Court Recognizes “Compassion Fatigue” as Mitigating Factor in Lawyer Discipline

On June 14, 2018, the Supreme Court of Washington considered whether “compassion fatigue” is a proper mitigating factor in lawyer disciplinary proceedings. See In re Waechter, No. 201,645-6 (Wash. Jun. 14, 2018). The respondent had “committed multiple lawyer trust account violations,” including forging a client’s signature on a check and converting thousands of dollars in client funds for his own use.

In mitigation of sanction, the respondent offered testimony from a psychologist that he suffered from “vicarious traumatization or compassion fatigue.” Compassion fatigue, he argued, “often occurs in ‘the helping professions’ like social workers and lawyers.” Although such professionals “do not experience trauma themselves,” they suffer “as a result of working with traumatized populations.” Symptoms of this condition include “avoiding traumatic material, mental dissociation from daily life, avoidance, and becoming ‘jaded.'” Id.

The court found that the disciplinary board “erred in failing to consider this mitigator” in connection with the respondent’s sloppy bookkeeping. However, the court rejected the argument that it should mitigate intentional forgery and conversion. The court disbarred the respondent. Id.

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