Lawyer's long deceit lands him in hot water

By Scott Lauck
BridgeTower Media Newswires
 
ST. LOUIS, MO — The Missouri Supreme Court is weighing what to do with a lawyer who lied for more than five years to a client after failing to file his lawsuit.

Jonathan D. Valentino, formerly of Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis, was assigned in December 2009 to represent Michael Greenblatt in a boundary dispute with his neighbor. Valentino, an associate with the firm since 2004, agreed to file a quiet title lawsuit.

But, as he later told a disciplinary panel, according to briefs, he “just flat out forgot” to file it. When the client contacted him to see how it was going, Valentino “freaked out” and told him it was on file.

Over the next five years the lie compounded as Valentino regularly called or emailed Greenblatt with updates on the case, telling him that there were problems in getting the suit served, that a trial date had been set, that a summary judgment was issued in favor of Greenblatt and that the defendant had filed an appeal — none of which was true.

In early 2016, Valentino finally called Greenblatt and admitted what he’d done. Greenblatt testified that Valentino was so upset that he urged the attorney to pull over and stop driving. Valentino also reported his conduct to both his law firm and the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel.

He lost his job, and Armstrong Teasdale refunded $662.50 that had been billed to Greenblatt for Valentino’s purported work on the non-existent case.

The disciplinary hearing panel recommended that Valentino be placed on a probation, but OCDC called for a suspension. In arguments before the Supreme Court, Chief Disciplinary Counsel Alan Pratzel acknowledged that the incident was an “outlier” in Valentino’s otherwise
unblemished 13-year career and that he was “clearly remorseful” for what he’d done.

But, he added, “the protracted nature of the misconduct, as well as the fact that it involved deceit and misrepresentation makes it a troubling case.”

Valentino’s attorney, Alan Mandel of Mandel & Mandel, urged the court to show restraint.

“Do we want to send the message that you make one mistake and you’re gone?” Mandel said. Valentino is now with Cofman Townsley, a personal injury firm in St. Louis, whose partners told the disciplinary authorities that he has performed well since joining them.

Mandel described Valentino as a highly successful lawyer who had never made a mistake of that magnitude before and didn’t know how to deal with it, and that when he owned up to it, “he dealt with it like a stand-up person.”

Greenblatt’s suit was ultimately taken up by another attorney. It’s not clear if the delay will materially affect the outcome of that case, though Pratzel argued that, at the very least, the suit will be resolved long after it should have been.

The judges seemed both sympathetic to Valentino and aghast at the length of time he’d lied to his client.

“It’s important that we send a message that it shouldn’t happen,” Judge W. Brent Powell. Chief Justice Zel M. Fischer added, “It seems like one thing we ought to emphasize is that lawyers ought to tell the truth, which includes good news and bad news, to their clients.”

But the judges also repeatedly asked if probation would be appropriate and if the public would face any harm if he continued to practice.
Pratzel, though urging suspension, said the case could qualify for probation.

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