Thursday, May 23, 2019
The Wisconsin Supreme Court found that an attorney's pattern of misconduct did not warrant disbarment.
Attorney James Edward Hammis has appealed a report filed by Referee Lisa C. Goldman accepting concessions Attorney Hammis made in a stipulation with the Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR) that he committed 40 counts of professional misconduct and recommending that his license to practice to law in Wisconsin be revoked. In his appeal, Attorney Hammis primarily challenges the sanction recommendation and asserts that an appropriate sanction would be a suspension of his license to practice law in the range of one year.
Upon careful review of this matter, we uphold all of the referee's findings of fact and conclusions of law. We conclude, however, that the facts of this case do not warrant revocation. Instead, we conclude that a three-year suspension of Attorney Hammis' law license is an appropriate sanction for the misconduct at issue. We also deem it appropriate to impose certain conditions upon the reinstatement of his law license. We also order him to pay $400 in restitution to one former client and, as is our usual custom, we impose the full costs of this proceeding, which are $13,160.22 as of March 4, 2019 on Attorney Hammis.
He had stipulated to most of the charged misconduct
The counts to which Attorney Hammis pled no contest involved nine separate client matters as well as numerous trust account and other violations.
Attorney Hammis was admitted to practice law in Michigan, but his Michigan law license has been suspended for non-payment of dues since 2001. From 2008 through at least 2012, Attorney Hammis represented himself in emails as an "experienced business and general practice attorney representing businesses and individuals in the State of Wisconsin and Michigan."
While revocation was not ordered
As to the appropriate level of discipline, the facts alleged in the amended complaint, to which Attorney Hammis pled no contest, show a clear pattern of neglect of his clients' needs and objectives and an utter disregard for his obligations as an attorney. His misconduct was not an isolated occurrence but occurred in nine separate client representations over the course of years.
We recognize, as the dissent points out, that the misconduct at issue here occurred prior to Attorney Hammis' 2015 suspension. The complaint in this matter was filed in 2014 and the amended complaint was filed in 2015. Some of the delay in the completion of this case was caused by Attorney Hammis' failure to cooperate in the OLR's investigations as well as by his motion practice and multiple extension motions. While it may have been preferable for this matter to have been brought to conclusion sooner, the passage of time since Attorney Hammis' most recent misconduct in no way excuses or mitigates the misconduct.
While Attorney Hammis portrays himself as remorseful and says he has accepted responsibility for his transgressions, some of his statements at oral argument call those assertions into question. Attorney Hammis' representation of R.G. is illustrative. R.G. retained Attorney Hammis in November of 2011 and paid him $400. Attorney Hammis never did the work. R.G. terminated his representation in December of 2011 and demanded a refund of the $400. R.G. filed a grievance in March of 2012. In April of 2013 she obtained a small claims judgment against him. In September of 2016, Attorney Hammis stipulated that he owed R.G. $400 in restitution. When asked at oral argument why
he had not paid R.G. the $400, Attorney Hammis replied that he was "waiting for a court order." The small claims court rendered a judgment in favor of R.G. six years ago, and Attorney Hammis stipulated two and a half years ago that he needed to pay R.G. the $400. The fact that this modest sum remains unpaid in 2019 belies Attorney Hammis' claim that he is remorseful and has fully accepted responsibility for his actions.
Revocation is the most serious sanction that may be imposed under our attorney disciplinary system and it is reserved for the most egregious cases. Although Attorney Hammis' misconduct was undeniably very serious, we are not convinced that it rises to the level of warranting revocation.
ANNETTE KINGSLAND ZIEGLER, J. (dissenting).
Attorney Hammis stated, both in his brief and at oral argument, that in 2012 he virtually discontinued his legal practice, with the exception of occasionally assisting family members and friends——usually without charge——and performing three to five hours of legal work per month for a longtime corporate client. He no longer has a trust account and does not make his living from practicing law. He stated he has no intention of expanding his legal practice in the future. He has expressed remorse for his admitted misconduct and questions what more he could have done in the past seven years to alleviate concerns that his extremely limited practice would be a threat to his clients or the legal profession.
The majority acknowledges that all of the misconduct at issue here occurred prior to 2015, when Attorney Hammis' license was suspended for 90 days, and some of the misconduct occurred prior to the four-month suspension imposed in 2011. Indeed, the complaint in this matter was filed nearly five months before the court issued its order imposing the 2015 suspension. The serial nature of the OLR's complaints against Attorney Hammis appears to expose a flaw in Wisconsin's attorney regulatory system. If the misconduct counts at issue in this case and the counts at issue in the case resulting in the 90-day suspension had been prosecuted at the same time, the resulting discipline may well have been less than the three years and three months that was imposed in the two separate cases. In spite of the fact that Attorney Hammis has virtually not practiced law since 2012 and has committed no misconduct since 2015, he is nonetheless being suspended for an additional three years in 2019 for misconduct that occurred long ago. While the passage of time should not excuse misconduct, the majority fails to adequately justify why a three-year suspension is warranted given that the previous suspensions were for four months and 90 days and there has been no misconduct in the past four years...
I am authorized to state that Justice REBECCA GRASSL BRADLEY joins this dissent.