Illness, stress caused behaviour
Appeal court suspends lawyer for one year
Disbarred lawyer gets a break from Appeal Court
The Manitoba Court of Appeal has saved the career of a veteran Winnipeg lawyer who’d been disbarred for lying to a federal department to get more money for a client.
David Guttman learned this week the original sanction - which would have permanently prevented him from practicing law - has been overturned and replaced with a one-year suspension.
In a written decision, Justice Martin Freedman said the Law Society of Manitoba failed to explain why they rejected key pieces of evidence which painted a sympathetic light on Guttman’s troubling actions. They also cited fresh evidence which included a psychiatric assessment about Guttman’s state of mind at the time, which concluded it definitely impacted his judgment.
Guttman, who practices at the McRoberts Law Office, ran afoul of the governing body while representing a client in an unlawful dismissal case in 2007. After a settlement was reached with the employer, the employment insurance paid out had to be given back, minus the lawyer’s bill for services. But Guttman submitted a bill more than $6,000 higher than it actually was so he could give more money to his client. He has since paid the money back.
Guttman’s lawyer, Dave Hill, argued that he was facing "tremendous stresses" when he ordered an assistant to draw up the fake bill. Guttman’s wife had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he was struggling in his attempt to support her while being primary caregiver for his teenage daughter and his autistic son. Guttman was also juggling a complex murder trial with his other personal responsibilities at the time of the incident. His wife passed away in 2008.
Guttman had been continuing to practice law while he appealed the Law Society ruling. Allan Fineblit, the Law society’s CEO, said they will now have to meet with Guttman to determine when his suspension begins.
"I understand the rational of the Court of Appeal. It’s a very sympathetic set of circumstances," Fineblit said Wednesday. He said the society has no plans to seek leave to the Supreme Court, which would be the only way to have the new decision overturned.
Guttman didn’t return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
This incident was not the first time Guttman had run into trouble. In 1989, Guttman was fined $1,600 after lying to a judge. At an earlier hearing Guttman told the judge he missed a preliminary hearing because while on vacation his chartered bus was late getting him to Vancouver for his flight to Winnipeg. Guttman later admitted he had been hungover and was too ill to go to court. The law society later suspended him from practising for two months.
In 1992, Guttman was acquitted on a charge of attempting to obstruct justice by counselling his client to identify himself as his brother. The judge said he didn’t believe Guttman would tell his client to do so, because the brother’s fingerprints were on file with police. But just a few weeks later, Guttman was sentenced to eight months in jail after being found guilty of obstructing justice for misleading the court into believing a client was in the courtroom for her trial.
The Court of Appeal later unanimously overturned the conviction, saying Guttman’s actions were wrong, but not criminal. However, he was suspended for six months by the Law Society for "grave professional misconduct."