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Friday, July 27, 2012

Ind. Decisions - One today from the Supreme Court

In In the Matter of Thomas E. Q. Williams, a 3-2 Per Curiam opinion in an Attorney Discipline Action, the majority writes:

We find that Respondent, Thomas E. Q. Williams, engaged in attorney misconduct by charging an unreasonable attorney fee to an elderly client, converting funds belonging to the client, and related misconduct, aggravated by his dishonesty in denying under oath that the funds he took from the client as her attorney in fact were for legal services after stating under oath in a prior civil suit that they were for attorney fees. For this misconduct, we suspend Respondent for two years without automatic reinstatement. * * *

We reject Respondent's attempt to deny that the money he paid himself from M.D.'s funds were for attorney fees in the face of his own repeated contrary assertions in the civil suit and his response to M.D.'s grievance. We conclude that in making these payments to himself, he was charging M.D. attorney fees for purported legal services and that he is subject to the Rules of Professional Conduct and Admission and Discipline Rules. * * *

We find clear and convincing evidence that Respondent violated Rules 1.5(a), 1.7, 1.8(a), and 1.15. Regarding the charge that Respondent violated Rule 8.4(b), we note that Respondent wrote checks to himself totaling approximately $100,000 from his frail and elderly client's account, consuming approximately one-third of her estate. He had no written documentation to memorialize any work performed for the client. Although he first maintained that his withdrawal of the $100,000 was for legal services performed, he changed his explanation mid-litigation to claim that they constituted her voluntary assistance to him as an author. (In this regard, he says that he left law practice in the early 1990s to take up writing.) We find Respondent's abandonment of his claim that the $100,000 was for legal services, combined with his wholly incredible claim that it was a gift, sufficiently probative of the Commission's charge that Respondent violated Rule 8.4(b) by committing a criminal act (conversion) that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer. * * *

We also find the following additional facts in aggravation: (1) Respondent's groundless attacks on M.D. and others associated with her when she attempted to obtain the accounting to which she was legally entitled; (2) his dishonesty in denying under oath in this case that the funds he took from M.D. were for legal services after he repeatedly and unequivocally stated under oath in the civil suit that they were for attorney fees; and (3) his lack of remorse for any of his misconduct. * * *

Nevertheless, we conclude that disbarment is not an effective discipline in the unique circumstances of this case. According to Respondent, he has essentially withdrawn from the practice of law since the early 1990's. Thus, from his vantage point, disbarment is a non-event—it would simply prohibit him from doing that which he has not done for nearly two decades. And because disbarment is permanent, he would have no incentive to come to grips with the pain and suffering he has wrought. * * *

In lieu of disbarment, we choose to follow the hearing officer's recommendation of suspension without automatic restatement, and conclude that a minimum period of two years is warranted. * * *

Dickson, C.J., and Rucker and David, JJ., concur.
Sullivan, J., dissents with separate opinion, with which Massa, J., concurs. [on p. 9 of 9] The Court says that each of three ABA Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions calling for disbarment “obtains” in this case but then imposes a lesser sanction. I believe that disbarment is the appropriate sanction here and so respectfully dissent. * * *

I would not provide an opportunity to return to practice to a lawyer who, after helping himself to his frail and elderly client’s money, says the money was a gift after his first explanation that it constituted payment for legal services was rejected by a court.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on July 27, 2012 02:25 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions