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NJ’s high court smacks local lawyer for paying paralegal for referrals

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

Martin Burger had a spotless track record practicing law for more than half a century. But that didn’t stop the state’s highest court from reprimanding him for kicking back a percentage of the business that a Filipino-speaking paralegal brought in to his Palisades Park practice.

The Supremes last week signed off on a Disciplinary Review Board’s finding that Burger, who was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1953, paid Lita Biederman half the fees he collected in immigration — roughly $230,000 between 2000 and 2006.

Burger violated Rule of Professional Conduct 5.4(a), the prohibition against sharing fees with nonlawyer employees, and RPC 7.3(d), the stricture against giving something of value to a person to obtain a client, the high court agreed.

Yet, even though they could have suspended his license for three months for using a runner — which the Supremes blasted as “unethical” — the  court let him off with a reprimand.

Between January 2000 and December 2006, Burger employed Lita Biederman as a paralegal who, the court said, “referred imigration [sic] cases from her Filipino contacts and associations to respondent, did client intake, and prepared documents related to the immigration cases including forms, briefs and pleadings, and translated during office interviews with Tagalog-speaking client,” the Diciplinary Review Board found.

Burger’s “primary involvement” with the matters was simply attending immigration hearings, it said.

Rather than pay her directly, the money went to an entity created and controlled by Biederman, the Darius Group.

To his credit, Burger was upfront when confronted: “There is no question that I violated [the rules] and was mistaken in believing that it was proper to compensate Lita Biederman for her work on the immigration cases she brought into the office by paying her half the fees earned on those cases,” he said. “The amounts paid to Ms. Biederman were commensurate with her work, and I simply did not realize that basing her compensation on a percentage of the fees was expressly prohibited by the Rules.

“The cases Ms. Biderman brought in were mainly immigration matters generated through her activities and associations in the Filipino community. Many of the clients were native Tagalog speakers who were not fluent in English. Ms. Biederman translated during client interviews and assisted with the preparation of immigration forms and trial materials, preparation of clients for trial and translation during trials and hearings. Ms. Biederman was well-versed in immigration work when I hired her, and I supervised and reviewed all her work.”

This impressed the review board, which noted that Burger “has submitted letters by other attorneys and a CPA, attesting to his good character. Moreover, and most important, [he] not only has a prior unblemished disciplinary history, but he has an unblemished history of nearly fifty years.”

The one thing that made board members hinky was how the money changed hands: “We found that the attorney’s payment of the fee shares to a third-party entity controlled by the nonlawyer employee undercut his claim that he did not know that fee shares were prohibited.”

Still, the review board urged the Supremes to cut him a break: “Biederman’s annual income from her referrals to respondent’s firm was as low as $16,000, in 2000, and as high as $46,000, in 2006. Her total income (including fee shares and $200 salary payments) was as low as $23,000, in 2001, and as high as $48,000, in 1999. None of these amounts seem excessive for one who functions as a paralegal and secretary. Thus, it does not appear that Biederman received a windfall in fee share payments.

“We believe that a reprimand is the appropriate measure of discipline.”

The high court agreed, with Chief Justice Stuart Rabner signing the order.

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