Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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In Re Tsoutsouris

Citation. In re Tsoutsouris, 748 N.E.2d 856, 2001 Ind. LEXIS 510 (Ind. June 12, 2001)

Brief Fact Summary. Respondent engaged in a sexual relationship with a client during his representation of her on a divorce proceeding.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Indiana Court found that sexual relations between attorneys and clients were inappropriate in this situation because it could impact the attorney’s profession judgment on behalf of the client and the attorney/client privilege.

Facts. A client hired respondent Tsoutsouris to represent her in a dissolution action. While representing her in the fall of 1994, the respondent and client began dating and engaged in consensual sexual relations. Respondent did not inform client how a sexual relationship might impact his professional duties to her or otherwise affect their attorney/client privilege. Respondent ended the sexual relationship a few weeks after it began. Client hired respondent for another legal matter in 1996. In 1997 client sought psychological treatment, and on of the subjects discussed was her relationship with respondent three years earlier.

Issue. Was respondent’s sexual relationship with his client during the client’s divorce proceeding improper?

Held. The respondent violated Prof. Cond. R. 1.7(b) by engaging in sexual relations with his client during her representation.
Respondent contends that a sexual relationship between attorney and client is professional misconduct only when it affects the quality of the attorney’s representation of the client. Respondent also suggests that he was unaware of any obligation to avoid sexual contact with his client due to the ambiguous nature of the Indiana law in 1994.

Rule 1.7(b) prohibits representation of a client if the representation may be materially limited by the lawyer’s own interests. The rule contains general exceptions when the lawyer reasonably believes the representation will not be adversely affected and the client consents, but these exceptions are inapplicable when the lawyer’s own interests at issue are those related to a lawyer/client sexual relationship.

Previous precedent has found that intermeshing of a lawyer’s professional duties with the lawyer’s personal sexual interests creates a situation where the exercise of professional judgment on behalf of a client would be affected by personal interests. Furthermore, the ABA has made it clear that attorney’s should avoid sexual contact with clients, with recent proposed provisions banning such relationships unless a consensual sexual relationship existed between them when the client-lawyer relationship commenced.

Evidence, including the fact that client hired respondent in a later matter, suggests that the relationship did not actually impair his representation. Therefore, only a 30 day suspension is warranted.

Discussion. The court’s decision represents the minority position, demonstrating a strong disapproval of attorney-client sexual contact.