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Commonwealth of Massachusetts

No. BD-00-022

IN THE MATTER OF PAUL J. GRELLA

Memorandum of Decision

Paul Grella, the respondent attorney, is before this court on an Information filed by the Board of Bar Overseers (board) which seeks his suspension from the practice of law for two months. As the basis of its recommendation, the board found that the respondent violated Mass. R. Prof. C. 8.4 (b) and (h), by reason of his having been convicted of a criminal offense. After conducting a review of the record in this case, including the thoughtful, thorough, and carefully prepared report of the hearing panel of the board, and arguments of counsel, I conclude that a sanction akin to, but different from, that recommended by the board is warranted.

Facts

On June 18, 1999, Grella pleaded guilty in the Norfolk Superior Court to an indictment charging him with assault and battery. He was placed on probation for five years with certain conditions, including abstaining from alcohol. The victim of the assault was his wife. The assault occurred during an emotional period shortly after they separated in 1998. It was the single (albeit terrifying) incidence of violence in the thirteen years of their marriage, and was in part induced by Grella's consumption of alcohol. Fortunately, the physical injuries inflicted by the respondent were not serious. The separation led to their divorce in 1999. The respondent has remarried and has visitation privileges with his four children every weekend. The respondent's then spouse concurred in the sentence imposed in the Superior Court and, from all that appears in the record, she and the respondent have worked through this frightening occurrence in order to raise their children jointly and cooperatively. The offense is unrelated to Grella's practice of law, which consists principally of representing debtors in bankruptcy work, and serving as a Chapter7 bankruptcy panel trustee.

Professional Misconduct

The respondent's plea of guilty constitutes a conviction within the meaning of SJC Rule 4:01, § 12 (1), as appearing in 425 Mass. 1313 (1997). Although the crime of assault and battery is not a felony and contains none of the aggravating elements set forth in Rule 4:01, § 12 (3), which would require the board to take disciplinary action, it can be the basis for disciplinary proceedings. Violent acts by lawyers, and especially acts of domestic violence, are matters of serious import to the bar and to the public, and disciplinary proceedings based on convictions for such acts are appropriate. The fact that the respondent's conduct occurred in the context of his private life and did not involve his practice of law does not make it immune from sanction under the bar disciplinary rules. S.J.C. Rule 4:01, § 3, as amended, 426 Mass. 1302 (1998).

I agree with the board's conclusion that Grella has committed professional misconduct as proscribed by Mass. R. Prof. C. 8.4 (b) and (h), which prohibit the commission of a criminal act or other conduct that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.

Sanction

In a recent attorney discipline case, as in this one, the board has taken the position that acts of domestic violence committed by a lawyer should result in a period of suspension from the practice of law. I concur with the seriousness the board has placed on such conduct, and I concur that there ought to be a presumption of suspension following the conviction for such an offense - whether the conviction be a felony or a misdemeanor. While an important starting point weighing heavily on one side of the scales, a presumption of suspension must be balanced against the weight of the particular facts in the case, and the right balance must be struck in the broader context of discipline imposed in comparable circumstances. It is an important premise in bar discipline matters that the discipline imposed in a given case "should not be markedly disparate from that imposed in similar cases." Matter of Nickerson, 422 Mass. 333, 337 (1996).

The only Massachusetts disciplinary case brought to the court's attention for comparative purposes is Matter of Lee, S.J.C. No. BD-1999-067, decided in February, 2001. The respondent in that matter was convicted of multiple felony counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon on his spouse and on one of his children, and of multiple violations of a court imposed restraining order. The evidence suggested a history of abuse by the respondent. The sanction recommended by the board, and imposed by the court, was a six-month suspension, three months of which took affect immediately with the balance suspended for a period of probation. The elements of felony, abuse history, and court order violations are not present in the case before me. They make a difference - which is not to demean the seriousness of the matter that is before me.

In balancing the importance of a disciplinary policy that makes clear the seriousness with which the legal profession will respond to domestic violence within its ranks, with the need for consistency and proportionality in the discipline meted out in individual cases - I conclude that a sanction of suspension from the practice of law for six months, which sanction is to be suspended for a period of three years on the condition that the respondent abstain from alcohol and abide by all of the rules of the profession, to be appropriate, and I so order.

____________________________
Robert J. Cordy, Associate Justice

Entered: August 6, 2001




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