Friday, March 16, 2018
License annulment has been ordered by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals
Benjamin F. White is a lawyer who convinced A.S. to hire him as counsel after A.S. was charged with one count of felony child neglect in April 2015. Mr. White never discussed (or documented) his fee arrangement with A.S., but immediately pursued an intimate relationship with her. Mr. White took A.S. on out-of-town trips, during which he provided her with alcohol and drugs - causing her to violate the terms of her probation - and engaged in sexual relations with her. A.S. eventually reported Mr. White’s conduct and he was promptly removed as her counsel in June 2015. Mr. White was charged with violating six separate provisions of the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, but he failed to respond to the formal statement of charges. Following a hearing at which both Mr. White and A.S. testified, the Hearing Panel Subcommittee (HPS) of the Lawyer Disciplinary Board (LDB) recommended that Mr. White be suspended from the practice of law for five years. Upon consideration of Mr. White’s egregious conduct, including the additional aggravating factor that Mr. White disregarded this Court’s order to file a responsive brief, we order that his license be annulled.
The attorney was admitted in 2005 and met the client through a Facebook friend request.
In October 2014, Mr. White sent A.S. a Facebook friend request and began sending her messages through that social media platform. Throughout early 2015, though Mr. White and A.S. communicated online occasionally about her ongoing divorce proceeding, she testified that she did not consider him to be her attorney. The nature of their relationship changed, however, on April 22, 2015, when A.S. was charged with one felony count of gross child neglect.
He replaced her appointed counsel
After representation began, Mr. White came to A.S.’s residence unannounced on several occasions. Though A.S. acknowledges that they had a friendship beyond the usual attorney-client relationship, she testified that she felt that he was "pushy and bullish" during this time. Because Mr. White never asked for payment for his services, A.S. testified that she felt obligated to be friendly with him and that she didn’t feel like she could turn down his requests, specifically testifying that she felt that "if she quit having anything to do with him, then he wasn’t going to be [her] lawyer anymore."
At her plea hearing on May 28, 2015, A.S.’s home confinement was suspended and she was placed on probation. Immediately afterward, Mr. White insisted that they drive to Charleston to "celebrate." Once in Charleston, Mr. White took A.S. to dinner and purchased alcoholic drinks for her, despite knowing that her consumption of those drinks would violate her probation. On their way home, in the early morning hours of May 29, 2015, Mr. White took her to the ATV resort he owns and they engaged in sexual relations for the first time.
The following week, Mr. White and A.S. traveled together again when she accompanied him to Louisville, Kentucky for an ATV convention. Mr. White told her not to mention to anyone at the convention that he was her lawyer. On the way to Louisville, Mr. White gave A.S. an entire bottle of Xanax. In addition to ingesting a number of those pills, she consumed alcohol that was also provided by Mr. White and the two again engaged in sexual relations.
After the Louisville trip, Mr. White threatened to "put [A.S.] in jail" for one year for leaving her required alternative sentencing program classes early, despite her having permission to do so. On one such occasion, Mr. White came to the location where A.S. attended classes and began questioning other workers as to her whereabouts. One of the workers told Mr. White that A.S. left in a gold Suburban and Mr. White asked a friend on the police department to stop the automobile in an attempt to find her. When Mr. White and A.S. next spoke, A.S. told Mr. White that she was upset that he had involved the police because she could have been arrested. According to A.S.’s testimony, Mr. White responded, "that would have been good for [her]" and "that’s what [she] need[s]." A.S. testified that after this encounter she was paranoid that he would try to "set her up." Notwithstanding this concern, Mr. White and A.S. ultimately reconciled and were on "good terms for a week." During this time, Mr. White and A.S. again traveled to Charleston and engaged in sexual relations. Once more, Mr. White purchased alcohol for A.S. while she was still on probation...
On June 22, 2015, A.S. told A.S.’s community service manager, Ms. Maynard, about Mr. White’s behavior. Ms. Maynard accompanied A.S. to Judge Thompson’s office, where A.S. requested a new lawyer. On June 24, 2015, Mr. White was removed as counsel and Theresa McCune was appointed to represent her. A.S.’s probation was ultimately revoked due to a failed drug screen and she was sentenced to jail as a result. A.S. testified that the situation with Mr. White was very stressful and embarrassing, and had occurred at a very vulnerable time in her life. She cited her "downfall" as the prescription Xanax Mr. White had provided to her.
He failed to participate appropriately in the bar proceedings
Absent extenuating circumstances, we question whether a respondent attorney who disregards the directives of this Court and altogether fails to advocate for himself—to maintain his career—will adequately advocate for his or her clients. Accordingly, we conclude that a respondent attorney’s violation of this Court’s scheduling order will be deemed an aggravating factor and may give rise to heightened discipline.
We find that Mr. White’s egregious violations of the standards of the legal profession, combined with his outright unwillingness to comply with the directives of this Court, are sufficient to merit the most severe sanction available and hereby order that his license be annulled.