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In re Ragatz
Wisconsin Supreme Court
429 N.W.2d 488 (1988)
Attorney Thomas Ragatz (defendant) represented an estate in a will contest filed by law firm Clifford and Relles (Clifford) on behalf of the decedent’s son. Ragatz filed an equitable-adjustment action to reduce the amount the son might receive if he won the will contest. The case was assigned to Judge John Aulik. Clifford moved to dismiss the action and have it declared frivolous. In an unplanned conversation, Judge Aulik told Ragatz that the judge’s law clerk had said the action might in fact be frivolous. Ragatz responded that the clerk was wrong. Clifford was neither present during, nor advised of, the conversation. Ragatz subsequently received in the mail an unsolicited proposed decision concluding that the action was frivolous. Ragatz had an attorney in his office prepare a letter response, making legal arguments on the frivolousness issue. Ragatz changed the salutation to address the judge by his first name, signed the letter using Ragatz’s first name, and marked the letter “confidential.” The letter sent to Judge Aulik was not shared with Clifford. In preparing for a hearing on the frivolousness issue, Clifford found the letter in the court file and requested a copy. Judge Aulik retained the letter and telephoned Ragatz to advise him that Clifford had found the letter. When Clifford telephoned Ragatz, Ragatz said he was unfamiliar with the letter and did not disclose that Judge Aulik had called him. Ragatz called the judge without Clifford’s participation and suggested that the court schedule a conference with counsel. At the conference, Judge Aulik claimed he no longer had the letter, and Ragatz said he could not locate a copy. Ragatz later provided a copy to Clifford. The Board of Attorneys Professional Responsibility (plaintiff) instituted disciplinary proceedings against Ragatz. The referee concluded that the letter was intended to influence the outcome of the equitable-adjustment action and was an ex parte communication that violated Rule of Professional Conduct (RPC) 3.5(b). Although Ragatz had never been the subject of a disciplinary proceeding and character testimony indicated that his alleged misconduct was anomalous, the referee recommended that Ragatz be suspended from the practice of law.
Rule of Law
Holding and Reasoning (Per curiam)
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