The state Supreme Court has disbarred a Philadelphia attorney who was found to have commingled client funds with his own money — in one instance, spending away a Philadelphia municipal court judge’s real estate deposit instead of keeping the money in escrow.
Melvin T. Sharpe Jr. pleaded his case to the Supreme Court last month following a Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board report finding 14 violations of the attorney Rules of Professional Conduct.
According to the Disciplinary Board’s recommendation and report handed up to the justices last November, Sharpe stole entrusted funds and then lied about it, failed to use fee agreements or his Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA), and refused to accept any responsibility along the way. When Sharpe blamed the tough economy for his actions, the board argued that only further demonstrated his failure to grasp his own misconduct.
Before the justices last month, Sharpe changed his argument. He admitted to wrongdoing but argued he should not be disbarred.
The former attorney again noted the economy had debilitated his finances, but introduced a new argument that the culture surrounding his former law practice somehow could serve as an explanation for his actions. In essence, Sharpe’s argument seemed to be that the climate of his North Philadelphia practice, where he said he represents a number of low-income clients, was not conducive to the standards the board alleged he violated.
The argument did not seem as much to be one against the Rules of Professional Conduct, but rather an explanation for his failure to adhere to them.
In a one-page per curiam order, the high court stripped Sharpe of his law license and ordered him to pay the board’s legal fees of more than $2,000.
There were two matters on which the board brought charges. First was the estate, where the board accused Sharpe of spending $21,000 of estate money on his own business and then telling its rightful owner he had invested it. The second was a real estate transaction, where Sharpe served as seller’s counsel. In that case, according to court papers, Sharpe pocketed the deposit of the buyer — former Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Jimmie Moore — while the deal stalled, and then wavered on whether he actually owed it.
Sharpe’s take on the misappropriated funds varied depending on forum, according to the board’s petition to the high court. When Moore sued Sharpe in 2006, the attorney apparently acknowledged the debt and promised repayment. But at a Disciplinary Board hearing, Sharpe testified he could rightfully use the money in an effort to clear the property’s title and to compensate himself, according to the board’s report.
Another point the board pled to the Supreme Court was that Sharpe failed to use fee agreements with clients and failed to deposit entrusted funds into his IOLTA account.
In fact, it was when the Supreme Court subpoenaed Sharpe for his fee agreements and distribution sheets in 2010 that the attorney responded he “generally” does not have fee agreements for “service type transactions,” like recording deeds and working on wills.
But the board focused most of its 30-page report and recommendation on Sharpe’s actions in the estate and real estate cases, pleading that he “concocted fanciful tales to conceal these thefts.”
“He lied to the beneficiary of an estate for whom he served as counsel, other members of the bar, and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel,” the report said, noting Sharpe was previously disciplined for not returning unearned fees. “These lies, attempted cover-ups and prior discipline were found to be aggravating factors by the hearing committee. We agree.”
Howell K. Rosenberg, a board member from Brookman, Rosenberg, Brown & Sandler in Philadelphia, wrote the board’s recommendation.
Rosenberg was not available for comment.
Reached for comment last week, Sharpe said he had not heard about the Supreme Court’s decision in his disciplinary case and did not call back to comment on the decision.