Attorney Doug Bernacchi's law license suspended for one year
The Indiana Supreme Court has suspended attorney Doug Bernacchi's law license for at least one year.
A disciplinary complaint was filed against Bernacchi in December 2015 for allegations he incompetently represented a client, charged an unreasonable fee, improperly used and split his fee with a non-lawyer assistant and attempted to obstruct the disciplinary process.
The suspension begins November 27 for a period of not less than one year.
At the conclusion of the year suspension, Bernacchi can petition for reinstatement if he pays the costs of the proceedings, fulfills the duties of a suspended attorney and satisfies the requirements for reinstatement.
A woman hired Bernacchi to represent her in a child support matter involving her grandson. She has custody of her grandson and wanted the child's parents, including her son, to pay child support.
When the client hired Bernacchi, he told her to pay an $800 non-refundable retainer to Mario Sims, a contract paralegal, and to contact Sims with questions.
During the first hearing in the case, Bernacchi told the court he was representing the father of the child.
During the second hearing, Bernacchi told the court he was not representing the father of the child, but then argued the father should not be forced to pay child support, according to court records.
When Bernacchi told his client he told the court her son was on his deathbed and shouldn't have to pay child support, she ordered him to correct the error.
Bernacchi refused, according to court records.
The client asked for a refund and filed a grievance with the disciplinary commission.
Bernacchi allegedly contacted his former client and said he would give her the refund if she dropped her complaint, according to court records.
It took Bernacchi two years to return her fee, reports said. She lost her home because she was unable to secure child support payments from her grandson's parents.
In August 2016, while being deposed in the disciplinary case, Bernacchi admitted to the allegations.
The Supreme Court justices found Bernacchi violated these Indiana Professional Conduct Rules prohibiting the following misconduct:
- 1.1: Failing to provide competent representation.
- 1.5(a): Making an agreement for, charging, or collecting an unreasonable fee.
- 5.3 and Guideline 9.1: Using a nonlawyer legal assistant who was not an employee.
- 5.4(a): Improperly sharing legal fees with a nonlawyer.
- 8.4(d): Engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
When considering sanctions, a mitigating factor was his lack of any prior discipline.
According to the court, the aggravating factors included:
- Multiple and diverse acts of misconduct
- Dishonesty with the trial court
- Attempts to persuade his client to withdraw the grievance in exchange for a refund
The justices stated Bernacchi seemed to be unaware of who he was representing and why it was a problem. They said his statements to the court had a negative impact on his client.
His conduct during the disciplinary hearing process was also cited as troubling. In some instances, his responses to questions during the investigation were, 'at best nonsensical and at worst obstreperous.'
When asked whether he and Sims shared a bank account or had joint access to an account, Bernacchi wrote:
Never, EVER would I do that or consider it with any non-lawyer. Who would do that, you? Perhaps a Valparaiso Law School lawyer or an Indiana University lawyer? Some persons who were having weird sexual relations or a relationship? I hope that is not being questioned of me. . . . [W]e are both married men[.]
Please, I am just a bit offended to even answer such nonsense. I hope I have made myself clear. NO joint accounts, no keys, no private Personal Identifying Information on most matters, or just a name or address, no access to my account by Mr. Sims, or any other stranger on Earth, or any aliens, for that matter. My garbage does not include P.I.I. and is not blowing in the ally [sic]
Bernacchi admitted to the court he never personally met the client in this case.