The state’s highest court overturned the six-month suspension of a Saco attorney Tuesday, saying a stronger penalty is needed in response to credible allegations that the lawyer had sexual contact with a vulnerable female client who temporarily moved into his apartment in 2016.

The decision regarding embattled attorney Gary Prolman was the result of an appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court by the Board of Overseers of the Bar, the professional licensing and disciplinary body for Maine lawyers. The board argued that Prolman should have been disbarred for his conduct.

Although the Supreme Judicial Court did not disbar Prolman and has not specified what penalty should now be imposed, the justices unanimously agreed that Prolman will have to reapply for admission to the Maine bar after he demonstrates that he understands the ethical obligations of a Maine attorney. He has already served his original six-month suspension, which ended May 1.

“We all agree that the sanctions imposed were simply insufficient and represent an abuse of discretion,” six justices wrote in the unanimous part of their decision.

But the justices split evenly on why they agreed, meaning that although the decision sets a path forward in Prolman’s case, its implications for future cases of alleged attorney misconduct are not clear.

This is the second disciplinary proceeding for Prolman, who was indicted in 2012 on a federal money-laundering charge and at the time was suspended indefinitely from practicing law. He eventually pleaded guilty and served nine months in a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania in 2015 after being sentenced to two years. He concluded his sentence in stages, first at a halfway house and then in home confinement, and after his release he applied for and was granted reinstatement to the bar on July 1, 2016.

Absent from the decision Tuesday was Associate Justice Donald G. Alexander, who handed down the six-month suspension that was the subject of the appeal. In Maine, attorney disciplinary hearings are initially conducted before a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, with appeals going before the remaining six justices.

The decision does not spell out exactly what punishment is warranted, but stipulates that part of the sanction will require Prolman to petition for his license to practice law, which is required in cases where an attorney is suspended for more than six months, raising the prospect of additional suspension time.

Jacqueline M. Rogers, executive director of the Overseers of the Bar, said she is pleased with the decision, although the next step in Prolman’s case is not clear.

“I think the decision speaks for itself that it’s very unusual,” Rogers said. “Abuse of discretion is just a hard thing to prove, so I’d say yes, absolutely, it was an uphill climb for us, but we’re pleased where we are at this stage of the case.”

Prolman’s attorney, James Bowie, could not be reached for comment.

According to bar rules, the petition for readmission requires in part that Prolman recognize the wrongfulness and seriousness of his misconduct, not engage in new misconduct, not attempt to practice law without a license, and continue to possess the required honesty and integrity required to practice law.

In their concurring opinion, Justices Joseph M. Jabar, Andrew M. Mead and Jeffrey L. Hjelm wrote that Alexander failed to properly apply guidelines for attorney discipline set out by the American Bar Association, which are referenced in the Maine bar rules.

But Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, Justice Ellen A. Gorman and Justice Thomas E. Humphrey made a simpler, rarer argument: that the lower court – in this case their colleague, Alexander – acted outside the bounds of its discretion.

“All that needs to be said is this: When an attorney has been sentenced to federal prison for using his legal talents to commit serious crimes, and upon reinstatement to the Bar engages in behavior that is as abhorrent to the profession, including taking sexual advantage of a client he knew to have been the victim of sex-trafficking, a six-month suspension, requiring no demonstration of rehabilitation in order to return to the practice of law, is plainly and compellingly insufficient,” Saufley, Gorman and Humphrey wrote.

The allegations of sexual misconduct involve a woman who contacted Prolman in late 2016. Prolman represented her in two court matters – an outstanding warrant in Florida, and an attempt to end her probation early in Maine – both of which he successfully resolved.

She then asked for assistance in a third case. The woman, who is not named in the court decision, was the victim of sex trafficking in Massachusetts, and a man there was scheduled to be tried on related charges. She asked Prolman to help her avoid testifying in that case so she could put her history of victimization and sex trafficking behind her, the justices wrote.

Around the same time in March 2017, the client’s live-in boyfriend brutally assaulted her and attempted to strangle her, breaking bones in her face and leaving marks on her throat. The boyfriend was arrested, but when he was to be released on bail, police sought a new place for the woman to live and contacted Prolman, who offered to let her stay in an apartment above his law office.

But Prolman omitted that he, too, lived in the three-bedroom unit.

When she moved in, Prolman bought the woman a cellphone and arranged for her to get a job as a waitress. But he also on multiple occasions approached her for sexual gratification and engaged in sexual acts with the woman, the court found.

“Although she did not consent, she also did not communicate her objection to Prolman’s sexual acts, simply submitting to what Prolman demanded as she had done in past relationships with men who had taken advantage of her vulnerability,” the court wrote in its unanimous opinion.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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