Monday, September 9, 2019
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has admitted an applicant despite past financial struggles
Petitioner Tammy Howell, by counsel Arie M. Spitz, filed exceptions before the Court to the West Virginia Board of Law Examiners’ (“the Board”) October 3, 2018, decision recommending denial of her admission to the West Virginia State Bar after conditional admission. See W. Va. R. Admission Prac. Law 7.0. The reason given by the Board for the denial is its position that petitioner failed to establish that she possesses the character and fitness necessary for admission to the practice of law. The Board, by counsel Teresa J. Lyons, filed a response in support of its decision.
After review and consideration of the pleadings, together with the appendix record, it is determined that this case does not involve a substantial question of law. Therefore, a memorandum decision is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure. However, we disagree with the finding of the Board that petitioner is not eligible for admission to the practice of law in West Virginia.
Petitioner is a September 2010 graduate of the Thomas Cooley Law School located in Lansing, Michigan. She achieved a passing score on the July 2011 West Virginia Bar Examination and obtained employment with the Honorable Jay Hoke, Judge of the Twenty-Fifth Judicial Circuit, with whom she remains employed. In May of 2010, petitioner declared bankruptcy and discharged $351,640 in debt as a result of her bankruptcy. Petitioner incurred the discharged debt as a result of credit loans taken out in her name for the purpose of funding her now-husband’s construction business.
In conjunction with her application for admission to the practice of law, petitioner was interviewed by the Board, and it was recommended that she be conditionally admitted to the practice of law. By order of this Court entered on September 26, 2012, petitioner was conditionally admitted to the practice of law for a period of two years. While conditionally admitted to the practice of law, petitioner and her husband once again began jointly operating a construction business.
The board opposed her admission
On August 4, 2017, while petitioner was still conditionally admitted to the practice of law, the Board informed petitioner that it would not recommend that she be admitted to the practice of law in West Virginia. However, petitioner continued to fulfill the terms of the repayment plan submitted to the Board on July 1, 2017. On November 22, 2017, the Board again informed petitioner that it would not recommend that she be admitted to the practice of law because she failed to begin making payments on all of her student loans by October 25, 2017.
Before the court
Petitioner acknowledges that the only issue surrounding her admission to the practice of law involves her financial responsibility. Petitioner argues that she is now fiscally responsible and has not engaged in recurring financial irresponsibility that would render her unfit to engage in the practice of law. Petitioner further maintains that all past debts incurred were of a personal nature and points out that she is engaged in a repayment plan with respect to the debts. She also contends that the Board improperly imposed additional terms regarding her conditional admission during her third conditional admission period by requiring her to begin making payments on her outstanding debts without conducting a new hearing. Petitioner asks the Court to reject the Board’s recommendation, and admit her to the practice of law in West Virginia.
The Board, in response, argues that petitioner’s continued mishandling of her finances demonstrates that she should not be admitted to the practice of law in West Virginia. The Board further argues that it did not impermissibly alter the terms of her conditional admission, but rather imposed additional terms following her second conditional admission period. Finally, the Board requests that this Court concur with its decision that the petitioner is ineligible for admission to the practice of law in West Virginia.
The hearing examiner determined that petitioner possesses the necessary character and fitness to engage in the practice of law. Although the hearing examiner noted that in the past petitioner made multiple “decisions concerning her personal finances that have at times placed her in financial hardship,” these decisions neither “equate to a lack of moral character” nor indicate that petitioner is likely to mismanage client funds. He further found that petitioner has actively engaged in the repayment of her outstanding debts at the direction of the Board, and found that her recent conduct demonstrates that she is unlikely to repeat her past mistakes.