Beware the Ides of March!

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We have three scary March 15 disciplinary cases

Three disciplinary cases* from March 15 of this year give us some timely reminders of activities we should avoid as lawyers.

Et tu, Brute?

The Brown case may be most on point for dirt lawyers. Attorney Brown practiced in family court. During testimony in a trial, a former client of Brown testified that her signature was not the signature reportedly sworn by a notary seal on the financial declaration filed with the court.

Here’s the scariest part of this story. After the trial, the family court judge reviewed several of Brown’s pending cases and found four documents attested to by Brown or her employee that appeared to be fraudulent. Brown self-reported to the ODC, acknowledged her misconduct, and signed an affidavit in mitigation. The affidavit stated that she had learned an important lesson, that she had attended several educational programs and had availed herself of Bar resources for new attorneys. She attested that she never intended to “mislead, misrepresent, or defraud anyone.” In other words, she was just trying to make things happen as quickly as possible for her clients.

The Court imposed a public reprimand and required Brown to pay the costs of the investigation and prosecution.

Dirt lawyers, no matter how much stress a closing creates, never, never fraudulently witness or notarize any document. You want to be able to testify in any deposition or court proceeding that you always appropriately monitored, witnessed, and notarized your clients’ documents. And it is not an excuse, as this case indicates that there was no intent to mislead, misrepresent or defraud anyone.  Take the time to handle documents appropriately every time.

The Williams case is a simple reminder to file and pay taxes. Williams failed to file and pay state income taxes for the 2015-2018 tax years. He was charged and arrested for this failure and timely self-reported his misconduct. He pled guilty, paid a fine, paid the taxes, and was sentenced to time served.

In mitigation, Williams stated that his mother’s mental and physical health began to deteriorate in 2012. He acted under  health care powers of attorney for both parents and cared for their needs as best he could while maintaining a busy law practice. He turned to alcohol “as an escape.” His mother died in 2018.  He stated he has been sober since 2019, has completed a six-week impatient treatment program, and regularly attends AA meetings. He also entered into a one-year monitoring contract with the Bar’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers program. He now serves as mentor to others in recovery.

The Court acknowledged its sympathy for Williams’ personal difficulties but imposed a definite suspension of ninety days.

Filing and paying taxes is one of those “black and white” functions that you cannot ignore. I once had a relatively wealthy real estate developer client who failed to file taxes for many years. That man, from a well-known and respected family, went to federal prison for several years. Paying taxes is not a step you can skip!

The Lynn case involved a disbarment for failure to hold unearned attorney’s fees in trust, for misappropriating client funds and for failing to keep clients informed. Read the opinion if you need a real Ides of March cautionary tale. One grave mistake Lynn made was failing to respond to the ODC’s investigation inquiries. Two things our Supreme Court takes very seriously are misappropriating funds and failing to cooperate with the ODC.

Let these sad facts be lessons to all of us! Just don’t do it!

*In the Matter of Brown, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28139 (March 15, 2023), In the Matter of Lynn, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28140 (March 15, 2023), In the Matter of Williams, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 28141 (March 15, 2023).

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