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The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal has temporarily stayed the disbarment of Prince Albert lawyer Peter V. Abrametz until an appeal hearing is held after he challenged the penalty order made against him by the Law Society of Saskatchewan.
Abrametz was found guilty of conduct unbecoming a lawyer on Jan. 10 in connection with five professional misconduct charges following a 2017 hearing. The law society barred him from applying for readmission as a lawyer until Jan. 2, 2021. It found that Abrametz had enacted an “elaborate” trust fund scheme over a period of two years and had been charging a 30 per cent flat fee on loans given for non-legal reasons.
The appeals court heard his application on Feb. 20.
Abrametz is appealing both the penalty decision as well as all of the law society’s hearing committee decisions that preceded it. He asked the court to stay the penalty order until the outcome of the appeal, subject to conditions; the law society opposed this request, arguing the court has no jurisdiction to impose conditions on any stay it may order.
The appeal court ruled that it does have the jurisdiction to impose conditions on the stay, reimplementing the conditions to which he he was subject prior to the penalty order. He had been practising under restrictions since 2013.
The court ordered Abrametz to “perfect” his appeal by 4 p.m. on April 15. If he fails to meet the deadline, the law society can apply to lift the stay on five days’ notice.
The law society also argued that if Abrametz’s disbarment was upheld during the appeal process, other lawyers could pick up his cases. Abrametz, who specializes in personal injury cases and works primarily with clients who have financial difficulties, argued that he has matters scheduled in the months ahead that could require adjournment, which would come at a prejudice to his clients.
In a written decision, Justice Robert Leurer sided with Abrametz. He said he could not discount the harm to the public that would be caused by continuing the penalty through the appeal phase.
“This harm includes delay and also expenses as new lawyers are engaged. All of this may also damage the reputation of the profession, particularly if it is later determined that Mr. Abrametz should not have been suspended at all,” Leurer wrote. A date for an appeal hearing has not been set.
A Prince Albert lawyer has been disbarred and banned from applying for readmission as a lawyer in Prince Albert until 2021 following a disciplinary hearing of the Law Society of Saskatchewan.
Peter V. Abrametz of Abrametz & Eggum was found guilty of conduct unbecoming of a lawyer on four of seven charges contained in a formal complaint from October 2015.
In January 2018, Abrametz was found guilty of improperly charging trust accounts, writing cheques to a fictitious person, improper recordkeeping and conflict of interest by entering into a debtor/client relationship with clients by loaning them money without ensuring proper safeguards were in place.
He won’t be able to reapply to become a lawyer until January 1, 2021. Abrametz was also ordered to pay $58,645.24 in costs to the Law Society by December 31, 2020.
Abrametz said he would be appealing the decision.
“I was surprised by the outcome,” he said when reached by phone.
“I take issue with a number of matters with relation to the process followed and the decision, including that the penalty is excessive.”
He declined to elaborate.
Prior to the penalty, Abrametz applied for a stay of proceedings, arguing a loss of jurisdiction and a delay in the time between the investigation and the hearing.
The committee found that the delay did not result in a loss of jurisdiction, and rejected arguments that it violated Abrametz’s charter rights and principles of natural justice and procedural fairness.
A letter of support from the law firm assigned to supervise Abrametz’s actions worked in his favour.
The letter from Gordon Kirkby, who was assigned to supervise Abrametz’s practice, said that there have been “absolutey no issues which raised any concerns” and that Abrametz “has conducted himself in a fully appropriate fashion.”
Abrametz submitted 21 letters of support and references from members of the community, colleagues, clients and friends.
“Obviously the Member has been heavily involved with his community and has shown many instances of benevolence during his career,” the hearing committee wrote.
“Some of the letters of support suggested that the author was unaware of the allegations against the Member or the charges for which the Member had been found guilty of conduct unbecoming. Still others gave the impression that the Member’s conduct was as trivial as disorganized record keeping. Others suggested that, absent defalcation or complaints from the Member’s clients, the public interest would be best served by not suspending the Member.”
The committee, though found the letters to be “of limited assistance” in determining the appropriate penalty to impose upon Abrametz.
Charges arose from investigation into colleague
The investigation into Abrametz’s actions came about after a similar investigation into another lawyer at the firm, Kristian Eggum, with whom he shared a trust account as a member of the law firm.
The investigator, John Allen, testified that he had arranged an on-site visit with Abrametz at his office to review a number of transactions of interest to the law society. Most of the cases involved SGI personal injury settlement, which Abrametz “acted almost exclusively” under contingency fee arrangements.
The afternoon before the December 5, 2012, visit, Allen said he received a fax from Amrametz self-reporting eight transactions non-compliant with the rules.
The fax admitted that Abrametz had failed to properly deposit money into his office’s account for legal fees on eight client matters, for a total sum of $36,578.45.
Allen still proceeded with the site visit, but his focus was shifted. He spent parts of three days at the office, reviewing files, trust ledgers, bank statements and discussions.
As a result, the law society attempted to suspend Abrametz in February 2013. The two parties were able to reach an agreement that allowed Abrametz to continue to practice under conditions and supervision.
They again sought to suspend him in late 2014, after Allen’s report came out on Oct. 30, but Abrametz was allowed to continue practicing under conditions.
According to the law society’s rules, any payment for services rendered needs to be deposited into a member’s general account with his/her firm.
Abrametz charged clients 30 per cent of the money they win as a fee. He would pay them their portion from the firm, and then the client would endorse a cheque for the 30 per cent back to Abrametz himself, the ruling read, instead of to the firm’s account.
The investigator found this had been the case with only a handful of clients, despite Abrametz handling hundreds of cases a year.
The committee found Abrametz circumvented the fees billing procedure “in order to obtain funds for his personal benefit without those funds having first been deposited to his law office account.”
When pressed, Abrametz admitted that at the time he thought it was a good idea and the easiest way to get money, but he acknowledged that, in hindsight, “it was inappropriate,” the ruling said.
“By issuing cheques to the clients and having the clients endorse those cheques back to the member as payment for legal fees, the clients were enlisted to participate in the member’s dishonest scheme,” the hearing committee wrote in their decision.
“The hearing committee was unable to imagine any explanation for the member’s conduct in this regard that would not bring disrepute upon the legal profession.”
The same allegations relate to one of the other charges. Abrametz was accused of improper bookkeeping, and on some files, statements of adjustments were not signed or dated. Others were conflicting.
Abrametz, and his wife, Brenda, who serves as part-time office manager, argued the records that aligned with the ledgers were proper, whereas others were drafts or printed copies from electronic files that wouldn’t be signed or dated.
The hearing committee disagreed.
They found that several of the files contained statements of adjustments and invoices prepared intentionally “to give the appearance that legal fees were paid to the firm when those fees were in fact paid to the client and endorsed back to the member personal.”
This led the committee to conclude that Abrametz “deliberately and purposefully attempted to deceive by generating multiple conflicting statements of adjustments invoices and accounts that were neither proper nor accurate … in an effort to avoid detection of the behaviour for which this committee has found him guilty of.”
The Law Society also took issue with Abrametz signing three cheques using a pseudonym. Peter and Brenda testified that it was used as a joke in the family to explain strange events, or to bid on charity items.
The Law Society didn’t find it amusing and found Abrametz guilty of issuing trust cheques to a fictitious person.
Abrametz was also found guilty of improperly loaning money to his clients and charging them unreasonably high rates.
According to Allen, Abrametz would routinely lend money through his office to clients and charge them a flat fee of 30 per cent, in addition to the 30 per cent fee for services rendered. That fee did not change regardless of how much money was provided or for how long. The loans were used to buy cars, make down payments on real estate, pay babysitters, buy groceries and grad dresses and even to travel.
Abrametz argued the loans weren’t out of proportion, and that they were advances on funds expected to be obtained on behalf of clients at the conclusion of the claim.
The 30 per cent, he said, was a fee.
The Law Society found that Abrametz was in an inappropriate debtor/creditor relationship without following the necessary precautions. They also found that the 30 per cent fee was inappropriate as Abrametz as already paid a retainer fee by the clients.
The ruling described some of the clients as “vulnerable,” facing homelessness, literary challenges or not having a bank account.
Peter V. Abrametz is not to be confused with Peter A. Abrametz, who also practices law in Prince Albert.
The full text of the decision can be found at lawsociety.sk.ca.
–With files from Thea James, Saskatoon StarPhoenix