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In re Bruno

Supreme Court of Louisiana

October 9, 2017

IN RE: JOSEPH M. BRUNO

         ATTORNEY DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDING

          PER CURIAM

         This disciplinary matter arises from formal charges filed by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel ("ODC") against respondent, Joseph M. Bruno, an attorney licensed to practice law in Louisiana.

         PRIOR DISCIPLINARY HISTORY

         Before we address the current charges, we find it helpful to review respondent's prior disciplinary history. Respondent was admitted to the practice of law in Louisiana in 1978. In 1989, respondent was appointed to the Plaintiffs' Legal Committee in federal class action litigation arising out of an explosion at the Shell Oil Company refinery in Norco. During the litigation, respondent made a prohibited monetary payment to a witness, and later, he failed to correct his co-counsel who told a federal judge that the payment had not been made. In 1999, following disciplinary proceedings in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, respondent was suspended from practicing law in that court for a period of one year. Respondent was reinstated to practice in federal court in 2000.

         Thereafter, the ODC filed formal charges against respondent arising out of his misconduct in the Shell/Norco litigation. In In re: Bruno, 06-2791 (La. 5/11/07), 956 So.2d 577 ("Bruno I"), this court suspended respondent from the practice of law for three years, with eighteen months deferred. Respondent was reinstated to practice in Louisiana on November 20, 2009. In re: Bruno, 09-2227 (La. 11/20/09), 21 So.3d 933.

         Against this backdrop, we now turn to a consideration of the misconduct at issue in the present proceeding.

         UNDERLYING FACTS

         Clarence Phoenix and his wife owned a home in Baton Rouge that they maintained as rental property. The home sustained wind and water damage when Hurricane Gustav made landfall in Louisiana on September 1, 2008. Mr. Phoenix, an experienced property owner who was retired from an insurance company, attempted to negotiate directly with his insurer, Republic Fire and Casualty Insurance Company ("Republic"), to resolve his claim. Mr. Phoenix successfully obtained payments from Republic in the amount of $4, 099.17 and $269.28, but despite his best efforts, he was unable to secure what he believed to be a reasonable additional payment for the loss he had sustained. After battling with Republic for nearly a year without success, Mr. Phoenix decided to retain the services of respondent, who had previously assisted him with a claim for property damages following Hurricane Katrina.

         On August 11, 2009, Mr. Phoenix signed a contingency fee agreement with the law firm of Bruno and Bruno, LLC ("the firm"). Unbeknownst to Mr. Phoenix, respondent was suspended from the practice of law at this time as a result of this court's order in Bruno I.

         In connection with the representation of clients with hurricane property damage claims, including Mr. Phoenix, the firm engaged Full Scope Services, LLC ("Full Scope"), a claims management and adjustment services company, to inspect the property in question and document the damages. Following the inspection of Mr. Phoenix's property, Full Scope generated a report titled "Proof of Claim" which estimated losses to the dwelling totaling $34, 574.61. Mr. Phoenix was not provided a copy of the Full Scope report.

         On August 20, 2009, respondent's son, Joseph Bruno, Jr., forwarded the Full Scope report to Republic. He demanded an additional $20, 000 to compensate Mr. Phoenix for loss of use of the dwelling and damage to the contents, for a total claim of $54, 574.61. Mr. Phoenix was not provided a copy of the settlement demand. On September 30, 2009, Republic's adjuster, Amy Hill, advised Mr. Bruno, Jr. that Republic had rejected the proof of loss as incomplete. She also requested the submission of photos, receipts, and other items to substantiate the additional damages claimed. Upon receipt of Ms. Hill's correspondence, Mr. Bruno, Jr. put it into the Phoenix file, set the file aside, and did nothing further.[1]

         By November 2009, respondent had been reinstated to the practice of law, and on January 1, 2010, he assumed full responsibility for Mr. Phoenix's file. On February 3, 2010, Ms. Hill spoke by telephone with Phillip Lee, a co-owner of Full Scope, about Mr. Phoenix's claim, and they arrived at a tentative settlement that would cover property damages. However, Ms. Hill understood that a lawyer would have to speak to Mr. Phoenix about the offer, and Mr. Phoenix would necessarily have to agree to the terms. The amounts tentatively agreed upon were a $5, 219.55 supplement for dwelling damages; a $1, 000 supplement for contents; and a $1, 000 supplement for additional living expenses. On February 8, 2010, Ms. Hill issued three settlement checks and forwarded the checks and settlement release documents to Mr. Lee.

         Thereafter, according to respondent's file notes, both Mr. Lee and Daniel Smart, a law student employed by respondent's law firm, called and presented the settlement offer to Mr. Phoenix. Mr. Smart spoke to Mr. Phoenix on March 12, 2010 and Mr. Lee spoke to Mr. ...


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