Georgia Supreme Court (File photo)
On Monday, the Supreme Court of Georgia issued the following lawyer discipline decisions.
The Supreme Court of Georgia
Decided: August 28, 2017
S17Y1431. IN THE MATTER OF GARY LANIER COULTER.
In late 2011 and early 2012, three different grievances were filed against attorney Gary Lanier Coulter (State Bar No. 190100) with the State Bar of Georgia. Although the record reflects the grievances were supported with affidavits and documentation, it is not apparent from the record why there was a delay until February 24, 2014, before the State Bar filed a formal complaint. The complaint, as amended, charges Coulter with violations of various Rules of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct arising out of his representation and professional relationship with one of his long-time clients. This client was and is an artist representative, and he represented a renowned artist, now deceased, whose work possesses considerable value.
Although Coulter’s work for the complaining client began as representation on personal tax matters and a landlord-tenant dispute, it expanded over the years to include a number of matters including personal and business issues. In 2010, Coulter assumed more responsibility over the client’s affairs, becoming involved in the receipt, depositing, transfer, and disbursement of the client’s funds collected in the course of the client’s businesses. It appears that the client knew of some of the accounts Coulter had opened on behalf of the client but did not know of others, and in some of the accounts Coulter was the sole authorized signer. Coulter concedes these accounts were not approved lawyer-trust accounts and that they held only funds related to the client and his businesses, yet Coulter transferred funds from or through the client’s accounts to his operating account as payment of attorney fees. It also appears that in just the final ten months of Coulter’s representation of this client, he administered more than $1 million through the client’s accounts. In those final months, Coulter paid himself $400,000 in fees from the client’s bank accounts. Apparently, these are the only months of financial records made available to the Special Master who was appointed to conduct proceedings in this case. Coulter did not provide any billing invoices to the client after 2008, but two of the complainants are lawyers who were formerly associates in Coulter’s law firm, and they printed a set of invoices from the firm’s billing system in 2011 and provided them to the client. The invoices contained substantial discrepancies that Coulter could not explain. Coulter concedes he did not keep and maintain complete and accurate records of this client’s funds and did not promptly notify the client of Coulter’s receipt of funds in which the client possessed an interest.
In 2008, Coulter obtained from the client over 100 pieces of art created by the above-mentioned artist with an estimated value at the time the complaint was filed of over $850,000. They were taken as security for the substantial sums Coulter claims were owned to him for professional services. Coulter claims the client signed a written security agreement permitting him to hold the art as security for amounts owed, but the client disputes this, and Coulter was unable to locate the signed agreement. Coulter admits that, before taking possession of the art pieces, he did not advise the client about the material risks this arrangement could pose to Coulter’s ongoing representation of him and his businesses, and did not advise the client to seek the advice of independent counsel. Coulter kept the art in a box in an unsecure location in his personal office at his law firm. Although someone in Coulter’s office apparently returned the art to the client when the client terminated his relationship with Coulter, it does not appear that the client has been made whole since significant funds were taken from his accounts without adequate documentation of fees and expenses or Coulter’s entitlement to them.
In 2014, at the Bar’s request, this Court appointed a Special Master to conduct further proceedings in this case. After over a year of discovery, in December 2015, Coulter filed a petition for voluntary discipline in which he admitted violation of the following rules as they existed at the time of the conduct: Rule 1.15 (I) (relating to holding the property of clients and third parties separately from the lawyer’s own property); Rule 1.15 (II) (relating to maintaining a trust account for a client’s money or property); Rule 1.7 (relating to conflicts of interest between the lawyer and client); Rule 1.8 (relating to entering into a business transaction with a client); and Rule 1.5 (a) relating to the reasonableness of attorney fees). Coulter requested a public reprimand with conditions, but stated he was willing to accept a suspension of up to two years. The State Bar answered that it supports the voluntary petition and would accept discipline “at the upper range” that Coulter was willing to accept.
The Special Master’s report recited that she lacked authority to impose discipline in excess of what the petitioner has stated in his petition that he will accept, and, after reciting certain findings, some but not all of which are referenced in this opinion, recommended a two year suspension.1 The maximum penalty of disbarment may be imposed for violation of each of Rules 1.15 (I), 1.15 (II), and 1.7, and Coulter admits violating these Rules. He also admits violation of other Rules that carry lesser maximum penalties. Despite Coulter’s denial, the record supports the conclusion that a dishonest motive and other aggravating circumstances are present in this case.
Coulter has been a member of the Bar since 1971, and has been the subject of two prior instances of professional discipline: first, the Special Master notes a formal letter of admonition issued in 2003 (which was confidential and does not appear in the record), and second, a Review Panel reprimand approved by this Court earlier this year. See In the Matter of Gary Lanier Coulter, 300 Ga. 654 (797 SE2d 492) (2017) (for admittedly overcharging a client for services and agreeing to make periodic payments to reimburse the client which he had not honored).1 Given the nature of these violations, and Coulter’s previous discipline, substantial discipline is necessary to serve not only as a penalty to Coulter but also as a deterrent to others and an indication to the public that this Court will maintain the ethics of the legal profession. See In the Matter of Hunt, ___ Ga. ___) (___ SE2d ___) (Case No. S17Y1073, decided June 30, 2017) (rejecting the petition for voluntary discipline seeking a suspension of between six and twelve months for admitted violation of Rule 1.15 (II) (b) by a senior member of the Bar for improper withdrawals of funds from his trust account where the lawyer had a lengthy disciplinary history, despite the Bar’s lack of objection to the petition); In the Matter of Harris, ___ Ga. ___ (801 SE2d 39) (Case No S17Y1372, decided June 5, 2017) (accepting recommendation of Special Master of disbarment where lawyer who had no prior disciplinary history misappropriated trust funds and comingled those funds with his own).
Given the serious nature of the admitted rule violations in this case, and the record facts, we reject the recommendation of the Special Master to impose a voluntary two-year suspension. See In re Maccione, 289 Ga. 17 (710 SE2d 745) (2011) (rejecting the special master’s recommendation to accept the respondent’s petition for voluntary discipline of Review Panel reprimand in light of the serious nature of the admitted rule violations even where, as here, the State Bar indicated it had no objection to the requested discipline). Given the fact that over five years have passed since the written grievances were filed, we direct the State Bar to proceed in this matter expeditiously.
Petition for voluntary discipline rejected. All the Justices concur.
1 Rule 4-227 (c) (2) of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct and Enforcement Thereof states that the Special Master may either accept or reject a petition for voluntary discipline.
2 We note that in this earlier disciplinary matter, Coulter stated in his petition for voluntary discipline, dated December 19, 2016, that due to the decline in his law practice and other personal circumstances, he did not expect to return to the practice of law.
In the Supreme Court of Georgia
Decided: August 28, 2017
S17Y1532. IN THE MATTER OF JOHN DENNIS DUNCAN.
This case is before the Court on a petition for voluntary discipline filed by John Dennis Duncan (State Bar No. 311056) pursuant to Bar Rule 4-227 (b) prior to the filing of a formal complaint, in an effort to resolve two disciplinary matters through the imposition of a six-to-twelve month suspension with conditions on reinstatement. The State Bar has no objections to the discipline requested.
In the petition, Duncan, who has been a member of the Bar since 2009, admitted, with regard to State Disciplinary Board (“SDB”) Docket No. 6922, that he agreed to represent a client in a personal injury case in February 2012; that he did not adequately communicate with the client as the case progressed; that pursuant to the client’s authorization, he settled the case for $28,000 and deposited the settlement check in his IOLTA account on October 9, 2013; that he disbursed $28,000 in funds to himself as attorney fees and delivered $2,000 to the client, advising him that the balance had to remain in the trust account while a Medicare lien was negotiated; and that, although he knew the client had been trying to contact him regarding the funds, he failed to adequately communicate with the client and failed to adequately negotiate the lien. The client finally filed a grievance against Duncan in November 2015. Duncan, who had initially agreed to take the client’s case for a 40% contingency fee, finally delivered the balance that he owed to the client by transferring $13,880 to the client in October 2016 and another $920 in April 2017. In his petition, Duncan admitted that his conduct in this case violated Rules 1.4, Rule 1.15 (I) (a), and 1.15 (II) (b) of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, see Bar Rule 4-102 (d). He agreed, as a way to make amends to the client, to reduce his contingency fee to 33% and to refund the difference to the client in three monthly payments beginning in June 2017 and ending in August 2017.
With respect to SDB Docket No. 6984, Duncan admitted that he agreed to represent another client in or about February 2015, in defense of misdemeanor battery charges in Coweta County; that during the representation, that client was taken into immigration custody; that he directed the client to retain immigration counsel; that when he left his law firm in July 2015, he took the client’s case with him; that in September 2015, he appeared on the client’s behalf at a hearing in the battery case and notified the judge that the client was in immigration custody; and that the judge issued a bench warrant to ensure the client would be delivered to Coweta County when he was released from immigration custody. After that time, Duncan admitted that, although the client discharged him, he failed to formally withdraw from the representation. By this conduct, Duncan admitted that he violated Rules 1.4 and 1.16 (c) of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, see Bar Rule 4-102 (d).
Duncan took full responsibility for his failings and the fact that his clients have suffered as a result of his conduct. Although he admitted that he has no excuse and understands that discipline is appropriate, he offered in mitigation that he has no prior disciplinary history and that his behavior is the result of personal and emotional difficulties, including an addiction, which he is trying to overcome. His difficulties are more fully described in two sealed documents: one is a letter from a licensed professional counselor, and the second is a narrative authored by Duncan himself. Together, the documents describe Duncan’s addiction; the reasons that it flared up in 2011, culminating with him hitting rock bottom in 2015; the manner in which it affected Duncan’s behavior and caused him to ignore client and family matters to his great peril and to use the money he had access to (including settlement funds from the client in SDB Docket No. 6922) to fuel his addiction; the ways it destroyed his existing practice and his ability to obtain new business; his recognition that he needed help; and his efforts, through counseling, therapy, and recovery groups, to obtain and maintain sobriety. Duncan asserts that he now fully understands what his behavior has wrought; that he has asked the client from SDB Docket No. 6922 for forgiveness; that he is not currently practicing law, having either completed representation of his former clients or referred their matters to other attorneys; that he has relocated to a new state and currently has no plans to practice law; but that he is interested in saving his license. Based on these mitigating factors, Duncan requests that the Court suspend him for a period between six to twelve months, and, in an amendment to his petition, agrees that his reinstatement should be conditioned upon certification from a licensed counselor or therapist that he is fit to practice law and on his own certification that the client from SDB Docket No. 6922 has been refunded the money as set out in the petition.
In its response the Bar points out that the maximum penalty for a violation of Rules 1.15 (I) (a) and 1.15 (II) (b) is disbarment, while the maximum penalty for a violation of Rules 1.4 and 1.16 (c) is a public reprimand. The Bar indicates that it has spoken with Duncan’s counselor (with Duncan’s permission) and does not dispute the facts in mitigation as detailed by Duncan. The Bar correctly notes that under the ABA Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions, when a lawyer causes injury or potential injury to a client, a suspension is appropriate if the lawyer knew or should have known that he was dealing improperly with the client’s property, see Standard 4.12, while a reprimand is generally appropriate if the lawyer is merely negligent or does not act with reasonable diligence in representing his client. See Standard 4.43. The Bar points out, in aggravation, that Duncan’s case involves multiple offenses but asserts that, in addition to the mitigating factors recited by Duncan, this case also involves a timely good faith effort to make restitution or rectify the consequences of misconduct, remorse, and a cooperative attitude toward the disciplinary proceedings. The Bar points out that cases involving violations of Rules 1.4, 1.15(I), 1.15(II), and 1.16 have resulted in suspensions of six to twelve months where the circumstances are similar to these. See In the Matter of Lank, 300 Ga. 479 (796 SE2d 252) (2017) (one-year suspension with conditions for reinstatement for violations of Rules 1.3, 1.4, 1.15 (II), 1.16, and 9.3); In the Matter of Terrell, 291 Ga. 91 (727 SE2d 499) (2012) (six-month suspension for violations of Rules 1.4, 1.15 (I) and (II)); In the Matter of Huggins, 291 Ga. 92 (727 SE2d 500) (2012) (six-month suspension with conditions for reinstatement for violations of Rules 1.3, 1.4, 1.15 (I), 1.15 (II), 1.16, and 9.3 in five client matters); In the Matter of LeDoux, 288 Ga. 777 (707 SE2d 88) (2001) (one-year suspension with conditions for reinstatement for violations of Rules 1.3, 1.4, 1.15 (I) (b), and 1.16 (a) (2)). Thus, the Bar urges that the Court accept Duncan’s petition so long as it imposes a suspension of six to twelve months in length, with the below stated conditions on reinstatement.
Having reviewed the entire record in this case, we agree that Duncan has violated Rules 1.4, 1.15 (I) (a), 1.15 (II) (b), and 1.16 (c) of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, and thus, he is subject to discipline up to disbarment. Nevertheless, in light of the mitigating circumstances, we accept Duncan’s petition for voluntary discipline and hereby impose a suspension of six months with reinstatement conditioned upon Duncan’s provision of proof from a licensed counselor or therapist that he is fit to practice law and Duncan’s provision of proof that the client set forth in SDB Docket No. 6922 has been refunded the money as set out in the grievance mentioned therein. At the conclusion of the six-month suspension imposed in this matter, Duncan may seek reinstatement by demonstrating to the State Bar’s Office of General Counsel that he has met the conditions on reinstatement. If the State Bar agrees that the conditions have been met, it will submit a notice of compliance to this Court, and this Court will issue an order granting or denying reinstatement. Duncan is reminded of his duties under Bar Rule 4-219 (c).
Petition for voluntary discipline accepted. Six-month suspension with conditions. All the Justices concur.
In the Supreme Court of Georgia
Decided: August 28, 2017
S17Y1684. IN THE MATTER OF EMMANUEL LUCAS WEST.
This disciplinary matter is before the Court on the renewed petition for voluntary discipline filed by Emmanuel Lucas West (State Bar No. 748658) prior to the issuance of a formal complaint, see Bar Rule 4-227 (b) (2). This Court has rejected two prior petitions filed by West seeking to resolve this matter. See In the Matter of West, 299 Ga. 731 (791 SE2d 781) (2016); In the Matter of West, 300 Ga. 777 (798 SE2d 219) (2017). In this petition, West, who became a member of the Bar in 2002, admits the same underlying facts as in his prior petitions. In the summer of 2014, an individual paid him $3,500 to represent her minor son in an immigration matter. The son, who was a citizen of Guatemala, had been detained in Texas and was facing removal proceedings.
After discussing the matter through an interpreter, West agreed to represent the son in seeking asylum in the United States and timely completed the application for asylum. West did not read the application to the client in the client’s native language, however, and he signed the client’s name where required in the application and supporting documents, despite the fact that one of those signatures was under penalty of perjury and required an attestation that the client had signed the document in West’s presence. West claims that he signed the client’s name knowing that an applicant generally is allowed to amend or supplement his or her application freely up until the time of the hearing, and maintains that he fully intended to supplement with the client’s real signature at a later date.
In West’s initial petition, he sought a Review Panel reprimand for violating Rule 1.2 (d)1 of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct and suggested in mitigation of discipline that he has no prior disciplinary history; he had no selfish or dishonest motive; he made full and free disclosure and displayed a cooperative attitude in these proceedings; he otherwise has exhibited good moral character and integrity and has a positive reputation in the community, attaching to his petition several letters to that effect; he is apologetic and remorseful; he refunded the entire $3,500 fee paid to him; and his conduct ultimately did not harm his client, who was granted asylum through the efforts of another lawyer. This Court rejected West’s initial petition because the facts he admitted did not show that he violated Rule 1.2 (d). Instead, the facts suggested that he violated other Rules, such as 1.2 (a) and 8.4 (a). 2 The Court declined to express an opinion as to the appropriateness of a Review Panel reprimand for the conduct admitted by West.
In his second petition, West acknowledged that the Investigative Panel found possible violations of Rules 1.2 (a),3 1.4, and 8.4 (a) (4), but he admitted only to having violated Rules 1.2 (a) and 1.4 by failing to communicate properly and consult with his client as to the means by which the client’s objectives were being pursued. The maximum sanction for a violation of Rules 1.2 (a) and 8.4 (a) (4) is disbarment, and the maximum sanction for a violation of Rule 1.4 is a public reprimand. West sought the imposition of a Review Panel reprimand for his admitted violations, citing the same mitigating circumstances listed in his first petition and noting that he agreed to accept a Review Panel reprimand as a result of negotiations with the State Bar’s Office of the General Counsel following its investigation of this matter. West denied violating Rule 8.4 (a) (4), arguing that he did not have the requisite mental culpability. He also argued that a contrary finding should not alter the level of discipline under the circumstances, particularly in the light of the mitigating factors. This Court rejected West’s second petition because the petition and the State Bar’s response failed to adequately address the Rule 8.4 (a) (4) violation, a matter of particular importance given the seriousness of a violation of that rule.
West’s present petition is similar to his second petition, making the same admissions of fact, citing to the same factors in mitigation, and reciting the same considerations and case law in support of his suggested discipline of a Review Panel reprimand. West made one significant addition to the present petition, however. He explained that two sections of the asylum application were left unsigned, for the client to sign when his case proceeded to an appearance, at which time the applicant would be required to sign an affirmation that explicitly addresses whether any prior misstatements in the application were in need of correction.
The State Bar responded to West’s petition, recommending that this Court grant West’s petition and impose a Review Panel reprimand. The Bar concurs with West’s assertion that the “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” standard from Rule 8.4 (a) (4) contains an implicit intent element, which was not present in West’s conduct. See In the Matter of Woodham, 296 Ga. 618, 625 (769 SE2d 353) (2015) (“Rule 8.4 (a) (4) prohibits ‘professional conduct involving dishonestly, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation,’ that is, conduct that is intended or likely to mislead another”) (emphasis added). The Bar notes that West asserts that he did not intend or expect to deceive anyone, given that the general practice is to allow subsequent amendments or supplements to such applications, at which point the client’s signature could have been added, an explanation bolstered by the language found in the affirmation addressing whether any prior misstatements in the application were in need of correction.
The Bar explains that these considerations indicate that it is not a foregone conclusion that a violation of Rule 8.4 (a) (4) could be demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence. The Bar also notes that this Court looks to the ABA Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions for guidance in determining the appropriate sanction, see In the Matter of Morse, 266 Ga. 652 (470 SE2d 232) (1996), and based on the factors enumerated in ABA Standard 4.42, a suspension is not appropriate, as there was no pattern of neglect and no indication in the admitted facts that West knowingly failed to perform services for the client. The Bar notes that each of West’s proposed mitigating factors is appropriate except for the fact that the client was able to obtain asylum through the services of another attorney, which the Bar concedes does not fall within the factors stated in ABA Standard 9.32, but which the Bar asserts has some relevance to the inquiry under ABA Standard 4.4, as West’s misconduct did not cause the client to suffer actual harm to his application.
In aggravation of discipline, the Bar notes the vulnerability of the victim and West’s substantial experience in the practice of law. The Bar adds that a reprimand is appropriate where an attorney’s misconduct includes signing a client’s name to a document, even where a violation of Rule 8.4 (a) (4) is found, and says that it is not aware of any case in which this Court has imposed a suspension where the sole misconduct was improperly signing a client’s name. Finally, as to West’s unwillingness to admit a violation of Rule 8.4 (a) (4), the Bar says that the facts are not consistent with a dishonest and objectively unreasonable belief that he did not violate that Rule, In the Matter of Suttle, 288 Ga. 14, 16 (701 SE2d 154) (2010), and that even an assertion of innocence ultimately adjudicated to the contrary is not necessarily an aggravating factor. See In the Matter of Davis, 291 Ga. 169 (728 SE2d 548) (2012); In the Matter of Eddings, 300 Ga. 419 (795 SE2d 183) (2016).
Having reviewed the record, we agree that imposition of a Review Panel reprimand is the appropriate sanction in this matter, and we therefore accept the renewed petition for voluntary discipline. Although this Court rejected the two prior petitions filed by West, we did so on the basis of concerns about the fit between the facts admitted in the petitions and the disciplinary rules pursuant to which punishment might be imposed, concerns which have been allayed by the present petition and response. In particular, this Court was concerned with the failure of the last petition and response to address whether West’s conduct constituted a violation of Rule 8.4 (a) (4). West and the Bar have now addressed this concern, and we agree that West’s conduct in this matter was not necessarily sufficient to support a finding that he violated Rule 8.4 (a) (4). See Woodham, 296 Ga. at 625. We find that a Review Panel reprimand is the appropriate sanction for his admitted violations of Rules 1.2 (a) and 1.4. Accordingly, the Court hereby orders that West receive a Review Panel reprimand in accordance with Bar Rules 4-102 (b) (4) and 4-220 (b).
Petition for voluntary discipline accepted. Review Panel reprimand. All the Justices concur.
1 Rule 1.2 (d) says: A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent, nor knowingly assist a client in such conduct, but a lawyer may discuss the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct with a client and may counsel or assist a client to make a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law.
2 Rule 1.2 (a) says, in relevant part:
Subject to paragraphs (c) and (d), a lawyer shall abide by a client’s decisions concerning the scope and objectives of representation and, as required by Rule 1.4, shall consult with the client as to the means by which they are to be pursued. A lawyer may take such action on behalf of the client as is impliedly authorized to carry out the representation.
Rule 8.4 (a) (4) says it is a violation of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct for a lawyer to “engage in professional conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
3 Rule 1.4 says:
a. A lawyer shall:
1. promptly inform the client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which the client’s informed consent, as defined in Rule 1.0 (h), is required by these Rules;
2. reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished;
3. keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter;
4. promptly comply with reasonable requests for information; and
5. consult with the client about any relevant limitation on the lawyer’s conduct when the lawyer knows that the client expects assistance not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law.
b. A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.
In the Supreme Court of Georgia
Decided: August 28, 2017
S17Y1780. IN THE MATTER OF FINCOURT BRAXTON SHELTON.
This disciplinary matter is before the Court on the Report and Recommendation of the Review Panel of the State Bar, recommending that respondent Fincourt Braxton Shelton (State Bar No. 771101) be suspended for four years as substantially similar reciprocal discipline, following his receipt of a suspension pursuant to order of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Shelton, who has been a member of the State Bar of Georgia since 2007, acknowledged service of the notice of reciprocal discipline, filed pursuant to Rule 9.4 (b) of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, as set forth in Bar Rule 4-102 (d), and filed a response, to which he attached a filing he submitted in a reciprocal discipline proceeding in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which proceeding arose in response to the same four-year suspension that prompted this disciplinary matter. The Bar replied, attaching materials from the Pennsylvania disciplinary proceeding that led to his suspension.
Shelton’s Pennsylvania suspension was based on his conduct in two unrelated client matters. In one matter, the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that Shelton made material misrepresentations in court documents, mishandled funds that had been entrusted to him, labored under a significant conflict of interest, committed a breach of his fiduciary duties, and engaged in extreme incompetence. In the other matter, Shelton persistently misrepresented the identity of a party in filed pleadings, acted without the consent of his client, filed inaccurate and false documents, and disbursed funds without authority to do so. In the Pennsylvania disciplinary proceeding, Shelton failed to file a response to the petition for discipline filed by that state’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Shelton did, however, participate in a hearing before a three-member hearing committee, which concluded that Shelton had committed the violations of which he was accused.
After that finding was reviewed and approved by the Disciplinary Board, the matter proceeded to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which ordered that Shelton be suspended for four years. The Review Panel considered Shelton’s objections to the imposition of reciprocal discipline, first finding to be without merit Shelton’s arguments that he was deprived of due process because he was denied oral argument before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, because the Disciplinary Board was not an impartial body, and because the Disciplinary Board simply accepted as true the allegations against him. The Review Panel noted that Shelton was clearly provided with notice and an opportunity to be heard, as he was provided with notice through service of the petition for discipline, to which he failed to respond, and as he participated in the hearing before the hearing committee and was allowed to file a brief before the Supreme Court. The Review Panel further noted that the Pennsylvania disciplinary rules dictate that Disciplinary Board members who investigate attorney misconduct are precluded from further participation in that matter, such that there was no basis upon which to suspect that there had been a lack of impartiality. The Review Panel next considered and rejected Shelton’s argument that there was a lack of evidence supporting the findings of misconduct in the Pennsylvania proceedings, finding that the record of those proceedings supported the conclusions reached by the Pennsylvania disciplinary authorities. Finally, the Review Panel considered Shelton’s objection that the imposition of discipline would result in a “grave injustice,” see Rule 9.4 (b) (3) (iii), as it would leave an innocent party without legal representation, but rejected that argument, as Shelton had failed to present evidence in support of that assertion and had failed to present any authority in support of his assertion that depriving a client of its chosen counsel due to that counsel’s suspension would constitute a grave injustice within the meaning of the rule. Finding that Shelton had failed to prove the existence of any element under Rule 9.4 (b) (3) to support the imposition of discipline other than that imposed in Pennsylvania, the Review Panel recommended that Shelton be suspended for four years and until such time as he has been readmitted to practice in Pennsylvania.
Having reviewed the record, this Court agrees with the Review Panel’s recommendation that a four-year suspension is the appropriate sanction in this reciprocal discipline matter. Accordingly, we direct that Fincourt Braxton Shelton be suspended from the practice of law in the State of Georgia for four years. At the conclusion of the suspension imposed in this matter, if Shelton wishes to seek reinstatement, he must offer proof to the State Bar’s Office of General Counsel that he has been reinstated to the practice of law in Pennsylvania. If the State Bar agrees that this condition has been met, the State Bar will submit a notice of compliance to this Court, and this Court will issue an order granting or denying reinstatement.
Shelton is reminded of his duties under Bar Rule 4-219 (c).
Four-year suspension with conditions for reinstatement. All the Justices concur.
In the Supreme Court of Georgia
Decided: August 28, 2017
S17Y1811. IN THE MATTER OF LAKEISHA TENNILLE GANTT.
This disciplinary matter is before the Court on special master J. Thomas Morgan III’s report and recommendation in which he recommends that this Court accept the petition for voluntary discipline filed by Respondent Lakeisha Tennille Gantt (State Bar No. 142126) pursuant to Bar Rule 4-227 (c) after the State Bar filed a Formal Complaint and impose a public reprimand as discipline for Gantt’s admitted violation of Rules 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4 of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, see Bar Rule 4-102 (d).1 The maximum penalty for a violation of Rules 1.2 and 1.3 is disbarment, while the maximum penalty for a violation of Rule 1.4 is a public reprimand.
In her petition, Gantt, who has been a member of the State Bar of Georgia since June 2005, admitted that in September 2007, a client retained Gantt to represent her in a civil matter arising from an incident where the parking brake on an unoccupied asphalt truck had disengaged, causing the truck to roll across the client’s front lawn and into her house. The home incurred extensive damage, causing the client and her minor children to move out while repairs were performed. Although no physical injuries were noticed or reported, the client believed that her children had suffered emotional damage from the incident.
Gantt assisted the client in obtaining compensation for the repairs to the residence, loss of personal property, temporary lodging, and some meals. In August 2009, Gantt timely filed a lawsuit on behalf of the client individually and on behalf of the client’s minor children. After the defendants answered the complaint and some initial written discovery was conducted, Gantt decided to voluntarily dismiss the lawsuit without prejudice, knowing that it could be refiled. So, on or about April 30, 2010, she dismissed the suit, but she admits that she did not adequately communicate with the client about her intent to do so or about the actual dismissal, and that she never filed a renewal lawsuit. Consequently, some of the claims of the client’s minor children were barred. Gantt admitted that her actions violated Rules 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4, but argued that a public reprimand was a sufficient sanction in light of the absence of any aggravating factors and the presence of many factors in mitigation, including, no prior disciplinary history; the absence of a selfish motive; personal and emotional problems, which required medical treatment and counseling, and which may have contributed to her behavior; cooperation during these disciplinary proceedings; relative inexperience in the practice of law at the time of these infractions; and good character, integrity, and reputation, as evidenced by letters submitted from two attorneys who know Gantt. See In the Matter of Brockington, 296 Ga. 438 (768 SE2d 458) (2015) (Review Panel reprimand for violation of Rules 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, and 9.3 in connection with one client matter); In the Matter of Brown, 296 Ga. 439 (768 SE2d 456) (2015) (Review Panel reprimand for violation of Rules 1.2 (a), 1.3, 1.4, and 1.16; attorney had prior discipline, but many mitigating factors present).
The State Bar responded, indicating that it agreed with Gantt’s positions on the violations and on the aggravating and mitigating factors and that it believed that acceptance of the petition would best serve the interests of the public and the Bar. The special master agreed with Gantt’s and the State Bar’s views of the violations, as well as the aggravating and mitigating factors. He found that ABA Standard 4.43 (reprimand generally appropriate when a lawyer is negligent and does not act with reasonable diligence in representing a client and causes injury or potential injury to a client) was applicable to Gantt’s admitted conduct, and concluded, in light of the mitigating factors, that Gantt’s requested public reprimand was an appropriate level of discipline in this case.2
Having reviewed the record, we agree that Gantt’s admitted facts are sufficient to support a finding that she violated Rules 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4 of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct and that in light of the mitigating factors a public reprimand is an appropriate level of discipline for Gantt’s violations.
Therefore, we accept Gantt’s petition for voluntary discipline and order that she receive a public reprimand in accordance with Bar Rules 4-102 (b) (3) and 4-220 (c).
Petition for voluntary discipline accepted. Public reprimand. All the Justices concur.
1 The Formal Complaint filed in this matter also accused Gantt of violations of Rules 1.1 and 8.4 (a) (4). Although the maximum penalty for a violation of either of those Rules is disbarment, Gantt denied violating those Rules and the State Bar agreed that the evidence likely would not support those claims.
2 We note that the Special Master found that information regarding one mitigating factor was shared with the State Bar, but was not formally produced to the Special Master, and that the Special Master specifically found that viewing this information was not necessary to his recommendation; thus, the information was not included in the record submitted to this Court. While in this case, like the Special Master, we find that evidence regarding this mitigating factor is not necessary for a determination of the appropriate level of discipline, we caution the State Bar and Special Masters that the record supplied to this Court must be complete so as to provide a proper basis for a determination of appropriate discipline.
In the Supreme Court of Georgia
Decided: August 28, 2017
S17Y1852. IN THE MATTER OF CASSANDRE M. GALETTE.
This disciplinary matter is pending before the Court on the report of the special master, Charles D. Jones, who recommends that the Court accept the petition for voluntary surrender filed by respondent Cassandre M. Galette (State Bar No. 920625) after the filing of a formal complaint.1 See Bar Rule 4-227 (c).
In the petition, Galette requests that she be allowed to voluntarily surrender her license for her admitted violation of Rule 8.1 (a) of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct, see Bar Rule 4-102 (d).
Although the underlying proceedings are complicated, the only relevant facts at this point are that Galette admits that she provided false information to the Office of General Counsel during its investigation of a grievance that alleged Galette assisted a third party in filing a false petition for a temporary protective order against the grievant and in falsely acknowledging service of that petition – actions that ultimately led to the arrest and jailing of the grievant. Galette admitted that her actions violated Rule 8.1 (a) and requested that she be allowed to voluntarily surrender her license. The Bar had no objection to her second petition, and the special master recommends that the Court accept it, noting that disbarment is appropriate where, as here, the lawyer engages in intentional conduct involving dishonesty or submits false statements during the disciplinary process. In the Matter of Majette, 295 Ga. 4 (757 SE2d 114) (2014). In the Matter of Davis, 290 Ga. 857, 860-61 (725 SE2d 216) (2012).
We have reviewed the records and agree to accept Galette’s petition for voluntary surrender of her license, which is tantamount to disbarment. See Bar Rule 4-110 (f). Accordingly, it hereby is ordered that the name of Cassandre M. Galette be removed from the rolls of persons authorized to practice law in the State of Georgia. Galette is reminded of her duties pursuant to Bar Rule 4-219(c).
Voluntary surrender of license accepted. All the Justices concur.
1This Court suspended Galette in 2013 during the pendency of the related criminal charges against her. See In the Matter of Galette, 292 Ga. 341 (737 SE2d 691) (2013). Her earlier petition for voluntary discipline, filed in 2015, requested a suspension of no more than three years for her admitted violations, but the special master essentially rejected that petition in his initial report and recommendation wherein he stated that he believed that her misconduct warranted disbarment.