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N.J. lawyer dodges discipline for website gaffe

Ty Hyderally should have paid a little more attention when he had his cousin design a website for his New Jersey law practice. Because he didn’t, Hyderally found himself before a state disciplinary board answering a charge of professional misconduct.

Hyderally maintains a practice in Montclair, N.J., with several attorneys and a paralegal. In 2005, the lawyer asked his cousin, Yusuf Asgerally, to create a website for his law practice. Asgerally is a California website designer, but not an attorney.

After reviewing the websites of other New Jersey attorneys, Asgerally thought it would be a grand idea to add the New Jersey Attorney Certification seal to Hyderally’s website. So the seal, including the language “New Jersey Supreme Court Certified Attorney,” appeared on sixteen pages of Hyderally’s new website, including the pages containing biographical information about his firm’s lawyers and staff.

The seal remained on Hyderally’s website for more than two years. While it may have impressed visitors to the site, there was a problem.

You see, neither Hyderally nor any of the associates in his firm had been certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court in any of the practice areas for which the court allows certification. So the appearance of the seal on the firm’s website was misleading to say the least.

Sure enough, in 2007, the supreme court’s attorney advertising committee received a grievance about Hyderally’s display of the seal. The state’s office of attorney ethics followed up on the complaint and charged Hyderally with violating the state rule of professional conduct regarding dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

Hyderally immediately removed the seal from his website upon hearing of the grievance. According to Hyderally, he wasn’t paying attention when his cousin designed the website.

Of course, as a non-attorney Asgerally, didn’t understand the import of placing the seal on the firm’s website when none of its lawyers were certified. Hyderally later told the state’s disciplinary committee that he never took a real close look at the seal. Evidently, he just thought it was some official-looking emblem from the New Jersey Supreme Court that added a touch of authority to his website.

A state ethics committee concluded that Hyderally had breached a duty to monitor his website to ensure that it did not include improper content. The committee decided that this breach of duty amounted to “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” in violation of the professional rules of conduct, and recommended that Hyderally receive a reprimand.

The state’s disciplinary review board recommended dismissal of the complaint, believing Hyderally’s story that his website’s display of the certification seal had been inadvertent.

Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed that there was no basis for concluding that Hyderally had knowingly engaged in misconduct.

“[W]e conclude that there is no clear and convincing evidence demonstrating that [Hyderally] either intentionally included the New Jersey Supreme Court Certified Attorney seal, or approved its continued presence, on the website created for him by Mr. Asgerally,” the court said in its Dec. 20 decision. “Accordingly, there is no basis for a finding, under the applicable standard of proof, that [Hyderally’s] conduct constituted ‘dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.’” (In re Hyderally

So the court adopted the board’s recommendation that the disciplinary complaint against Hyderally be dismissed, letting the Montclair lawyer escape unscathed.

But the court warned that it might not be so forgiving in the future. It reminded members of the state bar that “attorneys are responsible for monitoring the content of all communications with the public – including their websites – to ensure that those communications conform at all times with the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

The court concluded its say on the matter with a parting shot across the bow.

“Prospectively, attorneys who are not authorized by [supreme court rules] to utilize the New Jersey Supreme Court Certified Attorney seal, but who display that seal on their websites or in other communication, will be subject to appropriate discipline,” the court said.

“Whether a website is created by an outside consultant or developed and maintained by an attorney or his or her staff, all language and design that appears on it should be reviewed frequently for compliance with … all Rules of Professional Conduct.” 

– Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

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