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Commonwealth of Massachusetts

NO. BD-2010-033

IN RE: JOSEPH A. RITZO

S.J.C. Order of Term Suspension entered by Justice Spina on May 26, 2010, Retroactive to March 1, 2010.1
(S.J.C. Judgment of Reinstatement entered by Justice Spina on November 12, 2010.)

SUMMARY2

On February 10, 2010, the respondent, Joseph A. Ritzo, was suspended by the New Hampshire Supreme Court Professional Conduct Committee for six months, with conditions. The circumstances resulting in the respondent’s suspension were as follows.

The respondent maintained a personal injury practice as a solo practitioner with a number of non-lawyer assistants. From 2005 through 2008, a paralegal misappropriated over $60,000 from 25 of the respondent’s clients, primarily by submitting to the respondent’s bookkeeper check requests to fictitious payees for false expenses upon the settlement of clients’ claims. The bookkeeper did not require any supporting information or documents for check requests from the paralegal.

In addition, when clients agreed to a settlement of their case, it was not uncommon for the paralegal to sign the names of the clients, without their knowledge, to settlement releases, for another non-legal assistant to sign as witness to the clients’ purported signatures and for the office manager to notarize the purported signatures of clients on settlement releases. The respondent knew of and approved these practices concerning the signing of releases.

In August of 2007, the respondent learned that the paralegal had charged approximately $10,000 to his personal credit card without authority, and that she had obtained another credit card in the respondent’s name and charged approximately $3,000 to it without authority. The respondent did not terminate the paralegal or impose any additional supervision over her work at that time. He did terminate the paralegal when he learned of her theft of clients’ funds in late 2008.

The respondent agreed that he violated his obligations to safeguard clients’ funds and to supervise his non-lawyer assistants. The respondent agreed that he was responsible for the paralegal’s theft of clients’ funds because he knew of her misuse of his credit card and failed to take any remedial action limiting her involvement in client matters and restricting her access to clients’ funds. The parties also agreed that the respondent did not intend to steal clients’ funds and did not know the paralegal was stealing funds until late 2008.

In mitigation, the respondent has made full restitution to clients of money taken by the paralegal. The Professional Conduct Committee concluded that the appropriate sanction was a six-month suspension on condition that after reinstatement, the respondent adopt and abide by proper office procedures and satisfactory accounting practices.

The respondent did not report the New Hampshire suspension to Massachusetts bar counsel, as required by S.J.C. Rule 4:01, § 16(6).

On April 16, 2010, bar counsel filed a petition for reciprocal discipline with the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County. The parties waived hearing and assented to an order of reciprocal discipline. On May 26, 2010, the Court (Spina, J.) issued an order suspending the respondent for six months, retroactive to March 1, 2010, the effective date of his suspension in New Hampshire with the respondent’s reinstatement in Massachusetts subject to his reinstatement in New Hampshire.


FOOTNOTES:

1 The complete Order of the Court is available by contacting the Clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County.

2 Compiled by the Board of Bar Overseers based on the record filed with the Supreme Judicial Court.



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