A few months ago, we reported on a headline-grabbing story on lawyer misconduct involving AI. Two New York lawyers, representing a plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit, were caught using ChatGPT to write their court materials. They have now been fined $5,000 by a federal judge.
The lawyers were acting for the plaintiff in his lawsuit against an airline for the personal injuries he suffered during a flight from El Salvador to John F. Kennedy airport, when a serving cart hit him. On March 1, 2023, the lawyers filed materials with the court that turned out to include reference to bogus quotes from at least six decisions that were entirely fake. The misleading content was discovered by the presiding judge on the case, who asked the lawyers for a sworn Affidavit attaching copies of the cases they had referred to. Rather than come clean, the lawyers essentially stood by their misleading research in an Affidavit they filed on April 25th – nearly two months after submitting the AI-written document.
It turned out the lawyers had used ChatGPT for the legal research, unaware that it had innovated entire cases and added so-called analysis that was essentially legal gibberish. The lawyers had filed the materials with the court without checking the research — never anticipating that the resulting content by ChatGPT could be completely made-up. They eventually admitted to taking the AI-generated shortcut that inserted what turned out to be six fake court decisions into their filed material.
That shortcut cost will cost the two lawyers $5,000. In a later ruling on June 22, 2023, they appeared before a federal judge in New York, who sanctioned them for their professional misconduct. That judge ruled they had both exhibited bad faith, “based upon acts of conscious avoidance and false and misleading statements to the court”.
Not only were the lawyers and their law firm fined $5,000, but they were also ordered to send letters to each of the judges falsely identified as the author of the six non-existent cases cited in their filed materials. The letters also had to include copies of the June 22 ruling that sanctioned them, the fake opinions they were citing from, and the explanatory Affidavit they were ordered to give.
Among the reasons for the stiff fine, according to the federal judge, was that the lawyers “doubled down and did not begin to dribble out the truth” until they had been ordered to explain their conduct and justify why they should not be sanctioned. The judge added that the “record now would look quite different” if the lawyers – who had no prior disciplinary history – had confessed soon after the March 1 submission. Instead, they resisted doing so for several weeks after.
In fashioning a penalty, the judge also noted that the situation and resulting sanction order had attracted a good deal of publicity, including articles in the New York Times, Reuters, Law360, and the Volokh Conspiracy.
One of the lawyers testified that he was “operating under the false perception that [ChatGPT] could not possibly be fabricating cases on its own,” and “never thought it could be made up”.
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