671 S.E.2d 763
| Rachael L. Fletcher Cipoletti, Esq.|
Office of Disciplinary Counsel
Charleston, West Virginia
Attorneys for the Petitioner
| William H. Duty
Williamson, West Virginia
The Opinion of the Court was delivered PER CURIAM.
CHIEF JUSTICE MAYNARD disqualified
THE HON. N. EDWARD EAGLOSKI, II, JUDGE, sitting by temporary assignment
JUSTICE ALBRIGHT did not participate in the issuance of this opinion.
SENIOR STATUS JUSTICE McHUGH sitting by temporary assignment
Syl. pt. 1, Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Lakin, 217 W. Va. 134, 617 S.E.2d 484 (2005); syl.
pt. 1, Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Lusk, 212 W. Va. 456, 574 S.E.2d 788 (2002); syl. pt. 3, Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Barber, 211 W. Va. 358, 566 S.E.2d 245 (2002); syl. pt. 2, Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Turgeon, 210 W. Va. 181, 557 S.E.2d 235 (2000), cert. denied,
534 U.S. 841, 122 S.Ct. 99, 151 L.Ed.2d 59 (2001).
The above standard of review is consistent with this Court's ultimate authority with regard to legal ethics matters in this State. As syllabus point 3 of Committee on Legal Ethics v. Blair, 174 W. Va. 494, 327 S.E.2d 671 (1984), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1028, 105 S.Ct. 1395, 84 L.Ed.2d 783 (1985), holds: This Court is the final arbiter of legal ethics problems and must make the ultimate decisions about public reprimands, suspensions or annulments of attorneys' licenses to practice law. Syl. pt. 2, Barber, supra; syl. pt. 3, Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Frame, 198 W. Va. 166, 479 S.E.2d 676 (1996). See also, 2A M.J. Attorney and Client § 55 (1993), stating that the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia is the final arbiter of legal ethics problems.
Rule 3.7. of the West Virginia Rules of Lawyer Disciplinary Procedure provides that, in order to recommend the imposition of discipline of a lawyer, the allegations of the formal charge must be proved by clear and convincing evidence. Lusk, supra, 212 W. Va. at 461, 574 S.E.2d at 793; syl. pt. 2, Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Cunningham, 195 W. Va. 27, 464 S.E.2d 181 (1995). The various sanctions which may be recommended to this Court are set forth in Rule 3.15. (See footnote 5) , and, in making a recommendation or imposing discipline, certain factors are to be considered pursuant to Rule 3.16. As syllabus point 4 of Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Jordan, 204 W. Va. 495, 513 S.E.2d 722 (1998), holds:
Rule 3.16. of the West Virginia Rules of Lawyer Disciplinary Procedure enumerates factors to be considered in imposing sanctions and provides as follows: In imposing a sanction after a finding of lawyer misconduct, unless otherwise provided in these rules, the Court [Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia] or Board [Lawyer Disciplinary Board] shall consider the following factors: (1) whether the lawyer has violated a duty owed to a client, to the public, to the legal system, or to the profession; (2) whether the lawyer acted intentionally, knowingly, or negligently; (3) the amount of the actual or potential injury caused by the lawyer's misconduct; and (4) the existence of any aggravating or mitigating factors.
Syl. pt. 2, Lakin, supra; syl. pt. 4, Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Battistelli, 206 W. Va. 197, 523 S.E.2d 257 (1999). See also, syl. pt. 3, Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Keenan, 208 W. Va. 645, 542 S.E.2d 466 (2000).
Accordingly, the Hearing Panel Subcommittee appropriately determined that
respondent Duty violated Rule 1.3. of the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct which
requires a lawyer to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client;
Rule 1.4.(a) and (b) which requires that a client be reasonably informed about the status of
a matter and which requires that a lawyer provide explanations during his or her
representation so that a client can make informed decisions; and Rule 1.16.(d) which
requires a lawyer to protect a client's interests by allowing time for the client to employ other
counsel. In addition, the Subcommittee appropriately determined that respondent Duty
violated Rule 8.1.(b) which states that a lawyer, in connection with a disciplinary matter, shall
not knowingly fail to respond to a lawful demand for information from a disciplinary
With regard to Counts II and III, the evidence supports the finding of the Subcommittee of ethics violations with regard to the Ernest Prater matter. The testimony at the hearing revealed that Fields, a nonlawyer employee of respondent Duty, was acquainted with Prater and knew that he had been in a motor vehicle accident. When she gave that information to Duty, he indicated that, if she could secure Prater as a client, he would give her half of the attorney fees. Prater became a client, and, upon settlement of the action, Duty gave Fields approximately $16,000. Although Duty asserted that the payment was in the nature of an employee bonus rather than a fee-sharing arrangement, the payment constituted 50% of the attorney fees in the Prater action. Moreover, Prater signed a retainer agreement and became a client prior to ever meeting or speaking with respondent Duty. The evidence, thus, supports the determination of the Subcommittee that respondent Duty violated Rule 5.4.(a) which states that a lawyer shall not share legal fees with a nonlawyer.
The evidence concerning Count III reveals that respondent Duty sought to withhold $3,500 in expenses from Prater's settlement. Duty's co-counsel in the action, Chris Harris, objected to the withholding because Duty was unable to document the expenses. Nor did Prater have any knowledge of Duty's claim prior to the final distribution of the settlement. Duty abandoned the claim, and the $3,500 was not withheld from the settlement. Upon that evidence, the Subcommittee was justified in determining that respondent Duty violated Rule 8.4.(a) which provides that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to attempt to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct; Rule 8.4.(c) which provides that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation; and Rule 1.5.(a) which states that a lawyer's fee shall be reasonable.
Count IV, particularly egregious, concerns the ethics complaints of Rita Sammons and her sister, Rachel Lockhart. Lockhart retained Duty to represent her in pursuing damages arising from an automobile accident. The evidence demonstrates without question that, rather than placing the $25,000 settlement check in trust as Lockhart requested (while the remainder of the action was being litigated), Duty opened a checking account in his own name at the Bank of Mingo in Mingo County, West Virginia, with the $25,000 and
used that account for his personal and office expenses and, in addition, co-mingled the funds with other monies. The account was opened on February 10, 2003, and by February 19, 2003, the available funds were reduced to $7,634.12. Thereafter, the level of monies in the account varied greatly, and it was only after the two ethics complaints were filed that Duty made restitution to Lockhart. The evidence also demonstrates that, in October 2004, respondent Duty attempted to persuade Sammons to withdraw the ethics complaints. Moreover, on March 31, 2005, Duty falsely testified before the Office of Disciplinary Counsel that he had placed Lockhart's settlement check in trust and that he had not spent those funds.
Therefore, the Hearing Panel Subcommittee appropriately determined that respondent Duty violated Rule 1.15.(a) and (b) which requires that a lawyer hold property of a client separate from the lawyer's own property, and that a lawyer shall promptly deliver to a client any funds the client is entitled to receive and shall render a full accounting regarding such property. Moreover, the Subcommittee appropriately determined that the respondent violated Rule 8.1.(a) which states that a lawyer in connection with a disciplinary matter shall not knowingly make a false statement of material fact; Rule 8.4.(a) which provides that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to attempt to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct; Rule 8.4.(c) which provides that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation; and Rule 8.4.(d) which states that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice. The latter Rule violations were based upon the attempt to persuade Sammons to withdraw the ethics complaints and the giving of false testimony before the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
Finally, with regard to Count V, the evidence supports the finding of the Hearing Panel Subcommittee that respondent Duty improperly attempted to withhold an additional $2,500 in attorney fees in the Stiltner matter. Stiltner had paid Duty $1,500 in attorney fees and had made additional payments of fees and expenses before the dispute over the $2,500 arose. However, the record demonstrates that, throughout the representation, respondent Duty never gave Stiltner any billing statements, although Stiltner requested them. Stiltner, acknowledging that he still owed Duty legal fees, maintained that the withholding of the $2,500 was an overcharge. Duty, however, failed to keep the funds separate from his other accounts pending resolution of the dispute. Morever, when the representation was terminated, Duty failed to provide Stiltner with his file.
Consequently, the Hearing Panel Subcommittee properly determined that Duty violated Rule 1.4.(a) and (b) which requires that a client be reasonably informed about the status of a matter and which requires that a lawyer provide explanations during his or her representation so that a client can make informed decisions; and Rule 1.5.(b) which provides that the basis or rate of the fee shall be communicated to the client, preferably in writing, before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation. In addition, this Court is of the opinion that the Subcommittee was warranted in finding that respondent Duty violated Rule 1.15.( c) which states that, if a dispute arises between a lawyer and another person concerning property in the lawyer's possession, the portion in dispute shall be kept separate by the lawyer until the dispute is resolved; and Rule 1.16.(d) which states that, upon termination of the representation, a lawyer shall surrender papers and property to which the client is entitled.
It should be noted that during his testimony before the Subcommittee on January 18, 2007, respondent Duty admitted that he committed several violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct as described in the Statement of Charges. However, Duty explained that much of his conduct was the result of his chemical dependency upon OxyContin, an addictive, pain relief medication which Duty asserted depleted his finances. However, as the Subcommittee concluded:
It is noted that the evidence demonstrates that respondent has been addicted to OxyContin for two to three years. While there is medical evidence that respondent was affected by this chemical dependency, it does not establish that the chemical dependency caused respondent's misconduct. * * * Respondent did not seek treatment for his addiction until after or about the time the Statement of Charges in this matter was served upon him.
A review of the testimony elicited during the January 18, 2007, hearing suggests that respondent Duty's chemical dependency upon OxyContin, although warranting continuing treatment, did not rise to the level of an avoidance of responsibility with regard to
any of the five Counts contained within the Statement of Charges. Consequently, this Court is in agreement with the conclusion of the Subcommittee.
Syllabus point 3 of Committee on Legal Ethics v. Walker, 178 W. Va. 150, 358 S.E.2d 234 (1987), holds:
In deciding on the appropriate disciplinary action for ethical violations, this Court must consider not only what steps would appropriately punish the respondent attorney, but also whether the discipline imposed is adequate to serve as an effective deterrent to other members of the Bar and at the same time restore public confidence in the ethical standards of the legal profession.
Syl. pt. 3, Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Keenan, supra; syl. pt. 3, Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Swisher, 203 W. Va. 603, 509 S.E.2d 884 (1998). Consistent with that principle is the earlier case of In re: Application by Daniel, 153 W. Va. 839, 173 S.E.2d 153 (1970), syllabus point 2 of which confirms: Disbarment of an attorney to practice law is not used solely to punish the attorney but is for the protection of the public and the profession. Syl. pt. 4, Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Sayre, 207 W. Va. 654, 535 S.E.2d 719 (2000).
Here, the actions of respondent Duty involved numerous and differing violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct which not only harmed his clients but undermined the confidence of the public in the legal profession. That confidence was further damaged by Duty's failure to cooperate with, and give truthful statements to, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. In those circumstances, this Court can only conclude that an annulment of respondent Duty's license to practice law, in conjunction with the other recommended sanctions, would be appropriate to reassure the public of the reliability and integrity of the legal community as well as the legal community's ability to address problems which arise from time to time such as those brought out in these proceedings. Accordingly, the sanctions recommended by the Hearing Panel Subcommittee are adopted, and, in so ruling, we note that the Office of Disciplinary Counsel is in agreement with those sanctions.