Wednesday, October 6, 2021
"A Disturbing Confluence"
A recent recommendation for disbarment from the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers
By fraudulently inflating case expenses, the respondent intentionally deprived several clients of their money from personal injury settlements. A hearing committee has recommended the respondent’s disbarment. Finding no error of fact or law (with one minor exception, see footnote 8), we agree with the recommendation.
Admitted to the bar in 1991, the respondent, Abby R. Williams, focused her practice on plaintiffs’ personal injury cases, in particular medical malpractice. Since 1996 or 1997, she has owned her own practice, employing other lawyers and paraprofessionals. In 2007, the respondent hired Ross Annenberg as an associate; he remained employed until 2013 when he was allowed to resign in lieu of being fired. In 2015, the Supreme Judicial Court disbarred Annenberg for misuse of client funds while employed by the respondent. In 2018, Annenberg pleaded guilty to criminal charges arising out of the same conduct. Bar counsel’s investigation into Annenberg found no basis to file a petition for discipline against the respondent, since she had no involvement in Annenberg’s theft of funds. In a disturbing confluence of misconduct, the respondent and Annenberg independently stole money from different clients. In this case, the hearing committee rejected the respondent’s attempts to blame Annenberg for her defalcations (as well as her related argument that Annenberg altered the firm’s computer records to conceal his theft). Among other facts, the committee noted: Annenberg had no access to the firm’s accounting software (Quickbooks); the respondent signed all of the relevant checks; and the respondent offered no evidence that the stolen funds ended up in Annenberg’s possession. The committee found that the respondent was responsible for allocating costs in medical malpractice cases, while Annenberg was responsible for allocating costs in non-medical personal injury cases. (Hearing Report, para. 48). It also rejected as not credible the respondent’s defenses that the clients’ losses resulted from her inattention to the details of case finances (rather than intentional conduct) as well as her attempt to pin the blame on the law firm’s computer system (claiming that the system inexplicably lost backup records that would have substantiated the higher costs charged to clients). The committee found that the respondent’s law firm suffered financial challenges during the time in question, furnishing an unambiguous motive for her thefts. The hearing committee traced some of the stolen funds to the law firm’s operating accounts for the payment of salaries. The committee also traced client funds to the respondent’s personal accounts.
The board sustained the hearing committee's finding as supported by the evidence.
An aggravating factor
Lastly, the committee found that the respondent was untruthful in her hearing testimony. We see no reason to disturb these findings. With regard to the latter two factors, we generally are reticent to penalize a lawyer for defending herself at trial. However, our indulgence is limited. Where, as here, the record is replete with blatant lies, obfuscations, and evasions, we will not hesitate to consider this in aggravation.
The presumptive sanction for intentional misuse of client funds with deprivation is indefinite suspension or disbarment. Matter of Schoepfer, 426 Mass. 183,187, 13 Mass. Att’y 13 Disc. R. 6769, 685 (1997); Matter of Discipline of an Attorney, 392 Mass.827, 836, 4 Mass. Att’y Disc. R. 155, 166 (1984). Because the respondent has not made restitution, we recommend her disbarment.
It appears that the board's web page now posts their reports prior to final court action.
Bravo transparency. (Mike Frisch)