Tuesday, February 6, 2018
The North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the imposition of a five-year suspension
In 2005, Ely formed a business called Palladium Legal Services, LLC (“Palladium”), a limited liability company registered in Georgia. Palladium offers temporary or full-time in-house legal counsel for small to mid-sized businesses. In order to obtain its services, clients must first pay a fee to Palladium and are then matched with one of the company’s attorneys, who are called “Chief Legal Officers” (“CLOs”). These CLOs receive from Palladium a portion of the fee paid to the company by the client. The CLOs do not receive any compensation directly from the client. For several years, Ely served as the president of Palladium and as one of its CLOs. She is also the sole member of the limited liability company.
On 10 June 2011, Ely was administratively suspended by the State Bar from the practice of law in North Carolina for noncompliance with continuing legal education and dues requirements. On 1 July 2011, she was also suspended from practicing law in Georgia due to her failure to pay mandatory membership dues.
Despite these administrative suspensions, Palladium continued to operate, and Ely remained in her position as president. Her biographical information — including her previous legal experience — remained on Palladium’s website on a webpage titled “Meet our CLOs.”
In January 2008, Ely sent on behalf of Palladium a proposed employment contract to Henry Abelman, a North Carolina attorney whose license was inactive. Abelman did not sign the contract and never formally agreed to become a CLO. Ely nevertheless updated Palladium’s website to list Abelman’s biographical information and display his picture on the “Meet our CLOs” webpage.
In August and September 2012, mass-marketing emails were sent at Ely’s direction targeting small business owners in North Carolina and informing them of the legal services offered by Palladium. One of the recipients of these emails was Tony Maupin, a North Carolina business owner, who received both an initial email and a follow-up email. At the bottom of the emails to Maupin, Ely signed her name as “Dawn Ely, Esq.” Maupin subsequently filed a grievance against Ely with the State Bar regarding the emails.
On 6 September 2012, the Authorized Practice Committee of the State Bar sent Ely a letter informing her that she was “engaged in activities that may constitute the unauthorized practice of law in North Carolina.” The record does not indicate that Ely ever responded to the letter. On 2 February 2015, the committee followed up on its 6 September 2012 letter with a Letter of Caution, informing her that the committee had “probable cause to believe that . . . [her] activities . . . violate[d] the unauthorized practice of law statutes.” Once again, the record is devoid of any response from Ely.
The court rejected the attorney's attack on the findings below, which led to the suspension
The DHC concluded — and we agree — that the clear implication from Ely’s inclusion of the abbreviation “Esq.” following her signature in the emails to Maupin, the hyperlink to Palladium’s website, and her testimony on this subject at the hearing is that she intended to convey to recipients of the email that she was able to provide legal services as an attorney. Moreover, while our courts have not previously had occasion to address this issue, courts in a number of other jurisdictions have determined that the use of the title “Esquire” by one not licensed to practice law constitutes the unauthorized practice of law...
The DHC’s findings likewise support the conclusion that Ely violated Rule 8.4(c). She falsely represented on Palladium’s website that Abelman could serve as an attorney on behalf of Palladium despite his status with the State Bar being “inactive” as well as the fact that he had never actually signed a contract with Palladium. She further included the hyperlink to the website in her emails to Maupin and the other recipients.
...we are satisfied that the findings of fact contained in the DHC’s order of discipline support its conclusions that Ely violated Rules 5.5(b)(2), 7.1(a), 7.3(a), and 8.4(c) and that those findings were supported by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence. Accordingly, we overrule Ely’s arguments as to the adjudicatory phase of the DHC’s order.
the DHC has established a rational basis for its decision, and Ely has failed to demonstrate that her suspension was contrary to applicable law.