In order to protect the public and and guard against elder abuse by lawyers, the New Jersey Supreme Court suspended an attorney from the practice of law for one-year after the attorney borrowed nearly $90,000 from an elderly, unsophisticated widow who he knew for many years. In the Matter of William J. Torre, an Attorney at Law, 223 N.J. 538 (2015)

William J. Torre was admitted to practice law in New Jersey in 1984. M.D. had been a friend of Torre’s family for many years and was a customer at his parents’ laundromat. Torre became M.D.’s attorney in the early 1990s when he prepared wills for her and her husband. Torre provided other legal services to M.D. Over time, M.D. also relied on Torre and his office staff for additional help. The staff paid her monthly bills and ran occasional errands for her.

In 2008, M.D. was a 86 years old widow who lived alone and was legally blind. Although mentally alert, she was unsophisticated about financial matters. In that year, M.D. signed a power of attorney in favor of Torre. M.D. also executed a new will that Torre prepared, which named him the executor of her estate.

Only days after M.D. signed the power of attorney, Torre told M.D. about his personal financial difficulties due to mounting tuition bills and mortgage payments. Torre said he needed about $100,000, and M.D. agreed to lend him money. Torre prepared a note that M.D. signed the next day. The note provided for M.D. to lend respondent $89,250 — about 70% of her total assets. The note was unsecured.

Torre failed to make the payments due under the note. M.D. ultimately retained another attorney to try to collect the overdue balance. The attorney filed a court complaint, and a default judgment was entered against Torre in the amount of $90,720. Thereafter, M.D. also filed an ethics complaint against Torre. One month later, M.D. passed away, before the investigation of the ethics complaint was completed.

After a hearing, the ethics panel recommended that Torre be censured. The panel’s recommendation was affirmed by the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB).

The DRB’s decision was reviewed by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Before the Supreme Court, Torre acknowledged that he violated applicable ethics rules, and he asked the Court to adopt the recommendation of the ethics panel and the DRB and censure him.

The Supreme Court first established the standard to be used when judging Torre’s actions. The Court held that lawyers are required to maintain “the highest professional and ethical standards” in their dealings with clients. The Court then found that Torre failed to meet the standard. The Court found that the terms of the unsecured note were neither fair nor reasonable; importantly, Torre did not advise M.D. in writing to seek advice from an independent attorney; and M.D. did not give informed consent in writing. The Court stated that it is “hard to imagine that any lawyer would have advised M.D. to place her life savings at risk and lend her lawyer a substantial amount of money with no security or collateral to protect her.”

The Court found that Torre caused substantial harm on two levels: the financial hardship on M.D., and emotional turmoil suffered by M.D. M.D. lost nearly 70% of her life savings through an unsecured loan. She was forced to file a lawsuit to recoup her funds rather that being able to enjoy her twilight years in peace. Also, M.D. was very distressed when she realized that she had wrongly placed her trust in a long-time legal counselor.

The Court was especially concerned about Torre’s actions based upon the presence of elder abuse:

We consider [Torre’s] conduct against the backdrop of the serious and growing problem of elder abuse. The State’s population is steadily aging. From 2000 to 2010, the number of people in our State age sixty-five and older grew by 6.5 percent — faster than the total population. … As of 2012, seniors accounted for 14.1 percent of the State’s total population, or 1.25 million.

In the end, the Court found that Torre had victimized a vulnerable, elderly client and suspended him from the practice of law for one year. The Court also put all New Jersey attorneys on notice that any incidence of elder abuse by lawyers would be dealt with harshly when it stated:

The discipline imposed today is meant to provide notice to attorneys that serious consequences will result from this form of misconduct.

The case is annexed here – In the Matter of William J. Torre, an Attorney at Law, 223 N.J. 538 (2015)

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