In an apology-filled appearance, disbarred lawyer Dennis Gross made his case to get his licence back on Nov. 17 despite defrauding several victims, including his mother, more than a decade ago.
“I feel I’ve been punished in a lot of ways, though maybe for some not enough,” Gross told a Law Society of Upper Canada hearing panel.
“But I believe I can be a lawyer again and contribute meaningfully to society. I’m desperately sorry for the things I did but I know I can’t take them back.”
The Thorold, Ont., lawyer was convicted of five counts of defrauding various members of the public and disbarred for misappropriating funds from dozens of clients as late as 1999.
Gross made the plea to the hearing panel in an attempt to prove that he has the good character required to become a lawyer and return to practice. The matter is now with the hearing panel, which said it would reserve its decision on Gross’ fate.
During the hearing, Gross painted the picture of a lonely and inexperienced man who lived with and cared for his aging 98-year-old mother for his entire life until her death this May. He served as the primary breadwinner with a private legal practice in St. Catharines, Ont.
Despite fulfilment and success in other areas of life, Gross said he “never felt whole” and “felt like I was missing something,” something that ultimately led him to build a relationship with a woman nearly 20 years younger and would eventually prompt his disbarment and conviction.
“Within 30 days, she suggested we buy a house together, and I thought, gee, that would be great,” Gross told the panel.
“I got the house soon after and put it in her name, but I never resided in it. Eventually, things would come up that needed money. I started the problems with the mortgages shortly after. I knew it was wrong but I crossed the line and I couldn’t go back. She threatened to leave, and I felt there was nothing left to do.”
The amounts Gross took from clients were relatively small. The law society disbarred him in 2000 for misappropriating $9,474 from the trust funds of 13 clients and for subsequently trying to cover up his actions by not reporting purchase and sale transactions.
At the same time, Gross also misappropriated roughly $1,750 from 37 clients after he failed to register discharges of mortgages. The court convicted Gross of five counts of defrauding various members of the public in July of the same year.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the case, according to the law society, arose in November. Until that time, Gross had been living with his mother in a home they both owned.
But in November, shortly after meeting his girlfriend, Gross transferred the joint title he and his then-87-year-old mother held to himself.
That resulted in five cycles of first mortgages without his mother’s knowledge and subsequent forgeries of several banks’ names in discharges of mortgages.
“What’s troubling is this was done to his own mother,” law society counsel Amanda Worley told the hearing panel. “He used the money to buy his girlfriend small luxuries like jewelry and later bigger items: two cars and a home.”
The court sentenced Gross to house arrest and 200 hours of community service for the criminal fraud charges. It also ordered him to pay restitution to the banks.
But at the recent good-character hearing, Gross told the panel he hadn’t made restitution or payments to the law society’s compensation fund to repay the clients or other victims.
It’s not clear how much in restitution Gross owes the banks, Worley told the panel. However, some of the banks were able to recover a small amount of money from Gross’ mother, his girlfriend’s house, and other methods, she added.
Worley noted that CIBC, the Bank of Montreal, and the Bank of Niagara may be owed as much as $100,000 each.
When asked why he hadn’t paid the amounts owed, Gross told the panel he had filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and couldn’t afford to make the payments before or after that.
That fact, along with a lack of diverse and significant sources to attest to Gross’ change of character, prompted Worley to question if Gross had truly changed his ways.
“We can’t simply rely on Mr. Gross saying he is remorseful,” Worley told the panel. “Mr. Gross said he knew what he was doing was wrong but he did it to the detriment of his mother, his clients, and himself.”
Yet Gerald Darcie, a St. Catharines psychologist treating Gross, argued the past events would cause his patient to be more cautious and very much “allergic to anything that would put him in those situations again.”
“In certain circumstances, intimate relationships can be a powerful counter to rational thinking,” Darcie told the panel. “This may have been the first time that his mother hadn’t been a central part of his life.
His social circumstances and emotional state have appeared to change since then.”
Worley, however, was skeptical. “It’s too little, too late,” she told the panel. “Mr. Gross is only seeking help 11 years later.
We don’t know if he has the good moral fibre to conduct himself differently in the face of adversity. He hasn’t been tested in the last 11 years to produce evidence of this. He committed the wrongdoings repeatedly. A mere absence of bad character does not insinuate good character.”
But hearing panel member Raj Anand pointed to Gross’ work at Value Village for the past 11 years, where he used his minimum-wage salary to support his mother, as a possible show of good character.
In the meantime, when asked what he’d do if readmitted to the law society, Gross told the panel he’d consider private practice in St. Catharines with a focus on criminal law and would welcome any restrictions on him.
“If readmitted, I would also try to repay some of the mortgages at least,” he added. “I haven’t done anything about the compensation fund but I would be happy to arrange a payment fund for that as well.”
After his mother’s death, her estate — worth just $1,000 — went to him. Despite his actions, Gross said his mother had always been “a central figure in his life.” But he decided to transfer the house title because he felt he had no choice.
“I wish I had the means to atone,” he told the panel. “I have struggled with it genuinely for a long time.”