Nearly six full years after the Louisiana Supreme Court disbarred the Baton Rouge personal-injury lawyer duo of E. Eric Guirard and Thomas R. Pittenger, the justices on Friday gave Pittenger the green light to once again practice law in the state.
Guirard is still awaiting word on the readmission petition he filed in August — Pittenger’s was filed in June — but he said the reinstatement of his former law partner offers him hope.
“I think it’s wonderful. It obviously gives me encouragement,” Guirard said, adding that Pittenger deserved to be readmitted.
Guirard’s attorney, Damon Manning, said he and Guirard remain cautiously optimistic.
The Supreme Court ordered Pittenger readmitted immediately and said he will be on supervised probation for two years.
“We are very pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision and Tommy feels very blessed to have another opportunity to practice law,” Richard Stanley, one of his attorneys, said.
Pittenger’s readmission petition included numerous letters of recommendation, including from lawyer and East Baton Rouge Metro Councilman Chandler Loupe and lawyer Mary Olive Pierson.
Loupe noted in his letter that Pittenger has served on the steering committee of the Baton Rouge City Court Sobriety Court with Judge Suzan Ponder and has volunteered many hours of service with the local battered women’s shelter and the city’s homeless population.
“Disbarment has had both negative and positive impacts. It was humbling, but I believe it has made him a better person and hopefully a better lawyer,” Loupe wrote.
Pierson said Pittenger’s conduct since his May 2009 disbarment “has been above reproach and he has dedicated himself to fulfilling all of his obligations to our profession and his community just as though he was still a practicing attorney.”
“He has conducted himself in the last five years with honor and integrity and has devoted himself to the improvement of his own family life and in service to others,” she wrote.
The Supreme Court followed a Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board hearing committee’s recommendation that Pittenger be readmitted. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel did not object to the recommendation, the high court said.
“Petitioner has shown that he possesses the requisite competence, honesty, and integrity to be readmitted to the practice of law,” the justices wrote.
Guirard likewise contends he has the competence, honesty and integrity required to be reinstated to practice law in the state.
Both Guirard and Pittenger had to wait five years before seeking reinstatement.
They were disbarred because of their “business first” model, whose practices included rewarding the firm’s nonlawyers for settling cases as quickly as possible, according to the Supreme Court’s disbarment order.
One case manager received more than $81,000 in commissions for settling 261 cases.
“Having the case managers negotiate and settle the cases was a misrepresentation by omission to the clients, particularly considering that clients were given the ‘E Guarantee,’ which implied that a lawyer, not a case manager, would handle the case,” the court said in its 2009 opinion.
For years, billboards and radio and television commercials made the E Guarantee practically inescapable.
A hearing committee had recommended Guirard and Pittenger be suspended for a year and a day, but the Office of Disciplinary Counsel — which investigated the lawyers for the board — and the full board pushed for permanent disbarment. Permanent disbarment is just that, and there is no readmission procedure.
The Supreme Court instead disbarred Guirard and Pittinger, although not permanently.
Pittenger, who was admitted to the state bar in 1992, said in his reinstatement application that he believed in good faith that the law firm’s practice model was in compliance with the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers. After learning there was some question as to the model’s appropriateness, Pittenger said, he fully cooperated with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and immediately modified the firm’s procedures to comply with those rules.
Guirard and Pittenger ultimately sold E. Eric Guirard and Associates to the law firm of Dudley, DeBosier and Peltier.
Guirard and his former partners Chad Dudley, Steven DeBosier, James Peltier and the Dudley DeBosier law firm are now fighting in court over $14 million in legal fees generated by the 2,000 cases Guirard and Pittinger left behind, as well as the value of the practice.