By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — A well-known defense attorney has been disciplined by a lawyer watchdog group for his negligent handling of a case in which former clients’ property was damaged by landslides that originated from nearby construction activity.
In its Dec. 28 decision, the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers issued a “public reprimand” against Scott Gleason for missing several deadlines for filing a lawsuit against the city of Methuen and various construction firms for damages to his clients’ property in 2001. The missed deadlines resulted in the clients losing their right to sue for damages.
Gleason was also cited for attempting to reach a cash settlement with the clients on a possible legal malpractice claim without advising them in writing they should consult with another lawyer.
Gleason, who has practiced law since 1980 and has a law office on Merrimack Street, is known for representing public officials in high-profile corruption cases, including former Haverhill Highway Department Superintendent James Flaherty and former Lawrence School Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy.
Gleason “was primarily responsible to the clients, but he assigned the case to an associate at his firm to handle the initial investigation and prepare a draft complaint,” the board’s reprimand order said. “The firm did not have in place measures sufficient to assure proper oversight and that deadlines were met, and (Gleason) did not personally assure that the associate’s conduct conformed to the Rules of Professional Conduct.”
The decision said Gleason mailed a notice to Methuen’s mayor is 2003 demanding the city pay $1,000,000 to his clients for physical and emotional damages to their property. But along the way, Gleason or other lawyers at his Merrimack Street firm failed to file paperwork with the court or take other actions required to keep the complaint alive, the decision said. By the end of 2004, the statute of limitations expired for any claim of damages against the city of Methuen or the contractors involved with the construction of nearby homes that were allegedly responsible for the rain-induced landslide, the decision said.
Sometime in March 2009, Gleason’s Methuen clients checked with the court and learned that no lawsuit had been filed.
“The clients notified (Gleason) who promptly acknowledged that he was responsible for the failure to file suit in a timely manner,” the decision said. “The respondent asked the clients to settle their potential legal malpractice claim against the respondent and his firm for $50,000 less one-third for his attorney’s fees, for a total of $34,000. ...Although the respondent informed the clients orally that they should consider retaining a lawyer, he did not advise them in writing that independent representation was appropriate in evaluating his settlement offer.”
Public reprimand is between admonition and suspension among actions the bar can take against a lawyer accused of negligence, neglect or unethical behavior. It is generally used when a lawyer is found to have failed to act with reasonable diligence in representing a client or otherwise has neglected a legal matter and the lawyer’s misconduct causes serious injury or potentially serious injury to a client, according to the Board of Bar Overseers Web site.
The discipline becomes part of the organization’s permanent records and is provided when someone searches the bar’s Web site for information about an attorney. An attorney for the organization said public reprimand notices are published in Lawyer’s Weekly magazine and typically sent to the newspaper of record in the offending lawyer’s hometown.
The Board of Bar Overseers discipline order does not identify Gleason’s former clients and Gleason said he was not at liberty to do so either.
“I assigned the case to another lawyer at my firm and it fell through the cracks,” Gleason said in a phone interview. “But I’m the captain of the ship, so the buck stops with me. My father always taught me that when a mistake is made, you accept responsibility, apologize and clean up the mess. That’s what I did.”
Gleason would not divulge how his former clients’ case against Methuen or any of the contractors responsible for damaging their property was resolved, except to say it has been resolved. He also would not discuss his final settlement with the clients.
“Both matters have been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties,” he said. “But I can’t talk about any settlements.”
Gleason said this is the first time he has been disciplined by the bar in 30 years as an attorney.
In its decision, the Board of Bar Overseers noted Gleason’s mistakes in handling the case should have been avoidable due to his “substantial experience in the practice of law.” The decision also stressed the misconduct took place “over the course of several years.”
“The clients were harmed by the respondent’s failure to attend to their case,” the decision said. “In mitigation, (Gleason) immediately acknowledged his error when it was brought to his attention and cooperated fully with his liability insurer so that the clients were made whole.”
The decision further noted Gleason is a past president of his local bar association and that he has provided free legal services to local veterans and veterans’ organizations.