In what’s believed to be a first in Canada, a Toronto lawyer, who made his mark early in his career battling the Ontario government over the rights of autistic children, has admitted to professional misconduct for stringing clients along with phantom cases.
Jonathan Wade Strug’s licence to practise law was terminated by a Law Society of Upper Canada hearing panel May 6 after he was found to have engaged in 16 counts of professional misconduct.
The misconduct included his failure to commence legal proceedings for seven clients despite being retained to do so; misleading a Durham District School Board lawyer by telling her he wasn’t involved in a legal matter; and failing to act in good faith with a partner at his own law firm by misleading her about the status of files he was working on.
William Trudell, Strug’s lawyer at the hearing, tells Law Times in an interview that the case is a cautionary tale for the profession.
“It’s an enormous tragedy for everyone involved,” says Trudell.
Strug’s professional misconduct was a classic case of an overworked lawyer who “couldn’t fathom” admitting he couldn’t take on more work and viewed doing so as a failure, he says.
Trudell says lawyers too often take work home with them, and when they don’t, they’re thinking about the cases they’re working on.
“It’s a disease we get into in this profession,” he says, adding that many lawyers need to learn to ask for help when overwhelmed.
Strug, who was called to the bar in 2002 and is 35 years old, began working as an articling student in 2000 with the firm Eberts Symes Street & Corbett, according to a set of agreed facts. He worked with lawyer David Corbett, and later Mary Eberts, on the highly publicized R. v. Wynberg trial at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, a case that pitted families with autistic children against the Ontario government over the provision of expensive therapy that the government refused to pay for.
Strug worked on other files in tandem with his work on Wynberg. In one case involving a client identified as CB, who was the parent of an autistic child, Strug was retained after the parent was impressed with his work on the Wynberg trial. The mother retained Strug to commence legal proceedings against the Durham District School Board for support and accommodation of her child.
Strug eventually admitted to misleading the client after a newspaper reporter went to the school board and client regarding information in a press release. The client sent out the release to get publicity over what she believed to be the school board’s failure to comply with court orders, but it turned out that Strug never in fact pursued the matters and no such orders existed.
That client reported Strug’s conduct to the law society in October 2005.
Other matters that Strug failed to pursue despite being retained by clients include a matter involving a high school student’s alleged wrongful suspension; a wrongful dismissal action involving a First Nations band; a civil litigation case involving damages sustained in a house fire; a series of litigation matters for a client seeking to reverse a default judgment and garnishment order; another wrongful dismissal matter; and a civil action against a school board over funding for an autistic child.
Strug also was reprimanded for failing to act in good faith with law firm partner Beth Symes, whom he misled about the status of files.
It was also revealed in the statement of facts that Strug, contrary to law firm policy, had stored electronic documents on a personal computer drive that wasn’t accessible to other lawyers.
“This practice had the effect of allowing the lawyer’s ‘phantom’ work to proceed undetected,” according to the statement.
While Strug didn’t attend the hearing, he expressed remorse in a statement.
“I am currently in a very fragile emotional and psychological state and for this reason feel that it is best to convey these thoughts in writing,” said Strug in the letter. “I do not have words that can possibly express the depth of regret that I feel for the harm that my actions have caused to my former clients, former colleagues, and other individuals in my life who placed their trust and faith in me and who I let down so completely.”
He goes on to write, “I would also like to apologize to the law society and the legal profession in Ontario generally for behaving in such a disgraceful way.”
Strug, who is currently working part time as a warehouse labourer, has been attending sessions with a psychologist about four times a week since February, according to a letter from therapist Jon Novick.
A medical report by Dr. Mark Ben-Aron, a forensic psychiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s department of psychiatry, states that Strug’s misconduct can’t easily be explained by any major mental illness.
“In my opinion, Jonathan’s actions were unconsciously driven, self-defeating acts perpetrated by him at a time when he was severely depressed, emotionally exhausted, and professionally burned out,” the report states. “This was consequent to a one and a half year trial that had him working seven days a week and at times up to 22 hours a day.”
At the hearing, Trudell argued to allow Strug to voluntarily surrender his licence, but the panel, led by law society Bencher Brad Wright, found that the potential harm to the public’s confidence in the legal profession by doing so would be too great.
A pair of civil cases involving Strug’s former clients, naming he and his former law firm as defendants, are ongoing at Superior Court.
Lawyer Selwyn Pieters, who is representing the family of Corey Hlywka in one of those cases, says he’s unaware of another case in Canada similar to Strug’s misconduct.
“The conduct alleged here is unheard of,” says Pieters. “There’s no precedence for it.”
Carolyn Borgstadt, who was misled by Strug regarding his work on a case involving her son, says the incident damaged her confidence in lawyers.
“It’s made me question everything, to the point where I have another lawyer who is having trouble dealing with me because I’m questioning everything she’s doing, because I don’t trust her,” says Borgstadt.
But she says the hearing panel’s decision to terminate Strug’s licence has reclaimed some of that trust.
“I have a better trust in the whole law profession now than I did for the past two and a half years, because everything is about lawyers - the law society, LawPro, everything. You couldn’t get away from it. But I think they did the right thing.”