On March 3, 2023, the District XII Ethics Committee, an arm of the New Jersey Supreme Court, filed a formal ethics complaint against a Union County Municipal Court Judge for allegedly signing his client’s name to a document that was ultimately filed with the court and for failing to provide his client with a copy of their written retainer agreement.
The matter is captioned District XII Ethics Committee v. Inacio, Docket No. XII-2022-0020E and is against Antonio Inacio who sits as a Municipal Court Judge in Clark Township. A copy of the ethics complaint and Inacio’s answer are in a single PDF file which can be downloaded here.
The man who filed the ethics grievance in this matter was represented by Inacio in a Middlesex County matrimonial case. New Jersey’s Rules of Court, specifically R.5:3-5, require that the terms and conditions of all representations in family court matters be set forth in a written retainer agreement signed by both the lawyer and the client and that a fully executed copy be given to the client. According to the first count of the ethics complaint, Inacio never gave his client a copy of the agreement, which violates Rule of Professional Conduct (RPC) 1.5.
The second count of the ethics complaint is more serious. It alleges that on or around November 17, 2020, Inacio signed the grievant’s name to an Amended Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) “without authorization.” Inacio then proceeded to “execute the jurat following the grievant’s signature, falsely stating that the grievant had personally appeared before him and swore to the signature,” according to the ethics complaint. The complaint states that this violates RPC 8.4(c), which says that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
In his March 21, 2023 answer to the ethics complaint, Inacio admits to the factual allegations of the first count but, in response to the second count, he claims that he did have his client’s authorization to sign his name to the QDRO.
Regarding the first count, Inacio claims that prior to representing the grievant, he had also represented the grievant’s son. Through his representation of the son, he had discussions with the grievant about his own divorce case. Inacio said that he believed that since they were already known to each other through the son’s case, he could proceed with representing the grievant. However, Inacio admits that not obtaining a written retainer agreement violated R. 5:3-5 and RPC 1.5(b).
Regarding the second count, Inacio asserts “by way of mitigation and not exculpation” that his son tragically died in November 2020, which was during the same time period that the QDRO was signed and that his son’s death left him emotionally and physically unable to go to his law office. During this time, however, the grievant’s former wife was seeking enforcement of a July 2020 court order that required the grievant to sign the QDRO within ten days. According to the order, failure to comply would grant limited power of attorney to the former wife, allowing her to sign the QDRO on the grievant’s behalf.
Inacio said that he “did sign the Amended QDRO on behalf of the grievant on the condition that the grievant subsequently come to [Inacio’s] law office and personally sign the Amended QDRO — which the grievant did sign.” Inacio said that the primary reason the grievant authorized him to sign the amended QDRO was to prevent the former wife from signing it and that the amended QDRO was not materially different than previous versions the grievant signed.
Additionally, Inacio claimed that he never filed the amended QDRO with the court and was not aware that it had been filed with the court until he received the ethics grievance some fifteen months after the court ultimately entered a January 26, 2021 order that was very favorable to the grievant.
Despite the mitigating circumstance, Inacio, who is representing himself in this ethics case, “acknowledges and agrees that the expediency of the signing of the Amended QDRO on behalf of the grievant does not excuse, justify or overcome the violation of RPC 8.4(c).”
The pending charges against Inacio are only allegations that have yet to be proven, although he has admitted to many of them. He has asked for a hearing before an ethics panel “only as to mitigation regarding the allegations of the Complaint.” Like all ethics hearings, Inacio’s are open to the public. Anyone wishing to find out the dates and locations of any future hearings should contact District XII Ethics Committee Secretary Michael F. Brandman at 908-272-9255.