Prominent New Orleans civil attorney Joseph Bruno Sr. has been suspended from practicing law for 30 days after Louisiana’s Supreme Court found he was negligent in handling an insurance claim.
Bruno was previously disciplined in 1989, while he was part of Plaintiffs’ Legal Committee in a federal class action litgation involving a Shell Oil Company explosion that occurred in Norco. In that case, he made a monetary payment to a witness and when co-counsel was asked about it by a federal judge, he denied the payment occurred. As a result, he was suspended from the practice of law for one year. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed formal charges stemming from the misconduct for which Bruno was suspended from practicing law for three years.
The latest suspension follows a 2013 complaint filed by a Baton Rouge man, who hired Bruno regarding a Hurricane Gustav damage case. Clarence Phoenix and his wife owned a rental home in Baton Rouge that sustained wind and water damage after the hurricane made landfall on September 1, 2008. Phoenix, a retired insurance industry professional, negotiated his claim with home insurer Republic Fire and Casualty Insurance Company. Phoenix received payments of $4099.17 and $269.28, but felt he was owed an additional payment for losses sustained. After a year of failed negotiations, Phoenix hired Bruno whom he had retained for a prior property damage claim after Hurricane Katrina. A contingency fee agreement was signed on August 11, 2009; however, Phoenix did not know Bruno was suspended from practicing law at the time. Bruno’s son handled the claim for a time, to submitting an assignment an adjusting company that generated a proof of loss estimating Phoenix’s damage at $34,574.61. Bruno’s son submitted the proof of loss to the insurer and demanded $20,000 for loss of use plus the amount of the proof of loss to settle the claim. The insurer rejected the demand, citing the need for additional documentation.
Negotiations continued between a law student at Bruno’s firm, the owner of the independent adjusting company and Republic’s adjuster. A tentative settlement agreement was reached in the amount of $5,219.55 as a supplement for dwelling damages, $1000 supplement for contents and a $1000 supplement for additional living expenses. Phoenix said he never agreed to the settlement and the file sat unworked at the law office. By December 2010, the two year period to negotiate a claim had passed. Phoenix didn’t meet with Bruno until January 2011. The meeting resulted in Phoenix changing his mind and agreeing to the settlement amount offered. Despite the time to complete the claim had lapsed, Republic issued new settlement checks. The checks were cashed in January 2011.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed formal charges against Bruno relating to his failure to file a lawsuit within a legal time limit after the client rejected a settlement offer. The ODC recommended a 30 day suspension from the practice of law.
The Supreme Court found that the harm to the client was mitigated because the insurance company extended the same settlement offer, and because Bruno waived his fees and advised the client of his right to file a malpractice suit against him.
Bruno’s attorney called Monday’s ruling “an appropriate sanction.”