Monday, May 23, 2016

Puerto Rico adopts statute of limitations for disciplinary proceedings

About two weeks ago, the Governor of Puerto Rico signed into law a bill that creates a 3 year statute of limitations for disciplinary proceedings (subject to a few exceptions).  As you may know, the majority of the states follow the approach suggested by the ABA in Rule 32 of the Model Rules for Disciplinary Enforcement, the comment to which states:
Statutes of limitation are wholly inappropriate in lawyer disciplinary proceedings. Conduct of a lawyer, no matter when it has occurred, is always relevant to the question of fitness to practice. The time between the commission of the alleged misconduct and the filing of a complaint predicated thereon may be pertinent to whether and to what extent discipline should be imposed, but should not limit the agency's power to investigate. . . .

Discipline and disability proceedings serve to protect the public from lawyers who are unfit to practice; they measure the lawyer's qualifications in light of certain conduct, rather than punish for specific transgressions. Misconduct by a lawyer whenever it occurs reflects upon the lawyer's fitness.
If you can read Spanish, you can read my comment on the newly adopted statute in Puerto Rico here.  In that article I argue that adopting the new statute does not make much sense for a number of reasons:

1.  There is no need to adopt a statute of limitations because there is precedent that holds that a disciplinary action should be dismissed if the amount of time the state has taken to file the complaint has placed the attorney in question at a disadvantage.  Under that approach, cases are decided on a case by case basis depending on whether the passage of time has had a detrimental effect on the attorney's ability to defend himself or herself against the allegations.

2.  There is no logic in placing the statute in the Puerto Rico Civil Code.  The statute of limitations should be in the rules for disciplinary enforcement.  In fact, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court is currently considering a proposal to establish new rules.  The Legislature should have deferred to the Supreme Court at least until it finished its revision of the rules.

3.  The majority of American jurisdictions do not have a statute of limitations for disciplinary actions, and the time period adopted in Puerto Rico is shorter than almost all of those adopted in the few jurisdictions that have adopted one.

4.  Although the statute does recognize an exception for conduct that constitutes a crime, it does not recognize an exception for cases of non-criminal intentional conduct.  In fact, the statute makes no distinction among different types of conduct.

5.  The Puerto Rico Supreme Court is currently considering new rules for disciplinary procedures and new rules of professional conduct.  The proposal for disciplinary proceedings has two options as to a possible statute of limitations.  The first one is not to adopt a statute; the second one is to adopt a 5 year statute of limitations with a series of exceptions.  The drafters wanted to give the Supreme Court the alternatives and let it decide.  The Legislature has now taken that decision from the Court.  Some have argued this is a violation of the principle of the separation of powers.

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