A Saga of Bad Behavior

September 8, 2016 § 1 Comment

Every attorney I know bridles when the conversation turns to questioning the general honesty of lawyers. We tend to get indignant and insist that ours is an honorable profession.

It is. Certainly. Yet some of our colleagues do things that tar all of us.

Consider what happened in the case of Newton v. Brown, et al., decided by the COA May 24, 2016. The case at the trial level involved dissolution of a two medical partnerships; one to purchase a building and parking lot, and the other to operate a medical clinic out of the purchased building. The partners were Drs. Brown and Matthews. When Matthews was convicted of failing to file tax returns, they began the process of dissolution. Each engaged the services of a lawyer to represent him. The dissolution involved exchanges of payments, deeds, and instruments. Brown was to buy out Matthews’ interest in the property and clinic.

Brown’s attorney handled the property transaction. He was given a check payable to the Mississippi State Tax Commission to satisfy its lien against the partnership property. At ¶8, Judge Griffis describes how Brown’s attorney handled his share of the responsibilities:

  1. He did not forward the check to the tax commission;
  2. He incorrectly drafted the quitclaim deed from Matthews to Brown by omitting the parking lot;
  3. He failed to record the quitclaim deed, and to compound the calamity …
  4. He lost the deed;
  5. He did not find or disclose a judgment lien on the property at the time of conveyance, which caused mischief later.

As head-shaking as is all of that, it just does not hold a candle to the conduct of Matthews’ attorney. Since Matthews at that time was already incarcerated, his attorney proceeded to collect the money due the doctor. The attorney visited Blakeslee, a CPA for the partnership. Blakeslee had two checks payable to the attorney as representative for the jailed doctor: one, a Hancock Bank check for more than $55,000 for the doctor’s share of the partnership’s liquid assets; and another, drawn on on an A.G. Edwards account, in the amount of more than $49,000 for the doctor’s share of the cash surrender of a whole-life insurance policy.

When Blakeslee left the room for a moment, the attorney took the checks, a folder, and some papers from Blakeslee’s desk and put them in his car. Blakeslee demanded return of the checks because Brown wanted to retain the money to offset the lien that he had belatedly discovered after he bought the property from Matthews. Newton refused, and negotiated the Hancock Bank check. He attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate the A.G. Edwards check.

Brown got an injunction and pursued a conversion action against the lawyer. You can read about how it turned out at the link above.

My interest in this case is the behavior of the attorneys:

On one hand, we see an attorney who committed compound blunders in handling the land transaction. Blunders that cost his client some serious money, and are continuing to do so.

On the other hand, we have what Judge Griffis characterized as “egregious behavior” by the attorney who took the checks without authorization and refused to return them. Egregious indeed.

These are the kinds of behaviors that make our words ring hollow when we try to defend the profession.

Week before last, I sat down with some entering law school students and discussed with them the gravity of the honor and dignity of the profession, and how the public places immense trust in our hands. We pondered some case studies involving ethical and professionalism considerations. It was gratifying to see their almost instinctual grasp of what is right and wrong, of what is to be expected of them when they are admitted to practice. I hope they avoid blunders and “egregious behavior” when their time comes.

 

§ One Response to A Saga of Bad Behavior

  • Jacob Malatesta says:

    If I may get on a soapbox, one of the reasons this behavior continues is that there is no incentive for this type of behavior to stop. I continually see clients (i.e. people who put their trust in our profession) harmed by the actions of their attorneys, yet their attorneys are never held responsible for those actions by anyone, not by the bar, not by judges, and not by their peers. Indeed, our own MSSC has held that an affair with a client’s spouse is not something that would affect the attorney client relationship.

    More specifically, the actions of the attorney at issue are public record, took place over ten years ago, and were described as “egregious” by the MSSC. Yet, this attorney is currently a member in good standing with the bar, and I have been unable to find any disciplinary proceeding brought against him. How can we expect unethical behavior to stop when we there is no punishment for it?

    In short, when faced with ethical decisions attorney have come to understood that that consequences for them no different from that of any other person, so attorneys act like any other person would. Until we are held to a higher standard, then we should expect attorney behavior will sink below that standard. Until there are consequences for attorneys that are over and above those of an ordinary persons, then attorneys will continue to make business decisions, not ethical ones.

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