January 18, 2013
Line Drawing When An Attorney Withholds Fees Due To A Firm
The Iowa Supreme Court has imposed a suspension of three months of an attorney for misconduct as a shareholder of a four-attorney firm.
The firm required each attorney to give all earned fees to the bookkeeper for deposit in the firm's general account. The attorneys drew equal salaries with a quarterly distribution "proportionate to the revenue for which [a shareholder] was responsible."
The bookkeeper had suspicions that the attorney had not turned over certain checks. An investigation ensued. The attorney admitted that he deposited fee checks in his personal account in an estimated total of $10,000. He left the firm and started his own practice.
The attorney brought the matter to the attention of bar authorities and attributed the conduct to "control issues."
The court rejected the public reprimand proposed by the Grievance Commission:
In cases like this, the determination of sanction is a matter of line drawing. In light of the seriousness of [the attorney's] misconduct, we suspend [his] license to practice law in this state for three months.
Justice Wiggins would draw that line elsewhere:
Dishonesty is a trait that disqualifies a person from the practice of law. An attorney who converts fees from his partners, when a dispute over the fees does not exist, is per se unfit to practice law. Thus, I have no hesutation in revoking [his] license to practice law.
The Nebraska Supreme Court also decided a disciplinary case today in which an associate attorney failed to turn over a $1,500 fee to his firm. The court imposed a suspension of 20 months retroactive to a December 2011 temporary suspension.
The Nebraska case had a second count of misconduct involving the same client.
The client came to the attorney's office after business hours "to sign and retrieve some papers." They "engaged in typical pleasantries" and went into his private office. He told her to come around his desk to look at a photo on his computer screen. When she did, he "pulled her down onto his lap and touched her in an inappropriate manner. Shortly thereafter, [they] began excahnging text messages of an inappropriate nature."
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I know in these kind of cases the determination of sanction is a matter of line drawing. In light of the seriousness of misconduct, the court suspend his license to practice law in for three months.
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