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24860 - In the Matter of Mark E. Hall

Davis Adv. Sh. No. XX
S.E. 2d

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA

In The Supreme Court

In the Matter of Mark

E. Hall, Respondent.

Opinion No. 24860

Heard October 20, 1998 - Filed November 30, 1998

INDEFINITE SUSPENSION

Attorney General Charles M. Condon and Senior

Assistant Attorney General James G. Bogle, Jr.,

both of Columbia, for Office of Disciplinary Counsel.





PER CURIAM: In this attorney grievance matter, Mark E. Hall

(Respondent) is charged with engaging in misconduct in violation of various

provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) contained in Rule 407,

SCACR, and the Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement (RLDE)

contained in Rule 413, SCACR.





PROCEDURAL BACKGROUNE







The Commission on Lawyer Conduct (Commission) began a full

investigation into these matters in April and June 1997. Respondent initially

denied any wrongdoing, but provided incomplete information to investigators.

He did not respond after the filing of formal, charges in October 1997 and

went into default. Respondent did not appear at the subpanel hearing in

January 1998; nor did he appear at the hearing before this Court.





The subpanel found misconduct and recommended disbarment.



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MATTER OF HALL





The full panel adopted the report and recommended sanction. We agree with

the panel's findings and conclusions about Respondent's misconduct.

However, we find Respondent's acts warrant an indefinite suspension from

the practice of law.





CHILD SUPPORT MATTER







A family court judge ordered Respondent in October 1994 to pay

$113 per week in child support to Brenda J. Kent, the mother of

Respondent's minor child. The order required Respondent to pay the funds

through family court in Richland County, which would forward the funds to

a child support agency in Minnesota, where Ms. Kent and the child lived.

Respondent failed to make all payments, and by January 1997 was $15,480

in arrears.





At an enforcement hearing, Respondent submitted an affidavit in

which he claimed he had paid Ms. Kent $10,300 -- in cash at her request --

from November 1994 to December 1996. He stated he went to Minnesota in

late 1996 to resolve his payment record, but was unable to meet with child

support officials due to bad weather and closed government offices. Ms. Kent

told him that she would notify officials in Minnesota and South Carolina

about the payments he had made, Respondent stated. The judge found

Respondent in contempt and sentenced him to one year, suspended upon

payment of $5,000 towards the arrearage.





In an affidavit filed after the enforcement hearing, a Minnesota

child support officer stated that Respondent had paid Ms.Kent $5,154, but

still owed her $9,988 in missed payments.1 The child support office was open

on the day Respondent claimed he was in town to discuss the matter, and

Respondent never contacted the child support office, the officer stated. Ms.

Kent stated in an affidavit she had not received the payments Respondent

purportedly made, and never asked him to pay her in cash.





Respondent attempted to explain his actions in a letter to

disciplinary counsel in April 1997. However, Respondent's failure to answer

the formal charges, as well as his failure to appear before the hearing panel




1 It is unclear why the South Carolina family court records show a

larger arrearage than that claimed by the Minnesota official. Regardless,

Respondent was substantially behind in his payments.

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MATTER OF HALL





or this Court, constitutes an admission of the factual allegations. Rule 24, RLDE.





SMITH MATTER







Respondent represented Wilmarth K. Smith, who was injured in

October 1995 when she fell in the parking lot at the Chamber of Commerce

in Columbia. The parties settled the case in July 1996 for $2,775.50, paid

to Ms. Smith and Respondent in two checks, one for $2,275.50 and one for

$500. Respondent did not have a written retainer agreement signed by Ms.

Smith; nor did he give her a written settlement statement. Respondent gave

Ms. Smith a check for $500, which she was unable to cash due to insufficient

funds. When she contacted Respondent about the problem, he gave her

another check for $2,500.2





An analysis of Respondent's trust account, based on records

obtained by subpoena from the bank and Respondent, showed Respondent

deposited $2,000 of the first settlement check and kept the remainder in

cash. He apparently deposited the second settlement check of $500. A few

days later, Respondent wrote himself a check drawn on his trust account for

$2,500, labeling it "attorney fee," The account was overdrawn by $300

shortly after Respondent deposited Ms. Smith's settlement checks, indicating

he misappropriated Ms. Smith's funds to his own use.





Respondent initially refused to provide Ms. Smith's entire case file

and pertinent bank records when contacted by disciplinary counsel. He failed

to cooperate with investigators despite repeated telephone calls and letters.

He promised to provide certain documents after an investigator visited him

at his office, but failed to do so.





Respondent attempted to explain his actions in letters to

disciplinary counsel in April and August 1997. Again, his failure to answer

the formal charges or appear constitutes an admission of the factual

allegations. Rule 24, RLDE.




2 The record does not reveal whether Ms. Smith was able to cash

the $2,500 check. Disciplinary authorities told the subpanel that Ms.

Smith received part of her money from Respondent, at least $500 to

$1,500.

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MATTER OF HALL





PAST MISCONDUCT





Three years ago, the Court publicly reprimanded Respondent for

inappropriately handling a real estate transaction. The Court also

reprimanded Respondent for depositing settlement checks into his operating

account instead of his trust account. No clients lost any funds. Matter of

Hall, 319 S.C. 358, 461 S.E.2d 396 (1995). The Bar suspended Respondent's

license March 20, 1998, for failure to pay Bar dues. The Court issued an

order August 7, 1998, holding Respondent in contempt, but that order has not

been served upon Respondent because he cannot be located.





DISCUSSION





This Court has the ultimate authority to discipline attorneys, and

the Commission's findings are not binding. Matter of Dobson, 310 S.C. 422,

427 S.E.2d 166 (1993). However, such findings are entitled to great weight.

Matter of Lake, 269 S.C. 170, 236 S.E.2d 812 (1977).





After examining the facts, we find Respondent's misconduct has

been proven by clear and convincing evidence. In the family court matter,

Respondent committed misconduct by making false statements of material

fact to the family court and the Commission, and by willfully violating the

terms of a valid court order. Rules 7(a)(3) and (7), RLDE.







In the Smith matter, Respondent committed misconduct by failing

to keep Ms. Smith reasonably informed about her case and complying with

reasonable requests for information. Rule. 1.4(a), RPC. Respondent failed

to promptly deliver funds Ms. Smith was entitled to receive or render a full

accounting of those funds. Rule 1.15, RPC. He failed to secure a written

contingency fee agreement or give Ms. Smith a written settlement statement.

Rule 1.5(c), RPC.





In both matters, Respondent engaged in conduct tending to

pollute the administration of justice and demonstrated an unfitness to

practice law. Rule 7(a)(5), RLDE; Rules 8.4(d) and (e), RPC. He violated the

oath of office taken upon admission to practice law. Rule 7(a)(6), RLDE.

Respondent failed to respond to the Commission's inquiries and requests for

information. Rule 7(a)(3), RLDE; Matter of Treacy, 277 S.C. 514, 290 S.E.2d

240 (1982).





An attorney usually does not abandon a license to practice law



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MATTER OF HALL







without a fight. Those who do must understand that "neglecting to

participate [in a disciplinary proceeding] is entitled to substantial weight in

determining the sanction." Matter of Sifly, 279 S.C. 113, 115, 302 S.E.2d

858, 859 (1983). An attorney's failure to answer charges or appear to defend

or explain alleged misconduct indicates an obvious disinterest in the practice

of law. Such an attorney is likely to face the most severe sanctions because

a central purpose of the disciplinary process is to protect the public from

unscrupulous and indifferent lawyers. See Preamble to Rule 407, SCACR;

Rule 1, RLDE. In more egregious cases, we have disbarred attorneys who

failed to answer formal charges or appear at hearings before the Commission

or this Court. See Matter of Wofford, 330 S.C. 522, 500 S.E.2d 486 (1998)

(disbarring attorney who failed to answer formal charges, appear at panel

hearing or before Court; attorney in several cases failed to provide competent

representation, keep clients reasonably informed, and promptly deliver funds

to third person; attorney also misappropriated client funds and committed

criminal acts); Matter of Meede, 327 S.C. 169, 488 S.E.2d 875 (1997)

(disbarring attorney who responded initially, but failed to answer formal

charges or ask for panel hearing; attorney continued to represent client after

he was suspended for multiple counts of misconduct); Matter of Sifly, supra

(disbarring attorney who failed to appear before the disciplinary panel or the

Court; attorney mishandled two cases and wrote bad checks).





We previously have imposed a sanction other than disbarment

upon attorneys who engaged in misconduct similar to Respondent's. See

Matter of Cabaniss, 329 S.C. 366, 495 S.E.2d 779 (1998) (definite suspension

of two years for failing to maintain financial records, commingling funds from

personal, operating and trust accounts, misusing trust funds, and failing to

perform services); Matter of Edwards, 293 S.C. 413, 361 S.E.2d 123 (1987)

(indefinitely suspending attorney who presented false documents in workers'

compensation case, gave forged divorce order allegedly executed by family

court judge to client, and improperly used trust funds to cover shortages in

other accounts).





CONCLUSION





For the foregoing reasons, we find Respondent committed

misconduct. Respondent is hereby indefinitely suspended from the practice

of law. Within fifteen (15) days of the date of this opinion, respondent shall

file the affidavit required by Rule 30(g), RLDE. In addition to all other

requirements respondent must meet to be reinstated under Rule 33, RLDE,

no petition for reinstatement shall be accepted until respondent has filed



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MATTER OF HALL







proof that he has made full restitution to all institutions and individuals who

have lost money as a result of his fraudulent acts or mishandling of trust

funds, to include restitution to the Lawyer's Fund for Client Protection for

any payment it may make.



INDEFINITE SUSPENSION.



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