Jon Campisi Feb. 5, 2014, 9:08am


A federal judge has overruled a plaintiff’s objection in his civil rights case

against the City of Philadelphia and its police department that sought to allow his uncle to continue to represent him in a quasi-legal capacity, with the jurist determining that the uncle confused power of attorney status with the concept of attorney-at-law.

U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ordered Anthony Johnson, the uncle of plaintiff Aaron Houston, prohibited from providing legal advice “to anyone so long as he is not a licensed lawyer.

“Mr. Johnson is admonished that practicing law without a license is a crime,” Rufe wrote.

During a Jan. 17 status conference in the case, Houston explained that his name was misspelled in the complaint because his uncle had written it, despite the fact that the plaintiff contended he was representing himself pro se, records show.

The judge informed Johnson at the status conference that it was illegal to practice law in Pennsylvania without a license.

Johnson, however, asserted that he holds the status of power of attorney, and he stressed that, if anything, he was providing his nephew with moral support more so than actual legal advice.

Johnson also told Rufe that in a different case, U.S. District Judge John William Ditter allowed him to act in the way he has acted with respect to Houston, according to Rufe’s memorandum, which was filed on Jan. 30.

Rufe expressed “serious doubt” that her fellow jurist would condone what she termed a “flagrant violation of Pennsylvania law.”

Houston subsequently submitted Ditter’s opinion from the prior case that referred to Johnson, and, not surprisingly to Rufe, the other jurist’s opinion didn’t “remotely come close to authorizing Mr. Johnson to practice law.

“Instead, the opinion states, ‘the power of attorney cannot be used as a device to license laypersons to act as an attorney-at-law,’” Rufe wrote last week.

Johnson pointed to a section of Ditter’s opinion in which the judge said Johnson could give the other plaintiff advice, consult with her, and make suggestions to her, but that what Johnson could not do is “act” for her.

Rufe wrote that she informed Johnson this meant the man could not act as her attorney, something prohibited by state and federal law.

“Judge Ditter’s opinion that Mr. Johnson may give advice, consult, and make suggestions should not be misread as license to act as a member of the legal profession,” Rufe wrote. “At this time, the Court makes no determination of when giving advice crosses the line to practicing law, but Mr. Johnson is admonished to tread carefully.”

Concerning the Houston case, Rufe wrote that Ditter’s prior opinion should serve as a “stark warning” to Houston of the dangers of relying on his uncle’s advice that Johnson reads an opinion “prohibiting him from using his ‘power of attorney’ to act as a lawyer as one somehow enabling him to participate in this litigation.”

“Hopefully, no lawyer would make this basic misunderstanding,” Rufe wrote.

Rufe wrote that the use of the word “attorney” may be confusing, but she stressed that the holder of a power of attorney is not the same thing as an attorney-at-law, and that one holding a power of attorney cannot practice law as a lawyer without being licensed by the state to do so, “just as a ‘doctor’ of literature may not practice medicine without a license.”

In a separate motion, Houston sought to have Rufe order the return of his seized firearm, which is currently in the hands of the police department, something that is a subject of the underlying litigation.

The plaintiff took issue with the fact that the judge declared she lacked jurisdiction to fulfill his request.

“Mr. Houston needs to be patient with this lawsuit,” Rufe wrote. “If he prevails on his claims, he may be entitled to an injunction ordering the return of his firearm at the conclusion of the case. He was not entitled to this relief at a status conference held in order to set a timeline for this case to be adjudicated.”

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