TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday disbarred a former Jacksonville lawyer who charged sick people nearly $800 for a “patient identification card” he claimed could keep them from getting arrested for having or growing marijuana.
Several of Ian Christensen’s clients were arrested and prosecuted after following the lawyer’s advice, according to court documents.
Doing business as “Health Law Services,” Christensen and Christopher Ralph charged patients $799 for services that included a visit with a doctor, legal services and documents, as well as the ID card, which was not sanctioned by any government agency.
Critics interviewed by The News Service of Florida in 2014 accused the duo of running a scam. Christensen stopped practicing law in 2015 and no longer lives in Florida, according to an affidavit filed with the court last year.
The justices’ disbarment of Christensen was a far harsher penalty than a two-year suspension recommended by Florida Bar lawyer Carlos Alberto Leon, who served as a referee in the case spawned by a complaint about Christensen filed in June 2016.
According to Thursday’s order immediately disbarring Christensen, several of his clients were arrested and prosecuted after following his advice. In at least three instances, Christensen provided clients with a “grow sign” to post outside their homes indicating they were cultivating marijuana, according to court records.
St. Johns County residents Scott and Marsha Yandell suffered life-altering consequences after following Christensen’s advice, the records show.
In January 2015, police responded to a 911 call at the Yandell’s residence, which had a “grow sign” posted outside. The next day, the Yandells asked Christensen if they needed to dismantle their grow operation, but the lawyer told them they “had nothing to worry about” and that he or someone from the office would contact law enforcement, according to court records.
The following month, a SWAT team raided the Yandells’ home, and they were arrested and charged with manufacture of cannabis, possession of cannabis with intent to sell or deliver, possession of a place or structure for trafficking or manufacturing a controlled substance, and trafficking in cannabis in excess of 25 pounds.
The Yandells’ home, valuables, and vehicles were seized and detained for forfeiture, according to court documents. The St. Johns County couple hired a new attorney and accepted plea deals of three years’ probation, a $15,000 fine, and 100 hours of community service.
Marsha Yandell, who had been a nurse for 25 years, lost her nursing license and her husband lost his engineering job of 15 years. In addition, their landlord obtained a judgment against them in excess of $25,000 for damages to the home during the raid and lost rent.
In rejecting the referee’s recommendation, the Supreme Court found that disbarment “is the appropriate sanction.”
“The most prominent features of respondent’s misconduct are incompetence and extremely serious harm to clients,” the court wrote.
In a document filed in August, Christensen blamed his wrongdoing on being “inexperienced, young and naïve in the advice he gave and the positions he took in dealing with individuals already involved with marijuana.”
Christensen opened a solo legal practice just three months after being admitted to the Florida Bar in 2013. Shortly afterward, he and colleague Ralph launched “Health Law Services,” which focused on giving legal advice about medical marijuana. Months later, Christensen incorporated “Cannabinoid Therapy Institute,” or CTI. Ralph, who was not a lawyer, was CTI’s director, as well as the “legal administrator and consultant” for Health Law Services, according to court documents.
Christensen referred clients for medical exams at CTI, and the patients would receive “Official Legal Certification” and an identification card if a doctor found it was medically necessary for the clients to use marijuana. Three of the clients found out that the doctor they saw was not licensed to practice medicine in Florida, according to Thursday’s order.
Christensen “advised his clients that they had, and his clients believed, that based on Florida law, the clients had a right to possess, use, and grow cannabis due to medical necessity and that they were protected by the affirmative defense of medical necessity,” the Supreme Court wrote. “The lawyer did not tell his clients that this affirmative defense would not apply, if at all, until after the clients were arrested, charged, and prosecuted.”
Lawyers familiar with the medical necessity defense told the News Service it has been used successfully on rare occasions and that its use is left up to the discretion of a prosecutor or judge.
“Respondent erroneously advised his clients and provided them with legally meaningless ‘Official Legal Certifications’ purportedly authorizing them to grow and use marijuana, based on determinations made by a physician not licensed to practice medicine in the State of Florida,” the court wrote.
Christensen “continued to insist on the correctness of his clearly erroneous legal positions” during criminal proceedings pertaining to his clients and during his disciplinary proceedings, “until he was ordered to show cause to this (Supreme) Court why he should not be disbarred,” the court wrote.
“We will not tolerate such misconduct by members of The Florida Bar,” the justices concluded.
In the August document, Christensen’s lawyer, D. Gray Thomas, argued that his client’s misconduct was not “motivated by greed or bad intent, but rather by naïve, youthful, unmentored overconfidence.”
And, Thomas wrote, Christensen’s medical marijuana-focused practice took place as laws about the issue were evolving.
“The current state of laws poses ongoing legal tensions, as well as ethical tension and ambiguity, for practicing attorneys,” Thomas argued.
But Leon, the referee, rejected Christensen’s defense, saying “none of these contentions is worthy of belief.”
“Mr. Christensen makes these protestations at this late juncture only to prevent potential enhanced discipline and not as the result of any epiphany or genuine remorse,” Leon wrote in a response filed in August.
While marijuana laws are evolving, “no specific training or experience is required to distinguish what is evidently right from what is evidently wrong,” Leon wrote.
“Quite simply, advising clients to grow their own marijuana based on a fake doctor’s advice is wrong and cannot now be said to be subject to interpretation based on the evolution of medical marijuana law,” he added.
News Service of Florida