitted in any manner which involves intrusion, coercion, duress, compulsion, intimidation, threats or vexatious or harassing conduct. 


Two attorneys made a mass mailing of letters and informational pamphlets concerning legal aspects of debt problems. They sent them to defendants in small claims or municipal court actions and owners of real properties which were in foreclosure. The state bar commenced disciplinary proceedings against the attorneys, and recommended that they be suspended from the practice of law for 30 days, on the grounds that their advertising campaign violated the misleading or deceptive communications prohibition of Cal. Bar. R., Prof. Conduct Std. 2-101(A).


Was suspension a proper punishment?




The Supreme Court of California affirmed the judgment, but found that suspension was inappropriately harsh, and recommended a public reprimand. It held that a public reprimand, in the form of its opinion, was sufficient discipline. It held that the attorneys violated Rule 2-101(A)(3), which prohibits the omission of facts necessary to make attorney advertising not misleading, since the letters stated that the recipients needed $ 60 in cash to apply for debt relief but failed to state that the attorneys would also charge 10 times that amount in attorney fees. It held that the finding of a violation of Rule 2-101(A)(4), prohibiting failure to clearly identify attorney advertising as a communication for employment, was supported by the evidence, since the advertisement did not clearly indicate to lay persons that it was a message concerning the attorneys' availability for professional employment. The court also held that the advertising involved intrusion, intimidation, harassment, or duress in violation of Rule 2-101(A)(6), since the particularized, misleading, and unsolicited letters mailed to defendants against whom cases were then pending were bound to cause panic and fear in the lay recipients. However, the court reversed the state bar's finding that the attorneys violated Rule 2-101(A)(1), prohibiting untrue statements in attorney advertising. It held that, although statements in the letters may have been misleading, none of the letters contained false or untrue statements. In determining the appropriate discipline, the court held that the facts that the attorneys had no prior disciplinary record and made good faith efforts to modify the letters so as to make them truthful and not misleading were factors in their favor.

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