The S.C. Supreme Court has issued a public reprimand against one of the lawyers battling a local timeshare company in state and federal courts.
Hilton Head Island attorney Zach Naert of the Naert and DuBois law firm has admitted to the court that he violated state attorneys' rules for professional conduct when he purchased specific online advertisement keywords related to Coral Resorts LLC to promote the firm through search engines such as Google.
The published opinion, issued by the court last week, comes as the law firm continues to represent dissatisfied timeshare owners in more than 60 state and federal cases against the company.
Under the terms of the reprimand, Naert has agreed to:
• Pay the costs of the investigation incurred by the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel and Commission on Lawyer Conduct within 90 days.
• Complete the S.C. Bar Association Legal Ethics and Practice Program's ethics and advertising schools within one year.
The investigation costs are not specified in the opinion, and the court has not yet provided them to Naert, he said Wednesday. Attempts to reach the commission Wednesday were unsuccessful.
In March, Naert and law partner Joseph DuBois agreed to stop using certain keywords related to Coral Resorts registered trademarks and specific phrases to settle a federal lawsuit Coral Resorts filed against the firm in December 2013.
The court's reprimand states that Naert, on the firm's behalf, bought keyword advertisements using the name of a timeshare company and three of its attorneys to drive traffic to its own website. The court's opinion does not name the company and refers to the lawyers only as Attorney A, Attorney B and Attorney C.
If Internet users searched using one or more of those names, the firm's advertisement would appear in some search results, according to the opinion.
"Timeshare Attorney in SC - Ripped Off? Lied to? Scammed? Hilton Head Island, SC Free Consult," the advertisement read.
That ad violated professional conduct rules by not including the name and office of at least one attorney responsible for its content, the court found. Naert's conduct with the ad campaign also violated the lawyer's oath to "fairness, integrity and civility" to opponents and their counsel, the court adds.
The reprimand and earlier settlement end the firm and timeshare company's fight over the advertisements, which is a necessary concession, Naert said Wednesday.
"It was just some very powerful attorneys and a very powerful business making it very difficult for a small law firm to represent these people," he said. "Now we can really focus our time and resources."
In the lawsuits, timeshare owners allege they were misled by the company. Many assert they were deceived by sales pitches and signed contracts that didn't reflect what they were told when they bought a timeshare.
The company denies the claims.
This summer, two out-of-state couples got their money back from Coral Resorts after private arbitrators ruled the company violated aspects of the S.C. Timeshare Act in those two cases. Several other similar lawsuits have been dismissed, while dozens of others also require private arbitration proceedings.