Thursday, June 2, 2016
Another Day In The D.C. Bar Discipline System: Committee Report Filed 14 Years After Investigation Commenced
A District of Columbia Hearing Committee has found that an attorney with no record of prior discipline engaged in reckless misappropriation before the turn of the century and must be disbarred under applicable precedent.
Respondent, Quinne Harris-Lindsey, handled exactly one probate matter in her legal career. She did so as a favor to a family member. Her conduct in that probate matter now jeopardizes her ability to practice law. In the course of that representation, she paid herself fees from an estate account subject to court supervision with her client’s permission but without the required prior authorization of the court. Respondent and Disciplinary Counsel jointly stipulate that her withdrawals constitute misappropriation. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals has held that if a misappropriation is intentional or reckless, the presumptive sanction is disbarment. See In re A[d]dams, 579 A.2d 190, 191 (D.C. 1990) (en banc). If the misappropriation is negligent, a six-month suspension is likely the appropriate sanction. See, e.g., In re Anderson, 778 A.2d 330, 342 (D.C. 2001).
The rest of Respondent’s career has been, by all accounts, exemplary. She works for the District of Columbia Public Schools as a supervisory attorney. Her work there has been praised by a letter that is in the record from James Sandman – a well-known lawyer in the community. The Hearing Committee finds that her testimony was candid and honest. She forthrightly acknowledged that she did not comply with the court’s requirement of prior approval of any withdrawal of legal fees from the probate account. Indeed, in her post-hearing brief she “concedes that she violated Rule 1.15(a) by paying herself from estate funds without receiving prior authorization from the court . . . .” Respondent Brief at 3. The withdrawals from the account in question were agreed to by her client. Finally, Disciplinary Counsel acknowledges that Respondent has been cooperative in their investigation and handling of this complaint.
The committee's dilemma
Because Respondent concedes that she twice engaged in misappropriation by withdrawing funds from the Estate without prior court approval, the Hearing Committee must assess the character of each withdrawal, one of which occurred 15 years ago, the other 20 years ago. Needless to say, memories fade. Though Respondent was credible and forthright in her testimony to the Hearing Committee, even she (to her further credit) admitted that her ability to recall her state of mind two decades earlier was imperfect, if it existed at all.
The case does have that one rather remarkable feature
There is one other possible basis for mitigation – the extremely long delay between the time the conduct at issue took place and when this case was brought to a contested hearing. Respondent’s 1999 withdrawal occurred more than fifteen years ago, and it has been fourteen years since this disciplinary matter was referred to Disciplinary Counsel by the Superior Court. By any measure, this is a significant and troubling delay...we cannot find that this delay is sufficient to mitigate the presumptive sanction of disbarment. We, therefore, recommend that the Respondent be disbarred.
The report may be found by inputting the attorney's name here.
The hearing committee report reflects the undeniable fact that the case came to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel fourteen years and one name change ago. I do know that some of the delay is attributable to efforts (which I supported) in 2011 to resolve the case with a negligent misappropriation conclusion and a consent suspension. When the court rejected a consent sanction in 2011, I predicted the case would not get finally resolved until 2016.
How naively optimistic was I. Look for final action in maybe 2018-19.
Once again the D.C. system shows its system-wide dysfunction - a first-level report (subject to board review and Court final action) of an attorney fourteen years after the investigation commenced.
Cases regularly take ten years to move from soup to nuts. This one has a shot at twenty.
A rather straightforward case involving a single probate matter where the facts were not in dispute - only the attorney's intent.
My prediction: This case may well lead to the overturning of the en banc holding of In re Addams that disbarment is required in virtually all cases of intentional or reckless misappropriation. Disciplinary Counsel's delay may well play a role in the demise of that doctrine. (Mike Frisch)