In the Matter of Sean M. McAteer.
Petitioner: Barbara Margolis Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
Respondent: Joseph J. Altieri, Esq.
Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia,
attorney disciplinary matter comes before us pursuant to
Article III, Rule 6(d) of the Supreme Court Rules of
Disciplinary Procedure for Attorneys. On April 4, 2018, the
Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court (the board) forwarded
to us a decision finding that the respondent, Sean M.
McAteer, had violated the Supreme Court Rules of Professional
Conduct. The board has recommended that we impose a public
censure as a sanction for that misconduct. We directed the
respondent to appear before the Court at its conference on
April 26, 2018, to show cause, if any, why he should not be
disciplined. Having heard the representations of the
respondent, his attorney, and this Court's Disciplinary
Counsel, we determine that cause has not been shown.
relevant facts, as presented to the board per an agreed
statement of facts, are as follows. In August 2015, Paul and
Erin Ruggieri (the Ruggieris) entered into a purchase and
sale agreement to buy a parcel of real estate in Bristol,
Rhode Island, owned by the Sylvia E. Bray Revocable Trust.
The property had been listed for sale with the William Raveis
real estate agency, and Teresa Pedro-Matrone (Matrone) was
the managing broker of the agency. The Ruggieris had provided
a deposit in the amount of $15, 000, which had been deposited
into the agency's escrow account.
reasons that are not germane to this disciplinary proceeding,
the Ruggieris decided not to proceed with the sale, and
sought return of their deposit. When the deposit was not
forthcoming, the Ruggieris retained respondent, a member of
the bar of this state, to attempt to recover the deposit on
October 17, 2015, respondent filed a civil action in the
Providence County Superior Court seeking recovery of the
deposit. The named defendants in that action were Sue
Reynolds and Elaine Grady, co-trustees of the Sylvia E. Bray
Revocable Trust, and Matrone. On November 6, 2015, the
Ruggieris and the sellers entered into a settlement
agreement. Pursuant to that settlement agreement, the $15,
000 deposit was released from the William Raveis account and
returned to the Ruggieris. As part of the settlement
agreement, respondent prepared a "Release of All Claims,
" pursuant to which, in return for receipt of the funds,
the Ruggieris released any and all claims they may have
regarding the sellers and "their agents[, ] employees,
partners, representatives, successors, businesses, heirs and
assigns" from any and all claims that were the subject
of the litigation. The Ruggieris executed the release, and
received their funds, less respondent's legal fee of $5,
000. Matrone was aware of the settlement, but was not a
signatory to the release.
Ruggieris did not feel they had been fully compensated, as
they had incurred a legal fee to obtain the return of their
deposit. They discussed with respondent what further actions
may be available to them to secure complete recovery of their
funds. It was at this point that respondent began a course of
conduct that directly led to these disciplinary proceedings.
had not filed an answer in the civil action. Well aware that
the $15, 000 deposit had been returned, and even though
respondent had prepared the settlement release which applied
to the sellers and their agents (Matrone was at all times
acting as the sellers' agent), respondent sought and
obtained a default judgment against Matrone on November 12,
2015. On December 18, 2015, he filed a motion for an oral
proof of claim, with a hearing date of January 22, 2016.
However, in his pleading he misidentified Matrone, and the
notice was forwarded to the wrong address. Matrone did not
receive the motion or notice of the hearing date.
January 22, 2016, respondent and Paul Ruggieri appeared
before a hearing justice on the scheduled motion. Matrone was
not present. At the beginning of the hearing the justice
specifically inquired of the respondent: "Are the
defendants in default?" The respondent did not advise
the court that his clients had previously received the return
of their deposit. Rather, he responded: "Yes, your
honor. There's only one we are seeking relief against
court heard the testimony of respondent's client. The
respondent elicited testimony that Matrone did not refund the
$15, 000 deposit. However, he did not ask his client if the
deposit had been returned by anyone else. He further asked
his client: "[A]re you asking this Court for the entry
of default judgment against her for that amount, $15, 000,
plus interests and costs?" The client answered:
that the $15, 000 deposit had been returned, the hearing
justice entered a judgment against Matrone for return of the
$15, 000, plus statutory interest, costs, and an
attorneys' fees award. Matrone became aware of the
judgment when she was served with an execution. On her
behalf, the William Raveis agency obtained legal counsel, and
on March 31, 2016, respondent consented to an order vacating
the judgment against Matrone. On October 7, 2016, the civil
action against Matrone was voluntarily dismissed with
prejudice, and with no judgment, interest or costs.
January 6, 2017, Matrone filed a complaint with Disciplinary
Counsel. The respondent was fully cooperative with
counsel's and the board's investigation. The board
filed formal charges against respondent, which he did not
contest. After a hearing, the board concluded that respondent
had violated several of the Rules of Professional Conduct in
his pursuit of a judgment against Matrone after his clients
had executed a release of all claims and received the return
of their deposit. We will address each of those findings in
the sequence presented by the board.
the board concluded that respondent violated Rule 3.1,
entitled "Meritorious claims and contentions." That
rule provides, in pertinent part: "A lawyer shall not
bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an
issue therein, unless there is a basis in law and fact for
doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith
argument for an extension, modification or reversal of
existing law." The respondent was or should have been
well aware that any claims his clients may have had against
Matrone were extinguished upon the negotiated settlement, the
return of the Ruggieris' deposit, and ...