South Carolina Lawyer
SC Lawyer, January 2007, #1.
Read This Case
South Carolina LawyerJanuary 2007Read This CaseBy John FreemanAn eye-opening ethics decision was handed down by the New Mexico Supreme Court on September 28, 2006. The case is Matter of Estrada, 143 P.3d 731 (N.M. 2006). The opinion's tenor and emphasis on uncompromising ethical rectitude recalls our Supreme Court's ruling in Anonymous Member of the South Carolina Bar, 346 S.C. 177, 552 S.E.2d 10 (2001). The lawyer in the South Carolina case got a private sanction. The lawyer in Estrada did not fare as well.
The key facts in Estrada are simple and disturbing. The lawyer, Michele Estrada, was a law firm associate assigned to defend a personal injury case alleging a pharmacist had filled a child's Ritalin prescription with 60 methadone tablets. Methadone is a narcotic pain reliever similar to morphine. The court in Estrada honed in on three evidence-related failings: filing a false response to a request to admit, suppression of documentary evidence and using a forged document at trial.
In the course of investigating the case, Estrada and the pharmacist conducted an inventory, finding a surplus of 60 Ritalin tablets and a shortage of 60 methadone tablets. The Supreme Court found that the inventory occurred in late February 2002. Pending at the time was a request for admission propounded by the plaintiff calling for Estrada's client to admit that inventory records showed at least 60 methadone tablets were missing. Seven days after conducting the inventory, Estrada answered, denying the request to admit. A short time later, she wrote the client and recommended that the client admit liability. Less than three months later, Estrada wrote a litigation report finding that it was "fairly certain" that the pharmacist did "dispense the wrong medication" and that he was "a very honest person" who was "devastated by the mistake." If the case proceeded, Estrada warned that "it will be difficult to rein him in."
On March 15, 2002, Estrada correctly answered a request to produce documents pertaining to reports of lost or stolen drugs made by the defendant pharmacy to the New Mexico Board of Pharmacy. No such report existed at the time, and that was Estrada's response. Less than three weeks later, at Estrada's instruction, a report was filed...