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Benevolence may be a virtue. But it can also get you your law license suspended. That’s the coarse lesson former Venable partner Frank Wiggins learned after he told a colleague she could lie to her client. This summer the D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility recommended that Wiggins receive a 30-day suspension for ethics violations stemming from his advice to former co-worker and friend Jill Pennington. Pennington, a solo practitioner in Upper Marlboro, Md., turned to Wiggins for help nearly four years ago, after her client’s personal injury case was dismissed on a technicality. Wiggins, who specializes in communications law, told her she didn’t have to inform the client about the dismissal and could pay her $10,000 � the minimum amount the client authorized Pennington to settle the case for. “I made a mistake,” Wiggins said in an interview. “I misread the requirements.” According to the board’s July 31 report, Denise Hayes Butler hired Pennington after she was injured in a car accident in 1999. Negotiations with the other driver’s insurance company didn’t go smoothly. Pennington failed to break the $10,000 threshold Butler asked for. As a result, in August 2002, Pennington filed a motion to sue the other driver. But the clerk’s office in the Prince George’s County Circuit Court mistakenly titled the case with the wrong docket number. Pennington didn’t learn of the error until October 2002 � just after the statute of limitations had run out. Pennington didn’t challenge the dismissal, the board’s report says. Instead of telling Butler about the dismissal, Pennington told her client the insurance company offered $10,000 to settle. Pennington said in a respondent brief to the Maryland appellate court that she was motivated by concern for Butler. A mother of four, Butler had learned around the time she decided to sue the other driver that she had cancer. Pennington said she became close to Butler while representing her and she was fearful Butler would “feel lousy about taking from her friend, rather than from a nameless, faceless insurance company.” On the settlement form, Pennington omitted the lines for the name of the insurance company and the personal injury claim. And after deducting legal fees and medical expenses for Butler’s health care provider, Pennington paid Butler $4,129.43 from her own pocket. But before that decision, she “sought the legal and ethical advice” of Wiggins, who at the time was a partner in Venable’s D.C. office. (In March 2004, Wiggins was asked to leave the firm, according to the D.C. Bar report.) The two had worked together at Cohn & Marks 20 years earlier and remained friends. After “a fair amount of research,” Wiggins said in the respondent brief, he had “concluded that there was absolutely no problem, whatsoever, with giving Mrs. Butler and Mr. Butler the money” and “that there was no reason to disclose the source.” The D.C. ethics board took exception to Wiggins’ research methods and subsequent conclusion. The board concluded that Wiggins had violated D.C. Bar Rules of Professional Conduct for incompetent representation, fraudulent conduct, knowingly assisting or inducing another to violate the rules, and dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. The board recommended suspending Wiggins for 60 days but asked the D.C. Court of Appeals to stay half of that time. The board also asked the court to order Wiggins, now a solo practitioner, to complete an ethics course. The D.C. Court of Appeals has yet to act on the board’s recommendations. “The legal advice he gave was wrong, so wrong, in fact, that in giving it, he failed to provide his client with competent representation,” wrote James Mercurio, a member of the D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility, in a separate, concurring statement to the board report. “But at the same time, the sanction is tempered to reflect that he was motivated by his commendable desire to find a way that Ms. Pennington, without causing them any harm, could serve the human needs of the Butlers.” A lawyer for Butler’s health care company, which negotiated a small reduction in health care costs with Pennington, noticed the discrepancy and filed a formal complaint with the Maryland State Bar. Pennington was disbarred in Maryland, and the D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility has recommended she receive a 60-day suspension in Washington. Butler, for her part, has no ill will. She testified at Pennington’s disbarment hearing that she was satisfied with her representation and would ask Pennington to represent her again.
OTHER RECENT D.C. ETHICS CASES INCLUDE THE FOLLOWING: • Bruce Tassan was informally admonished by the D.C. Bar Counsel on June 30 for continuing to argue a case after it was closed. Tassan, a name partner at Tassan & Hardison in Arlington, Va., was representing a client before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. In January 2002, after a judgment went against his client, Tassan left voice messages with three of the presiding judges, criticizing their decision and demanding further explanation. Tassan then sent flowers to each of the judges, along with a letter stating that his earlier calls were unprofessional and possibly induced by prescription cough medicine. • Vandy Jamison, a solo practitioner, was informally admonished by the D.C. Bar Counsel on June 30 for a lack of “competence” and “diligence” in a criminal case. After accepting a partial retainer to represent a defendant in a jury trial, Jamison failed to show up for a January court date. The Bar Counsel also scolded Jamison for failing to talk to the prosecution or the defendant’s initial lawyer. The Bar Counsel did, however, note that Jamison gave the money back promptly. • On July 20 the D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility recommended that John Iweanoge be publicly censured; if he doesn’t accept it, the board stated, he should be suspended from practicing for 60 days. This action resulted from Iweanoge letting a nonlawyer co-worker at the Iweonoges’ Law Firm sign pleadings and endorse court orders. • Informal admonishment was the punishment the D.C. Bar Counsel handed down on July 31 to solo practitioner Carol Romanzo after she continued practicing law in Virginia despite failing to pay bar dues. For its part, the Virginia State Bar ordered that Romanzo be suspended for 30 days. • On July 31 the D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility recommended that solo practitioner Samuel Cooper III be suspended for 30 days and asked that he be required to comply with an earlier subpoena from the D.C. Bar Counsel before being reinstated. Since December 2002, according to the board, Cooper has refused to answer Bar Counsel queries regarding its probe of allegations that he mismanaged client funds.
Nathan Carlile can be contacted at [email protected].

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