Rules and Steps to Follow in the Grievance Process
The Grievance Commission
The Grievance Commission consists of five geographically distributed panels each composed of two lawyers and one lay member. Bar Counsel (attorneys employed at the Board of Overseers of the Bar) investigate and, when directed by the Grievance Commission, prosecute complaints alleging misconduct.
- Your complaint will be reviewed by the Central Intake Office and either dismissed or forwarded to Bar Counsel for investigation, or another appropriate agency or agencies.
- If Bar Counsel concludes the conduct alleged in the complaint could, if proven true, violate the Maine Bar Rules or the Rules of Professional Conduct (Rules), the complaint will be investigated and then reviewed by a panel of the Grievance Commission. This initial phase of the disciplinary process usually takes 90 to 120 days. However, the complexity of the case, the length of the investigation, and other legal proceedings may delay disposition of a grievance complaint for many months.
- If a review panel finds probable cause of a lawyer's violation of the Rules, another panel will hold a hearing with testimony and other evidence and make a decision about whether the lawyer did violate the Rules. Disciplinary action may be imposed on a lawyer found by a hearing panel to have violated the Rules.
- You may be asked to provide Bar Counsel with information in addition to that in your original complaint. If the matter proceeds to hearing, you may be called as a witness.
- You will be kept informed of the progress of the investigation and notified of the ultimate disposition of the complaint.
- As a result of filing a grievance complaint against your lawyer on a current matter, your lawyer will most likely withdraw from further representation of you.
- By investigating and/or prosecuting your complaint, Bar Counsel will not provide you with legal advice or legal services. Therefore, to determine if you have a civil claim or other remedy available, you should consider discussing it with your own private legal counsel.
- The grievance procedure will not result in your recovery of any money. If you have a fee dispute with your lawyer, you may file a Petition for Fee Arbitration with the Board of Overseers of the Bar.
- The grievance process will not affect or alter the outcome of private legal matters which have occurred and have come to judgment. It is not an appeal process, nor will it result in a new trial.
- The grievance process does not directly affect or take priority over any related court action. If you have sued your attorney, that action should be expected to stay on course. You should not await completion of the grievance process
The grievance process starts with a written complaint made by a client, another lawyer, a judge, or a third party. The person making the complaint is the complainant. The lawyer involved is the respondent. A complaint must be in writing and signed by the complainant and may be submitted on a complaint form. If you are the complainant, you should provide a concise but detailed written summary of the nature of the complaint on the form provided. The complaint should be legibly printed or typewritten. Please include any documents you believe are relevant to your complaint. Bar Counsel may ask you to provide additional information. You should know that the Maine Bar Rules require that all the information you provide to Bar Counsel and the Board of Overseers must be shared with the respondent so that the respondent has an opportunity to answer the allegations. You should be aware that the grievance complaint process deals only with ethical violations by lawyers. Not all complaints about a lawyer involve violations of the Rules. When you are informed of the disposition of your complaint, you will be informed whether or not your complaint does involve a violation of the Rules. If it does not and you still wish to pursue it, you will have to obtain independent advice about the best method and/or forum to do that. Complaints about fees charged by your lawyer should be directed to the Fee Arbitration Commission at the office of the Board of Overseers of the Bar.
The Central Intake office reviews each signed and completed complaint to determine whether the conduct alleged, if proven true, could be a violation of the Rules. If the complaint does not allege conduct that would violate the Rules, the Central Intake Office will issue a letter of dismissal to the complainant stating a brief reason for that dismissal. A copy of the letter of dismissal will be sent to the respondent. If such a dismissal occurs, the complainant has the right to request that the Central Intake Offices dismissal be reviewed. Reviews should be requested within 14 days of the notification of the dismissal. Reviews are done by a public member of either the Board or the Grievance Commission. If the public member approves the dismissal, the complainant and respondent will be informed, and the matter remains dismissed. If the public member determines that the conduct alleged, if proven true, could be a violation of the Rules, the complaint will be returned to Bar Counsel for further investigation, and the complainant and the respondent will be notified. If the complaint does allege conduct that would violate the Rules, the Central Intake Office will forward the complaint to Bar Counsel for investigation. Bar Counsel will send the respondent a copy of the complaint. The respondent must respond in writing to Bar Counsel. Bar Counsel may send a copy of the respondent's answer to the complainant to allow for additional written comment or documentation from the complainant. Bar Counsel will submit any additional material from the complainant to the respondent for review. After investigation Bar Counsel will then determine if the complaint needs to be dismissed, dismissed with a warning, or issue a report to the Board Clerk recommending the filing of formal charges with a Grievance Commission Panel. If the complaint is dismissed Bar Counsel will issue a letter of dismissal to the complainant stating a brief reason for that dismissal. A copy of the letter of dismissal will be sent to the respondent. If such a dismissal occurs, the complainant has the right to request that the Central Intake Office's dismissal be reviewed. Reviews should be requested within 14 days of the notification of the dismissal. Reviews are done by a public member of either the Board or the Grievance Commission. If the public member approves the dismissal, the complainant and respondent will be informed, and the matter remains dismissed. If the public member determines that the conduct alleged, if proven true, could be a violation of the Rules, the complaint will be returned to Bar Counsel for further investigation, and the complainant and the respondent will be notified.
The Review Panel
Once an investigation is complete, Bar Counsel will present the complaint, response, and other relevant information to a panel of the Grievance Commission that will act as a Review Panel. Bar Counsel will recommend to the Review Panel that the complaint be either: dismissed, dismissed with a warning, or referred for a hearing. Neither the complainant nor the respondent is present or participates at this review. Although the Review Panel is provided with Bar Counsel's recommendation, the panel makes an independent decision after evaluating the complaint. The Board Clerk then notifies the complainant and respondent in writing of the Review Panels decision. If the decision is to dismiss or to dismiss with a warning to the respondent, the letter will briefly state the reasons for such action. If the decision is to refer the complaint for a hearing, that hearing will be open to the public. The Review Panel's choices are described as follows:
- dismissal: no violation of the Rules occurred;
- dismissal with warning: a minor violation of the Rules occurred with little or no injury to the client, the public, the legal system, or the legal profession, and there is little likelihood of repetition by the respondent;
- referral for hearing: there was probable cause that the Rules was violated and a disciplinary hearing open to the public should take place to determine if there was a violation.
Up to this point in the processing of a grievance complaint, all information about it is required to be kept confidential by the Board, the Grievance Commission, and Bar Counsel. In cases where a disciplinary petition is filed and a hearing held, as described below, the petition, answer, and the hearing will be open to the public.
Disciplinary Hearing and Decision
If the Review Panel refers the case to a disciplinary hearing open to the public, Bar Counsel will prepare and file a document called a petition. The petitioner will be the Board of Overseers, not the complainant. The petition sets forth the facts of the case, alleges specific violation(s) of the Rules, and asks for an appropriate disposition. The petition is served on the respondent. The case is then assigned to a Hearing Panel (different from the Review Panel) of the Grievance Commission to hear evidence. The complainant and the respondent will be notified in advance of the date of the hearing. The complainant and respondent should be prepared to testify under oath at the hearing. Witnesses may be subpoenaed or legally compelled to appear and testify at the hearing. Disciplinary hearings are conducted in a manner very similar to a civil trial. All witnesses are sworn. Bar Counsel presents the Boards case to a Hearing Panel with the respondent having the right to cross-examine all of the Boards witnesses. The respondent then presents his or her case to the panel, and Bar Counsel cross-examines the respondents witnesses. After all the evidence is received by the panel, the public part of the hearing is concluded and the panel confidentially deliberates. Typically, the panel will issue a written decision two to four weeks after the hearing. Bar Counsel will then promptly notify the complainant and respondent of the Hearing Panels decision. These decisions are available to the public upon request and, if discipline is imposed, will be published by the Board on its web site upon becoming final. The Hearing Panel will make one of the following dispositions:
- Dismissal because no violation of the Rules occurred;
- Dismissal with a warning because a minor violation of the Rules occurred which appears not likely to be repeated by the attorney;
- Public reprimand because a violation of the Rules occurred that was not minor;
- Finding of probable cause for the attorney's suspension or disbarment from practice because a violation of the Rules occurred that was serious; it may not be adequately sanctioned by a reprimand and therefore should be presented in a new hearing before a justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Legal Services and Advice
The Board of Overseers of the Bar, Bar Counsel, and the Grievance Commission cannot provide legal services or advice. Bar Counsel represents the Board of Overseers, not the complainant or respondent.
All services and expenses of the Board of Overseers and Grievance Commission are provided without any financial cost to complainants.
In the absence of malice, a complainant is immune from civil liability based on the filing of a grievance complaint.