Since he apparently didnt get the message the first time, the Supreme Court of Louisiana disbarred a former Verizon Communications Inc. lawyer a second time last week. And this time the court did so with feeling. After nearly a decade of keeping his first disbarment a secret, James Turnage was permanently banned from practicing law in the state on November 16.
Georgetown University ethics counsel and adjunct law professor Michael Frisch first reported the opinion in the Legal ProfessionBlog.
According to the opinion, Turnage was first admitted to practice law in Louisiana in 1993, and was hired by WorldCom in a non-legal capacity. In 2001, Turnage was promoted to an attorney position. The next year he was disbarred for work that he did for private clients that had nothing to do with his job at WorldCom.
Turnage could not be reached for comment.
The court faulted Turnage for abandoning his clients legal matters … and commingling and converting a substantial amount of client and third-party funds. His clients allegations ranged from cases in which Turnage withheld funds from settlements to failing to appear on their behalf.
Turnage never informed his employer of the legal proceeding, and though he could have applied for readmission to the bar, he never did.
After WorldCom was brought down by financial scandals and changed its name to MCI Inc., it was acquired by Verizon in 2006. And all the while Turnage stayed on, his status a secret. Last weeks opinion found: Respondent continued to work as an in-house counsel for Verizon, thereby falsely representing himself to be an attorney duly licensed and authorized to engage in the practice of law, until he was finally terminated in February 2011."
It could not be determined whether Turnages termination was related to his disbarment. But seven months after he was fired, formal professional conduct charges were filed by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (OCD).
In an interview, Frisch told CorpCounsel.com that it has been his experience that judges are often more affronted by disrespect for the courts than they are by activity that harms the public.
Louisiana is one of only a handful states that permanently disbar lawyers, he says. In the vast majority of jurisdictions, disbarment is a period of suspension, with a right to reapply. Courts that do impose lifetime bans only do so in egregious cases. In these states, Frisch sees just a few cases each year.
While the Louisiana court order prevents Turnage from practicing law in the Pelican State or in states with reciprocal discipline, he could seek bar admission in another jurisdiction. That may not be so easy, however. Frisch points out that Turnage would have to explain why his past isnt an impediment to his future practice of law.
Turnage signed an acknowledgement of receipt of the OCDs charges, but he did not file an answer. No hearing was held, but a disciplinary board determined that Turnage caused injury, as the legitimacy of all the work he performed as an attorney on behalf of his employer could be called into question.
If Turnage appeared in court or signed pleadings on behalf of Verizon, says Frisch, his misrepresentation could affect the substantive legal position in cases in which he represented his employer.
It is not known if WorldCom ever checked Turnages bar status before placing him in the legal department. A spokesperson for Verizon declined to comment on the matter.
Patricia Nemeth, partner in Detroit-based management-side employment firm Nemeth Burwell, says its not surprising that the company didnt detect that the lawyer had lost his license. Most employers dont formally verify employee credentials on a recurring basis, she says. Once youre in, theyre not double-checking. Theyre assuming that if anything has changed, that you will let them know."
Nemeth recommends employers verify the status of their staff at least annually. This example would lead one to conclude that best practices is for employers really to check on an ongoing basis.
Nemeth adds that certain types of employers, such as nursing homes, do require staff to self-disclose if they engage in activity that would disqualify them from continued employment. If they happen to be convicted of assault and battery, for instance, they have a responsibility to put their employer on notice, she says.
While it is surprising that an attorney wouldnt bring his disbarment to the attention of his employer, Nemeth can only suppose that Turnage was just trying to protect his job. If somebody is going to lose their job, she says, theyre going to wait as long as possible before bringing it to anybodys attention.