Monday, March 31, 2014
The Georgia Supreme Court has disbarred an attorney for serious billing misconduct notwithstanding her distinguished prior record as an attorney.
One issue was waived
Because M. failed to raise an issue at the evidentiary hearing regarding the presence of the client’s dog at the hearing, we agree with the Review Panel that she may not raise the issue for the first time long after the hearing has concluded.
The misconduct took place when the attorney was in financial distress
M. , who was admitted to the Bar in 1983 and had a distinguished career, was having financial difficulties in 2008 while working part-time as a lawyer and part-time as a real estate agent. As a result, she sought a loan from a lawyer with whom she was acquainted. The lawyer declined to loan M. money, but offered to associate her in a litigation matter in which the lawyer and an associate represented two clients in litigation involving a trust of which the clients were beneficiaries. M. accepted the offer; the lead lawyer and M. agreed that M.’s fee would be $200 per hour. The lawyer paid M. $2,000 as a retainer on September 2, 2009, and additional sums totaling $22,500 through March 2010. The lawyer considered these sums to be an advance to be applied against fees earned. M. did not keep contemporaneous time records, but reconstructed her time sheets and invoices from memory and from notes on her calendar or computer.
The attorney submitted a number of billing statements, which led to this finding
The special master found that by submitting wholly unsupported and materially misleading time sheets and invoices to her client, misrepresenting her hours and fees to the court, and misrepresenting in the disciplinary process the payments received, M. committed several violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct. M. has no prior disciplinary record, but found as aggravating factors that there were multiple offenses, submission of false statements or evidence in the trust litigation and the disciplinary process, refusal to acknowledge the wrongful nature of her conduct, and substantial experience in the practice of law. The special master determined that the proper sanction was disbarment.
The court majority agreed with the special master.
Chief Justice Thompson and Justice Melton dissented and would impose a lesser sanction. (Mike Frisch)