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Recent Supreme Court Opinions

Douglas Ralph Beier v. Board of Professional Responsibility

In this appeal from attorney disciplinary proceedings, the hearing panel of the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility determined that the attorney’s conduct in two cases violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. In one case, the hearing panel found that the attorney signed the name of a witness on an affidavit, falsely notarized the signature, and did not disclose to the trial court or opposing counsel that he had signed the witness’s affidavit. In another case, the hearing panel found, the attorney persuaded a client in a probate matter to agree to an unreasonable contingency fee arrangement, took advantage of the client’s disability, misrepresented to the probate court that the client was the decedent’s sole heir, failed to disclose the existence of other heirs, and got the probate court to agree to close the estate without a detailed accounting in order to avoid judicial scrutiny of the unreasonable fee. The hearing panel suspended the law license of the appellant attorney for two years, with three months served as active suspension and the remainder on probation. The attorney and the Board both appealed the hearing panel’s decision to the chancery court. The chancery court affirmed the hearing panel’s findings as to rule violations and aggravating and mitigating factors, but it modified the sanction to two years active suspension. The attorney now appeals to this Court, arguing that his conduct was not dishonest, he did not take advantage of a vulnerable client, and his probate fee arrangement was not unreasonable. We affirm the hearing panel’s factual findings and its findings as to rule violations. In view of the seriousness of the violations, we affirm the chancery court’s modification of the sanction to two years active suspension.

George H. Thompson, III v. Board of Professional Responsibility

This is an attorney discipline proceeding concerning attorney George H. Thompson, III, and his representation of a client in her personal injury action. After filing a nonsuit on his client’s behalf, the attorney failed to refile the case in a timely manner, which resulted in the client’s claim being barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The attorney later admitted his error and paid the client a sum of money to settle her potential claim against him; however, the attorney failed to advise the client in writing that she should seek independent legal counsel in reaching a settlement. The Board of Professional Responsibility (“Board”) filed a petition for discipline against the attorney, and a hearing panel (“Panel”) imposed a sanction of a one-year suspension with thirty days to be served as an active suspension and the remainder to be served on probation with conditions. The attorney sought review of the Panel’s decision in chancery court, and upon its review, the chancery court affirmed the Panel’s decision. The attorney has now filed a direct appeal to this Court. Following a thorough review of the record and applicable legal authorities, we affirm the judgment of the chancery court.

Board of Professional Responsibility v. James S. MacDonald

The Board of Professional Responsibility (“the Board”) filed a Petition for Discipline against James MacDonald (“Attorney”) based on a single complaint arising from his representation of Michael Huddleston.  A hearing panel (“the Panel”) was appointed and, after an evidentiary hearing, the Panel dismissed the Petition for Discipline and concluded that the Board “failed to sustain its burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Attorney violated” any Rules of Professional Conduct (“RPC”).  Thereafter, the Board filed a petition for review of the Panel’s decision in the Knox County Chancery Court.  The chancery court reversed the Panel’s dismissal of all six rule violations and determined that the Panel’s conclusions were arbitrary and capricious and unsupported by the evidence.  In addition, the chancery court held that the Panel abused its discretion by applying an incorrect legal standard.  The chancery court found that Attorney violated all six rules alleged in the Board’s petition and imposed a public censure as punishment.  Attorney sought review in this Court, arguing that the chancery court incorrectly substituted its own judgment for that of the Panel’s and abused its discretion.  Upon review of the record and applicable law, we reverse the chancery court’s conclusion that Attorney violated RPC 3.3(b) and (c), 3.4(a) and (b), and 8.4(a), and we reinstate the Panel’s dismissal of those allegations.  Additionally, we hold that the chancery court was without authority to conclude that Attorney violated RPC 8.4(c), and this Court must treat the Panel’s failure to make a conclusion as a dismissal of the allegation.  Therefore, the Petition for Discipline against Attorney is dismissed in its entirety.

James A. Dunlap, Jr. v. Board of Professional Responsibility 

Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed the one-year suspension of Georgia attorney James A. Dunlap, Jr., from the practice of law in Tennessee.

Mr. Dunlap had been admitted to practice in Tennessee for the limited purpose of representing a client in an administrative appeal before the Administrative Procedures Division of the Tennessee Secretary of State’s Office. The one-year suspension resulted from his misconduct while representing the client when he failed to disclose material information and made misrepresentations to the administrative law judge presiding over the appeal, threatened to sue the judge in an attempt to influence the judge’s decision, and mischaracterized the judge and the tribunal as not being fair and impartial.

A Board of Professional Responsibility hearing panel found that Mr. Dunlap’s conduct violated Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct 3.3 (candor toward the tribunal), 3.5(a) (impartiality and decorum of the tribunal), 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation), and 8.4(d) (conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice). The hearing panel recommended a one-year suspension for Mr. Dunlap’s misconduct. The Davidson County Chancery Court affirmed the hearing panel’s decision. Mr. Dunlap appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court challenging the factual bases for the hearing panel’s findings, arguing that suspension was inconsistent with sanctions imposed in other cases, and asserting that his conduct did not cause any harm.

The Supreme Court examined the evidence, the presumptive sanction for Mr. Dunlap’s misconduct, and the applicable aggravating and mitigating factors under the American Bar Association’s Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions. The Court concluded that the hearing panel’s decision was supported by substantial and material evidence and was neither arbitrary nor an abuse of discretion. The Supreme Court also determined that the delay in the administrative appeal resulting from Mr. Dunlap’s misconduct and his disparaging remarks toward the administrative law judge and the tribunal evidenced harm to the legal system. Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed the chancery court’s judgment and upheld Mr. Dunlap’s one-year suspension from the practice of law in Tennessee.