Recent Supreme Court Opinions
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.
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.
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.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed the disbarment of Jennifer Elizabeth Meehan from the practice of law in Tennessee based on her conviction for bank fraud in federal court.
Ms. Meehan served as president of a sorority’s housing board overseeing construction and furnishing of a new sorority house at her alma mater, the University of Alabama. Through this work, she mishandled funds, including using false documents to open unauthorized banking accounts, submitting false invoices, and moving funds to a personal account. After Ms. Meehan pleaded guilty to bank fraud, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama sentenced her to six months in prison and ordered her to pay restitution.
The Tennessee Supreme Court suspended Ms. Meehan from practicing law and referred the case to the Board of Professional Responsibility to start disciplinary proceedings. A hearing panel appointed by the Board of Professional Responsibility heard evidence related to the plea agreement in the federal bank fraud case as well as a previous disciplinary matter for misrepresenting her credentials in which she received a public sanction. The hearing panel applied Standards 5.1 and 5.11 under the American Bar Association’s Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions and considered both aggravating factors submitted by the Board and mitigating factors submitted by Ms. Meehan. Ultimately, the panel determined that Ms. Meehan should be disbarred.
On appeal, the Davidson County Circuit Court held that the hearing panel’s decision was arbitrary and imposed a five-year suspension. The Board of Professional Responsibility appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the circuit court improperly substituted its judgment for that of the hearing panel and erred in modifying the hearing panel’s decision based on a review of sanctions imposed in similar cases.
The Supreme Court examined the presumptive sanction and the applicable aggravating and mitigating factors under the American Bar Association’s Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions, and concluded that the hearing panel’s decision to disbar Ms. Meehan was supported by substantial and material evidence and was neither arbitrary nor an abuse of discretion. The Supreme Court also held that the trial court did not have the authority to modify the hearing panel’s decision based on a review of sanctions imposed in similar cases. Thus, the Supreme Court reversed the circuit court’s judgment imposing suspension and affirmed the hearing panel’s decision to disbar Ms. Meehan.
On March 15, 2018, the Board of Professional Responsibility issued Formal Ethics Opinion 2017-F-163 with the purpose of clarifying Rule 3.8(d) of the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 3.8(d) covers a prosecutor’s ethical duties to disclose evidence or information tending to negate the guilt of the accused or to mitigate the offense. The Ethics Opinion interpreted Tennessee’s ethical rules for prosecutors as extending beyond a prosecutor’s current legal duties for disclosure under federal and state constitutional law. Additionally, the Ethics Opinion interpreted the definition of a “timely” disclosure under Rule 3.8(d) as “as soon as reasonably practicable,” which is different from current law.
On January 15, 2019, the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference filed a petition to vacate the Ethics Opinion and requested that the Tennessee Supreme Court stay the effectiveness of the Ethics Opinion pending review. The Court determined that a full and deliberate review was necessary and ordered briefing and oral argument. Additionally, the Court granted the stay of the effectiveness of the Ethics Opinion pending the Court’s review.
In its unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court considered other states’ interpretations of prosecutors’ ethical rules and ultimately agreed with the policy that a prosecutor’s ethical duties should be coextensive with the prosecutor’s legal and constitutional obligations. The Court also determined that the history of Rule 3.8(d) supported this interpretation. The Court disagreed with the Ethics Opinion’s interpretation of a prosecutor’s ethical duties under Rule 3.8(d) extending beyond the prosecutor’s legal duties and rather interpreted Rule 3.8(d) as being almost entirely coextensive in scope with federal and state constitutional law. The Court also recognized that a prosecutor must have knowledge of the particular information in order to have an ethical duty to disclose that information. The Court also declined to interpret “timely” within the rule as anything other than what is required constitutionally as a timely disclosure. Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the Ethics Opinion in its entirety.
This lawyer-disciplinary proceeding stems from a Knoxville attorney’s conduct in a federal personal injury lawsuit where the attorney represented the plaintiff. The federal district court imposed a discovery sanction against the corporate defendant and ordered it to pay the attorney’s fees and costs the plaintiff had incurred in locating and deposing a witness the corporate defendant failed to disclose. When the plaintiff’s lawyer submitted an itemization of fees and costs to the federal district court, the lawyer falsely claimed as his own work the work that a paralegal had performed. The lawyer also submitted a written declaration along with the itemization falsely claiming that he had kept contemporaneous records of his time in the case and attesting to the truth and accuracy of the itemization. The lawyer also requested in the itemization “grossly exaggerated and unreasonable” attorney’s fees of more than $103,000 for work beyond the scope of the federal district court’s order. Later, the lawyer testified falsely in a hearing before the federal district court by reaffirming the truth and accuracy of the itemization and the written declaration. A Hearing Panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility (“Hearing Panel”) determined that the lawyer had violated four provisions of the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct (“RPC”)—RPC 1.5(a) (Fees); RPC 3.3(a) (Candor Toward the Tribunal); RPC 3.4(b) (Fairness to Opposing Party and Counsel); and RPC 8.4(a) and (c) (Misconduct). The Hearing Panel found six aggravating and two mitigating factors and sanctioned the lawyer with a one-year active suspension and twelve additional hours of ethics continuing legal education. The Board of Professional Responsibility (“Board”) and the lawyer appealed to the Chancery Court for Knox County. Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9, § 1.3. The trial court affirmed the Hearing Panel’s findings of fact and conclusions of law but modified the sanction to disbarment. The trial court concluded that Standard 5.11 of the ABA Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions (“ABA Standards”), which identifies disbarment as the presumptive sanction, applies and 07/02/2019 - 2 - that the aggravating and mitigating factors do not warrant a lesser sanction than disbarment. The lawyer appealed, and after carefully reviewing the record and applicable authorities, we affirm the trial court’s judgment in all respects, including its modification of the sanction to disbarment.