The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday ordered Portland criminal defense lawyer Gary B. Bertoni suspended from practicing law for a year and a half, citing “a pattern of disregard for the interests of his clients.”
The state’s high court issued its opinion after Bertoni appealed a February 2017 sanction – a one-year license suspension – by a state disciplinary board’s trial panel.
The panel found Bertoni failed to preserve client property, keep clients informed and improperly retained client funds after three separate complaints. It cited Bertoni’s “extraordinary repetition of negligence.”
Bertoni, 67, appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, arguing that his misconduct warranted only a reprimand or at most a suspension of no longer than 30 days. His lawyer, Kevin Sali, argued that Bertoni’s errors were largely due to negligence.
The state bar, in its response, defended its action and argued for a harsher penalty, a two-year suspension, citing Bertoni’s failure to communicate adequately with imprisoned clients, properly handle their money or refund unearned fees.
The bar argued that Bertoni’s repeated violations showed a disregard for his clients’ interests that warranted a substantial sanction.
The Supreme Court agreed but didn’t find a two-year suspension warranted.
Read the ruling
In its determination of an 18-month suspension, the Supreme Court considered Bertoni’s substantial experience, that he committed numerous violations and that the affected clients were vulnerable victims, “which makes his failure to keep them reasonably informed all the more egregious.”
It further found that while some of Bertoni’s violations were due to negligence, many were done with his clear knowledge — including his refusal to refund a $3,000 trial fee to the grandmother of a client who never went to trial, his failure to respond to another client about the status of the case and his failure to provide a third client with sufficient information to make an informed decision about the transfer of her case to another lawyer.
The Supreme Court also noted that Bertoni had been sanctioned by the bar in the past for some of the same types of violations.
The violations at issue “are not an isolated occurrence,” but part of “a pattern of disregard for the interests of his clients that warrants an enhanced sanction,” the court wrote.
The court noted only one mitigating factor for Bertoni: that he was experiencing serious financial and tax problems causing significant stress during the period of his violations.
The court ordered Bertoni’s suspension to begin in 60 days.
The ruling follows Bertoni’s sentencing in federal court last month for failing to pay employment taxes. Bertoni was sentenced to five years of probation, three months of home detention on weekends and 500 hours of community service for failing to pay employment taxes. He also was ordered to pay $181,898.21 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service.
Two other complaints involving Bertoni are pending review or under investigation by the bar.
In 2012, the trial panel suspended Bertoni’s license for 150 days for mismanaging client money. In 2011, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Bertoni for allegedly falsifying business records to cover his use of client money, saying the statute of limitations had expired.
— Maxine Bernstein