A Buford lawyer who admitted in court in 2010 that he spent $188,000 from a client’s account without authorization, voluntarily surrendered his license in August. But he is still legally allowed to practice law.
That’s because the State Bar of Georgia just last month filed a formal complaint against Thomas S. Sunderland with the state Supreme Court. Because the high court, which must authorize penalties in lawyer discipline cases, has not ruled on whether to accept Sunderland’s license surrender, he is listed as an active member of the bar “in good standing.”
It took the bar more than three years to investigate Sunderland and file a case against him, although the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office was able in one year to prosecute and adjudicate Sunderland on a felony theft by conversion charge.
State bar general counsel Paula Frederick said the bar followed its regular procedures in building its case against Sunderland.
“It’s true we’ve got a lot of due process built into the rules and that does take time,” she said.
The bar received a letter from Gwinnett County Probate Court Judge Walter Clarke in July 2010 notifying it of Sunderland’s alleged theft. The letter stated that Sunderland, whom the court had appointed as a conservator for a minor who had received a settlement in a wrongful death suit, “indicated he had borrowed approximately $188,000 from his ward. During a hearing on July 19, 2010, Mr. Sunderland admitted spending his ward’s funds without authorization from this court.”
Clarke then removed Sunderland as the child’s conservator and appointed a new one.
One month later, the bar’s investigative panel initiated a formal grievance against Sunderland, but it wasn’t until a year later, in July 2011, that the panel voted to seek Sunderland’s disbarment.
The bar then sent notice to Sunderland informing him of its intention based on alleged violations of the bar’s Professional Rules of Professional Conduct, including those prohibiting lawyers from commingling clients’ funds with their own accounts. Sunderland rejected the notice in November 2011, which meant he disagreed with the panel’s findings.
“The way the rules read, if a lawyer rejects a notice of discipline, the case goes back to the panel,” Frederick said. Her office then asked the investigative panel whether it wanted to file a formal complaint with the bar asking for Sunderland’s disbarment. Instead, the panel chose to request that the Supreme Court appoint a special master to hear the case and recommend a penalty. The high court appointed A. Thomas Stubbs, a lawyer in the Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit, in December 2011.
The bar noted in its 2011 filings that the probate court entered a judgment of $189,101.92 against Sunderland in September 2010, which was paid by his insurance. Sunderland entered into an agreement with his insurance carrier to reimburse it for the debt but had not done so, according to the bar.
According to the special master, Sunderland did not respond to the bar’s filings for months. Then, in a response filed in June 2012, Sunderland admitted all the allegations and said his failure to pay back his insurance company was not willful and instead “was due to economic adversities.”
Despite Sunderland’s admissions in 2012, the bar did not file a formal complaint with the Supreme Court for another year.
While the bar was going through its disciplinary process, Sunderland was indicted on June 13, 2012, and arrested two days later on a bench warrant. He entered a guilty plea in Gwinnett County Superior Court on Aug. 20 and was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and a $1,000 fine. He also had to agree to give up his bar license as a condition of his plea, according to Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter. On Aug. 23, Sunderland surrendered his license to the bar.
When a lawyer is convicted of a felony, it usually moves the bar’s discipline process along faster, Frederick said. But in Sunderland’s case, the conviction came as the bar and special master were wrapping up.
Frederick added that the bar would be concerned if Sunderland were still practicing law despite having surrendered his license.
“Obviously, if a lawyer knows we’ve filed a petition [with the Supreme Court] and continues to take cases and takes money, that’s something we would consider if that lawyer ever applied for reinstatement,” Frederick said. “We’d say they had not acted in good faith.”
Sunderland could not be reached for comment, but a prerecorded voice mail greeting on his office phone stated that The Sunderland Firm no longer provides legal services and instructs clients with pending cases to leave a message.
Sunderland, 71, earned his law degree from Emory University and was admitted to the bar in 1972. Prior to the 2010 incident, he had no history of disciplinary action.
The case is In the Matter of Thomas Stanley Sunderland, S14Y0049.