Recent Supreme Court Opinions
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.
Carlos Eugene Moore (“Attorney”) entered into a written contingent fee agreement to represent a client in a personal injury matter. The agreement, which was signed by the client, provided that if the client refused to accept any settlement offer which Attorney advised her was reasonable and should be taken, the client was responsible for the contingency fee “on the basis of that offer” unless Attorney waived the provision. When Attorney received an offer to settle the matter, he advised the client to accept the offer. She refused. Attorney filed a motion to withdraw which was granted. Attorney also sought to place a lien against the client’s eventual recovery for his fees and expenses “presently owe[d].” After the client filed a complaint with the Board of Professional Responsibility (“BPR”), the BPR filed a petition for discipline. A hearing panel was appointed and, after an evidentiary hearing, the panel concluded that (1) Attorney had “made an agreement for and has sought to collect an unreasonable fee,” violating Rule of Professional Conduct (“RPC” or “Rule”) 1.5(a) and 1.5(c); and (2) Attorney had “violated Rule 1.8(i) because [the client] became obligated when [Attorney] advised [her] that the settlement offer . . . was ‘reasonable and should be taken.’” The hearing panel imposed a sanction of public censure. Attorney sought review in chancery court, and the chancery court affirmed the hearing panel’s decision. Attorney then sought review in this Court, arguing that the hearing panel’s findings that he had violated the Rules of Professional Conduct were arbitrary and capricious and not supported by substantial and material evidence. Attorney further contends that the sanction imposed was arbitrary and capricious and not supported by substantial and material evidence. We hold that the record supports both the findings of violations and the imposition of a public censure. Accordingly, we affirm the chancery court’s ruling upholding the hearing panel’s decision.
Nathan E. Brooks petitioned to have his law license reinstated. Rather than pay an advance cost deposit under Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, section 30.4(d)(9), Mr. Brooks filed a pauper’s oath and indigency affidavit. A Board of Professional Responsibility hearing panel dismissed the petition without prejudice, giving Mr. Brooks the opportunity to refile the petition with a cost deposit. The trial court agreed with the hearing panel and, now, so does the Tennessee Supreme Court.
After attorney John O. Threadgill was convicted of tax evasion, this Court ordered that the Board of Professional Responsibility (“Board”) initiate proceedings to determine his final discipline. A hearing panel (“Panel”) imposed a final discipline of disbarment. Mr. Threadgill sought review of the Panel’s judgment in the Knox County Chancery Court, and the chancery court affirmed Mr. Threadgill’s disbarment. Pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, section 1.3, Mr. Threadgill has appealed the chancery court’s judgment to this Court. In this appeal, he argues: (1) that the Panel and the trial court lacked jurisdiction to impose disbarment; (2) that the judgment was unsupported by substantial and material evidence; and (3) that the judgment is contrary to the intent of the American Bar Association guidelines. Following a thorough review of the record and the applicable legal authorities, we affirm the judgment of the Knox County Chancery Court.
This direct appeal involves a lawyer disciplinary proceeding against a Memphis attorney arising from two client complaints and the lawyer’s failure to satisfy fully Mississippi’s requirements for pro hac vice admission before representing a criminal defendant in Mississippi. 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”). After consulting the ABA Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions (“ABA Standards”) and considering the mitigating and aggravating circumstances, including the lawyer’s seventeen prior disciplinary sanctions, the Hearing Panel suspended the lawyer for six months and directed thirty days of the sanction to be served on active suspension with the remainder to be served on probation with conditions, including a practice monitor, restitution, and continuing legal education focused on law office management, client communication, and client relations. The lawyer appealed the Hearing Panel’s judgment, and the Chancery Court for Shelby County affirmed. The lawyer then appealed to this Court. After carefully reviewing the record, we affirm.