Forbidden to Talk to My Own Client for 16 Months

IF I COULD WRITE EVERYTHING . . .

I am a lawyer.

This is a fact I have resisted, decried, announced proudly, tried (in a futile effort) to use for social advantage, and lived with for over a decade.

One of the most difficult parts of being a lawyer is client communication—anxious clients demand attention via phone and email while pressing deadlines require quiet time. This was my biggest challenge, and I set big boundaries around client communication—I understood the desire for information, but, as a solo practitioner, I had to limit my representation to clients who could put emotional needs for contact aside so I could meet deadlines.

In 2013, I met a young woman who hired a lawyer to defend her home from foreclosure. She came to me after an acquaintance checked her case status online to discover that the home was gone—eviction was imminent.

Indeed, the home was gone. The client had paid a lot of money—money that could have been used working out a deal with the foreclosing lender or finding new housing—for nothing. No competent steps had been taken to save the home.

It was hard to believe a lawyer would take advantage of those in dire need—those in foreclosure. And, as I discuss elsewhere (Blog Post on Saving Homes–before the gag went on!), there is a lot that can be done to save homes. At very least, one could honestly tell a client there was nothing to be done—taking money, making false promises, and doing nothing is unjustifiable.

Investigation showed the lawyer targeted African-American communities for his sub-standard services. Because of this, one of the counts in our multi-count complaint was for violation of the Fair Housing Act.

Rather than fighting the lawsuit, the lawyer sued ME for defamation. Because the lawsuit clearly violated the FHA’s prohibition on retaliation, interference, and intimidation (42 U.S.C. § 3617), I removed it to Federal court. While the case was removed, the other side filed a motion for an order from the STATE court. The state court acknowledged the case was removed (meaning, under well-known removal rules, the state court could do nothing and had no jurisdiction whatsoever), but granted the injunction anyway. I was forbidden to talk to my own client, co-counsel, or the community for 16 months. The prohibition was vague, and I was not really sure what I could or could not do. Could I call my mother on Mother’s Day? Probably—as long as I didn’t talk to her about foreclosure.

The injunction stayed in place for 16 months.

For 16 months, I could not talk to my client. I could not talk to my co-counsel. I could not give housing presentations to community groups. I could not blog. The clinic I founded months before floundered with a director who could not talk to volunteers, clients, or allies. I could not work on my client’s FHA case.

Did the injunction violate my rights? Of course. However, I have rights and no remedy—judges are clearly immune, and the judge in this case has retired and is voluntarily inactive as a lawyer.

There is no redress for the pain of a lawyer unfairly and arbitrarily barred from serving her client. I remained quiet for a long time. Initially, I had a court order mandating my silence. Later, I had pending legal matters—my own and my client’s—to consider. Finally, I have had the long road of recovering from the pain of having the unthinkable done to me and having virtually no legal address. This has meant depression to the point I could barely get out of bed, physical pain and deterioration, and disbelief—a sense that the law books had simply been thrown out.

I decided, as 2017 approaches, to come forward. I cannot prevent violations of the FHA. I cannot tell any lawyer or client that their right to communicate with each other will be respected. I cannot believe many things I believed before 2013.

However, I know that I can help clients vindicate their fair housing rights with a renewed appreciation for the ability to talk to a client and explain a case status or strategy. I can stand by my fellow lawyers when advocacy is needed.

I cannot be silenced.

. . . I WOULD SHOCK THE WORLD. –Caterina Sforza