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Cattaraugus County attorney censured for longtime deception of client

A state appeals court has censured a longtime attorney from Cattaraugus County for telling a client he filed a lawsuit on his behalf in 1986 – when in fact he hadn’t – and deceiving him for more than 25 years about the case, including showing him a phony court order and notice of appeal.

The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, based in Rochester, issued the censure against J. Michael Shane, who had a law office in Olean or the Town of Allegany during the course of the alleged misconduct, according to a petition filed against the attorney by the Grievance Committee of the 8th Judicial District of State Supreme Court, which covers the eight counties of Western New York.

The court said Shane, whom the court admitted to the practice of law in 1959, agreed to represent a client on a contingent-fee basis to recover damages from a municipality on the ground that it had enacted certain zoning regulations that reduced the value of the client’s business.

In July 1986, Shane falsely informed his client that papers had been served on the municipality, the court said. From 1986 through 2012, the lawyer on numerous occasions told his client he was pursuing the matter. He bolstered those misrepresentations with several false documents, including the purported court order and notice of appeal, the court said. He also offered the client various false reasons for the substantial delay in concluding the matter.

Finally, in July 2012, he informed his client in writing that he had never filed suit on his behalf and that his previous statements to him about the status of the case were false.

The court found that Shane violated professional conduct and disciplinary rules by “engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” and by “neglecting a legal matter entrusted to him” and “intentionally failing to carry out a contract of employment entered into with a client for professional services.”

In deciding to censure Shane instead of taking more-serious action, the court cited his “otherwise unblemished record after more than 50 years in the practice of law.”

It also noted that his behavior was not motivated by personal gain or profit. “Rather, it appears that respondent sought to avoid advising the client that respondent believed that the proposed claims against the municipality lacked merit,” it said.

In addition, it said, there was no proof that the client suffered a financial loss as a result of the misconduct.

The court also pointed out that Shane told his client about the misconduct and expressed remorse before authorities learned of the misconduct.

“We have further considered the numerous letters of support submitted to this court by individuals attesting to respondent’s generosity, good character and standing in the community,” it said.