STATE OF MINNESOTA IN SUPREME COURT
In re Petition for Disciplinary Action against Joseph Awah Fru, a Minnesota Attorney, Registration No. 342154.
Based upon all the files, records, and proceedings herein, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that paragraph 1 of the court's order in the opinion issued in this matter, In re Fru, A11-1693, slip op. at 23 (Minn. Apr. 24, 2013), is amended, and that respondent Joseph Awah Fru is indefinitely suspended from the practice of law, effective 14 days from the date of filing of the opinion, with no right to petition for reinstatement for a minimum of 2 years from the date of the opinion.
Indefinite suspension from the practice of law for a minimum period of 2 years is the appropriate sanction for a lawyer who engaged in a pattern of client neglect, incompetence, and noncommunication; disobeyed court rules; failed to properly handle client funds; engaged in the unauthorized practice of law; and failed to cooperate with the disciplinary process.
On September 21, 2011, the Director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility ("OLPR") filed a petition for disciplinary action against Joseph Awah Fru, a lawyer duly licensed to practice law in the State of Minnesota. The petition alleged that over an 8-year period, Fru engaged in several acts of professional misconduct in his representation of clients in immigration matters and in an unemployment case. The alleged misconduct included a persistent and pervasive pattern of incompetence, client neglect, and noncommunication. Following a hearing on the petition, a referee appointed by our court to hear this matter recommended that Fru be indefinitely suspended from the practice of law and ineligible to petition for reinstatement for a minimum period of 2 years. Because Fru did not order a transcript of the proceedings, the referee's findings of fact and conclusions of law are deemed conclusive. Rule 14(e), Rules on Lawyers Professional Responsibility (RLPR). Therefore, the only issue before our court is the appropriate discipline to impose. We suspend Fru from the practice of law for a minimum period of 2 years.
Joseph Awah Fru was admitted to the practice of law in Minnesota on November 17, 2004. He has not been the subject of any prior discipline, but the misconduct at issue persisted over most of the years he has practiced law and involved several different matters. We summarize that misconduct below.
M.L. and B.M. Matter Fru represented M.L. and B.M. in immigration removal proceedings. M.L. and B.M. were Guatemalan immigrants who were married to each other and were seeking asylum in the United States. M.L. and B.M. filed applications (collectively, "the application") opposing removal from the United States based on various provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act and Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture. On September 9, 2005, Fru appeared with M.L. and B.M. at a master calendar hearing in Immigration Court on the removal matter. The Immigration Court issued an order continuing M.L.'s and B.M.'s removal proceedings to September 13, 2006. The order required M.L. and B.M. to comply with certain due dates and adhere to the local operating procedures of the Immigration Court. It also obliged M.L. to turn over his recently expired passport to the Immigration Court within 60 days of receiving a new passport.
Fru failed to comply with the Immigration Court's order requiring M.L. and B.M. to meet deadlines and follow local operating procedures. For instance, M.L. received a new passport on September 19, 2005. Fru instructed M.L. to leave the old passport at his office and told M.L. that he would turn the passport over to the Immigration Court. Fru failed to do so until September 13, 2006, nearly 1 year after he received the passport from M.L. and 10 months after the Immigration Court's deadline.
Local operating procedures in the Immigration Court also required that, 10 days before the hearing, M.L. and B.M. had to file all documents in support of the application. But Fru failed to file the primary supporting documents-which included a legal memorandum, affidavits, country information, and a witness list-until September 11, 2006, which was 2 days before the removal hearing. Moreover, the Immigration Court excluded from evidence several Spanish-language affidavits that Fru had instructed M.L. to translate and certify himself. The Immigration Court excluded the affidavits from evidence in part because they were untimely, but also because M.L., a party to the removal proceedings, prepared them.
On November 1, 2006, the Immigration Court denied the application and ordered M.L. and B.M. to depart voluntarily from the United States on or by January 1, 2007. The Immigration Court also required M.L. and B.M. to deposit a $1,000 departure bond with the Department of Homeland Security within 5 business days of the court's order. Fru failed to inform M.L. and B.M. of the court's decision and order. M.L. only learned that the Immigration Court had issued an order after contacting the court himself. By that time, the deadline to deposit a voluntary departure bond had passed.
Fru's contact with M.L. and B.M. throughout the representation was sporadic. Between October 2005 and May 2006, Fru failed to respond to any of M.L.'s phone calls requesting guidance or a status update. After a brief meeting in late May 2006, Fru again failed to respond to any of M.L.'s phone calls until August 25, 2006. In the weeks leading up to the removal hearing, Fru did not attend a scheduled meeting with M.L. and B.M. on September 7, 2006, and again failed to timely respond to M.L.'s phone calls. Finally, after M.L. and B.M. terminated Fru's representation in November 2006, Fru failed to return their file until the spring of 2007.
In March 2008, G.D. retained Fru to represent him in an unemployment compensation insurance matter. At the time, Fru was working full time as an assistant public defender in Rochester, Minnesota. Fru and G.D. never entered into a written retainer agreement. G.D. provided Fru with original documents and paid him a total of $2,000 for the representation. He did so by writing two personal checks for $500 and $1,500, respectively. Fru did not deposit the checks in a trust account. Rather, Fru signed the checks over to Jennifer Walton, a supervisor at the group home where Fru worked part-time on the weekends. Walton was not affiliated with Fru's law practice.
Fru took no action regarding the G.D. matter, and G.D. tried to contact Fru several times to no avail. Eventually, G.D. retained another attorney to help him recover both the original documents that he provided to Fru and a refund of the retainer paid to Fru. Fru did not refund G.D.'s $2,000 until July 14, 2008, and failed to return G.D.'s documents until October 28, 2009. The attorney G.D. hired to recover his ...