TRENTON – The New Jersey State Supreme Court has issued an order Tuesday formally censuring Toms River family law attorney Frank Louis for his role in forging a signature of another attorney to conceal his clandestine assistance to then-Ocean County Superior Court Judge Melanie Appleby, who stepped down from the bench in 2016 and almost scored a contract in Jackson.
The incident also saw Appleby face discipline issues of her own and was suspended after proceedings before the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct (ACJC) in In Re: Appleby.
“Following a review of the record, we are satisfied that the stipulation clearly and convincingly establishes that respondent’s conduct was unethical,” Ellen Brodsky, Esq. wrote for the Disciplinary Review Board of the New Jersey Supreme Court in the board’s written decision.
The disciplinary board concluded that Louis committed the following violations of the New Jersey Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) in connection with his assistance to the former judge:
- RPC 1.7(a)(2) – in that [Louis] engaged
in a concurrent conflict of interest when he
represented two matrimonial clients before
the Hon. Melanie J. [sic] Appleby, J.S.C.
whom he was assisting;
- RPC 8.4(b) – in that [Louis] committed a
criminal act that reflects adversely on his
honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a
lawyer in other respects when he forged
Biel’s signature on the June 26, 2012,
letter sent on behalf of Judge Appleby;
- RPC 8.4(c) – in that [Louis] engaged in
conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit
or misrepresentation when he drafted a
letter for Judge Appleby, obtained her
comments/edits, placed that language on
Biel’s letterhead, signed Biel’s name
without his knowledge or consent, and sent
that letter to Judge’s [sic] Appleby’s
former husband; and
- RPC 8.4(d) – in that [Louis] engaged in
conduct prejudicial to the administration of
justice when he failed to disclose his
assistance of the judge to his opposing
counsel in the Cornick matter and in the
Kelly matter not [sic] until August 2012.
Discipline Board: Attorney Broke Criminal Law, But Wasn’t Charged
The Board further ruled that the forgery of the signature on law firm letterhead constituted a violation of state criminal law. N.J.S.A. 2C:21-1a (forgery). Their ruling said that even though Louis was never criminally prosecuted in connection with the forgery, it still was grounds to prove a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct governing attorneys licensed to practice law within New Jersey.
“Respondent’s misconduct was egregious, but aberrational. Its consequences, for him, were devastating,” the ruling concluded.
Following the details about Louis’ involvement in the Appleby matter, the ruling stated that the Toms River attorney lost out on speaking engagements with the Ocean County bar, teaching continuing legal education seminars, in addition to being dropped by Gann Law Books to author a book on New Jersey family law with a retired family court judge, among other consequences.
Discipline Board: 3-Month Suspension Justified, But Censure
“Although, given the totality of his misconduct, a three-month suspension is justified, the adverse impact that has befallen him calls for tempering justice with mercy,” the board determined. Rather than impose the three month suspension, the board instead recommended that the discipline of a formal censure be imposed instead, which was adopted by the Supreme Court in its order issued this week. Louis will also be required to pay the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.
In mitigation to the ethical violations, the board noted that prior to the Appleby incident, Louis has practiced law in Ocean County for over 40 years without incident.
See the ruling: