The Supreme Court of Georgia disbarred a lawyer for conduct that violated Rules 1.15(I)(a) and 1.15 (II)(b) of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct—the maximum sanction for such violations. After failing to respond to various attempts from the State Bar and Special Master to determine the validity of the allegations, the Court found that the lawyer’s “utter failure to participate in the disciplinary process” gave the Court no basis to impose a lesser sanction.
Seriousness of the allegations
All allegations of misconduct are taken seriously, but the Court here noted that trust account violations are extraordinarily serious. The lawyer was alleged to have paid past Bar dues with a check drawn on his trust account, made deposits to his trust account from his personal account, and made payments from his trust account that appeared to be connected to his personal expenses. Likewise, he was alleged to have made numerous cash withdrawals from his trust account. This conduct violates the requirement of Rule 1.15(I)(a) that a lawyer’s property or funds be kept separate from that of their client. It also violates Rule 1.15(II)(b) which prohibits depositing personal funds into a lawyer’s trust account and withdrawing funds from trust accounts for personal use.
Failure to participate in disciplinary process
When the investigation began, the State Bar’s investigator was unable to serve the lawyer by personal service at the address listed with the Bar’s membership department. The State Bar ultimately resorted to perfecting service by publication. When the lawyer did not respond, the State Bar filed a Motion for Default requesting that the Court disbar the lawyer. The Court rejected the recommendation, asserting disbarment was inappropriate given the ‘limited record before it and the allegations contained in the notice of discipline.’ The court then referred the matter to a Special Master for hearing to determine the nature and severity of the lawyer’s conduct.
More attempts at service were made and it is not clear whether the lawyer ever got notice of the proceeding. If he did, he ignored it (including failing to respond to requests for admission). If he did not have notice, it may have been that he’d failed to notify the Bar that his address changed – with disastrous results.
The Special Master conducted a hearing, but the lawyer did not attend or otherwise try to communicate with the Special Master or State Bar regarding the allegations. The Court found that minor violations of trust account rules may result in sanctions less severe than disbarment. However, the Court ultimately agreed with the Special Master that the lawyer’s failure to participate in the disciplinary proceedings is an aggravating factor and may constitute an admission by failure to reply that he does not acknowledge the wrongfulness of his conduct. The Court then found that the lawyer’s failure to participate in the disciplinary process provided no basis to impose a sanction less than disbarment and Ordered the lawyer’s name be removed from the rolls of persons authorized to practice law in the State of Georgia.
Ignoring notice of a disciplinary charge is a dangerous business. The failure to participate can transform a minor violation into something that costs a lawyer their license and livelihood. In some states, disbarment is truly permanent—meaning the lawyer loses their license for life and with no opportunity to be readmitted to that state’s bar. But even in those states where it isn’t, the lawyer will be required to meet rigorous requirements for reinstatement, including waiting years before he or she is even permitted to apply for readmittance. And even then, those efforts may be unsuccessful. Georgia requires disbarred lawyers to wait five years before applying for readmittance. Further, even if a lawyer is not disbarred, failure to respond can be independent grounds for discipline in certain jurisdictions. While the lawyer here may have been disbarred even if participating fully in the process, he deprived himself of any shot of a less severe sanction by his total failure to engage in the process. This case serves as a lasting example of how high the stakes can be for lawyers who disregard the disciplinary process.