Panel Censures Lawyer and His Debt Collection Firm

, New York Law Journal

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a gavel on top of debt paperwork

A state appeals court has censured attorney David A. Cohen and his Long Island firm for trying to collect debts from people who had already paid their bills or were not the ones who owed money to the firm's client-creditors.

The Appellate Division, Second Department, said Cohen had been advised as early as 2002 by the counsel to the Grievance Committee for the Tenth Judicial District that he could be held personally responsible for any abusive collection practices by his firm's employees. Nonetheless, the court said, Cohen and the Cohen & Slamowitz firm of Woodbury had a "voluminous history" of complaints about its methods that from 1996 to 2012 resulted in a letter of reprimand, seven letters of caution, two admonitions and three personally delivered admonitions against either Cohen or the firm.

The judges said a public censure was the proper sanction based on the complaints of six people from whom Cohen & Slamowitz sought to collect debts on behalf of creditors from 2003 to 2006.

The judges noted they were taking into consideration that Cohen & Slamowitz said it had established a compliance department and taken other steps to reform its collection practices. Among the department's duties is to review complaints about collection practices from debtors and alleged debtors, the court said.

The court concluded in Matter of Cohen & Slamowitz, 2008-10218, that Cohen and Cohen & Slamowitz "engaged in a pattern and practice of conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice" under the Code of Professional Responsibility DR 1-102(A)(5)(223 NYCRR 1200.3[a][5].

The judges said an attorney does not necessarily have to have personal knowledge of the specifics of his firm's misconduct to be held responsible.

"Even if the individual respondent lacked personal knowledge of the particular client matters ... the pattern and practice of misconduct established at the hearing, which were pervasive within C&S [Cohen & Slamowitz] since 1996, were sufficient to impute such knowledge to him as senior partner of C&S," the panel held in its per curiam ruling.

The judges added that not only was Cohen personally advised in 2002 to "exercise caution," "supervise [his] staff adequately," and put in place "appropriate and reasonable procedures" that could be monitored, but he and his firm also received numerous letters of caution and admonition.

The court said Cohen & Slamowitz has about 300 employees, including attorneys, paralegals and other staff.

Among the problems noted by the court was an attempt in 2005 to collect from a debtor identified as "Ghulam Mujtaba" of Flushing. The court said that Cohen & Slamowitz mistakenly pursued collection from Dr. Gholam Mujtaba of Corona.

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