Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Wild Ride, A Well-Told Story

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals has issued an opinion that begins "Sally Jumper is dead but a dispute arising from her assets lives on." The court then tells us that "Sally Jumper led an interesting life" and takes us on a wild ride concerning a bitter dispute between a 30-year  friend of the late Ms. Jumper (one Mr. Anderson) and a financial advisor who later came on the scene (one Col. Jan Verfurth). Sounds like the participants in a game of Clue.

Mr. Anderson had a power of attorney for Ms. Jumper and hired an attorney to initiate a guardianship proceeding, seeking appointment of himself as guardian and describing himself as "her closest and oldest friend." The petition claimed that Col. Verfurth was dissipating Ms. Jumper's assets. The court heard opposition but appointed Mr. Anderson as guardian but not conservator because he was not an attorney. A lawyer who happened to be in the courtroom (Ms. Sloan) was appointed as conservator, and for her trouble is still embroiled in this litigation.

When Ms. Sloan encountered difficultly in marshalling assets from Col. Verfurth, she went back to court. It eventually turned out that Mr. Anderson and his lawyer were aware of estate-planning documents that were relevant to Ms. Jumper's intentions but unhelpful to Mr. Anderson's claims. These documents had not been brought to the attention of the probate court. The trial court also was not told that Ms. Jumper had her own lawyer.

After hearing testimony concerning Ms. Jumper's competence, the trial court vacated the appointment and sanctioned  Mr. Anderson and his attorney for "ethically questionable behavior." Further, there was no basis in evidence for the claim of dissipated assets by the good Colonel. The court here affirmed the sanctions ordered to be paid to Ms. Sloan but remanded the portion of the award to Col. Verfurth's attorney. Col. Verfurth sent his regrets and did not participate in the appeal.

The court also discusses the ethically questionable behavior of Mr. Anderson's attorney and the ulterior motives of the client: "We need not decide...whether [the attorney] initiated the Petition in bad faith so as to justify sanctions because the trial court plainly did not abuse its discretion in holding that [his] post-filing conduct was sanctionable...even after the guardianship was vacated, [he] drafted legal documents for Ms. Jumper and participated in tape-recorded meetings with her, all without inviting [her lawyer] or any of the attorneys who had represented Ms. Jumper over the years." The court opines that this conduct would run afoul of either Rule 4.2 or 4.3: "Whether [the attorney] should be disciplined under the Rules of Professional Conduct is for the Office of Bar Counsel to consider in the first instance." The court's Clerk was directed to forward a copy of the opinion to the OBC.

Worth a read. (Mike Frisch)

Bar Discipline & Process, Clients, Ethics | Permalink

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