THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Supreme Court
In the Matter of Keith
Andrew Rice, Respondent.
Opinion No. 24917
Heard February 3, 1999 - Filed March 8, 1999
Attorney General Charles M. Condon and Senior
Assistant Attorney General James G. Bogle, Jr., both
of Columbia, for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
Keith Andrew Rice of Aiken, pro se.
PER CURIAM: In this attorney grievance matter, Keith Andrew
Rice (Respondent) is charged with engaging in misconduct in violation of
various provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) contained ill Rule
407, SCACR, and the Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement (F LDE)
contained in Rule 413, SCACR.
The Commission on Lawyer Conduct (the Commission) began
investigating this matter in March 1997. Respondent, an Aiken attorney, did
not reply to two letters the Commission sent him in April 1997; nor did he reply
to the notice of full investigation sent to him in January 1998. Respondent did
not respond to the notice of formal charges, which was personally served upon
him in April 1998 by an agent of the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED),
and went into default.
Respondent did not appear at the subpanel hearing on July 30,
1998. The subpanel, concerned about Respondent's failure to respond to the
Commission's inquiries, delayed consideration of the matter and directed the
Commission to serve a subpoena to appear upon Respondent. A SLED agent
personally served the subpoena to appear upon Respondent. He did not appear
at the rescheduled hearing on August 13, 1998.
This Court sent Respondent a notice of the hearing in this matter
by certified mail to his last known address, but the return receipt was signed
by a person other than Respondent. Respondent did not appear at the hearing
before this Court. Respondent is on inactive status with the Bar.
THE BUSH MATTER
Respondent was appointed as conservator for Deborah Bush
(Mother) in June 1995. Respondent filed an inventory and appraisement in
August 1995. The probate court wrote Respondent in July and August 1996,
asking him to file the annual accounting. Respondent filed an accounting on
September 17, 1996, showing about $24,000 received in Mother's accounts,
$20,000 disbursed, and a fee of $1,074 paid to Respondent.
During the following months, Ms. Bush's daughter, Natashia Bush
(Daughter), was unable to contact Respondent in person or by telephone. In a
letter to disciplinary counsel, Daughter stated she had been granted physical
guardianship of Mother. She stated that Respondent "apparently stopped his
law practice without giving me any type of notification or any way to keep in
contact with him." She accused Respondent of giving Mother a blank check in
December 1997 without her approval. She stated Mother's bills had not been
paid and she had "no idea" what transactions had occurred in Mother's
The probate court issued an order in April 1997 appointing
Daughter as temporary successor conservator. Respondent did not make a final
accounting, but did deliver Mother's bank records to Daughter when she was
appointed as conservator. The Commission's investigation uncovered no
evidence Respondent had embezzled any funds or mishandled Mother's
accounts, other than allowing her to write two checks to herself
The Commission received unconfirmed reports that Respondent has
medical problems. Other than that report, the record sheds no light on why
Respondent failed to respond to the Commission's inquiries or whether he ever
intends to practice law again. The subpanel recommended Respondent receive
a definite suspension of nine months, and the full panel adopted that
recommendation in October 1998.
A disciplinary violation must be proven by clear and convincing
evidence. Matter of Yarborough, 327 S.C. 161, 488 S.E.2d 871 (1997). While
the. Court is not bound by the findings of the subpanel and full panel, their
findings are entitled to- great weight, particularly when the inferences to be
drawn from the testimony depend on the credibility of witnesses. Id. The Court
may make its own findings of fact and conclusions of law, and is not bound by
the panel's recommendation. Burns v. Clayton, 237 S.C. 316, 117 S.E.2d 300
(1960). The Court must administer the sanction it deems appropriate after a
thorough review of the record. Matter of Kirven, 267 S.C. 669, 230 S.E.2d 899
After examining the facts, we find Respondent's misconduct has
been proven by clear and convincing evidence. Respondent's failure to answer
the formal charges or appear before the hearing panel constitutes an admission
of the factual allegations. Rule 24, RLDE.
In the Bush matter, Respondent committed misconduct by failing
to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in filing the annual accounting
when due, and in failing to file the final accounting. Rule 1.3, RPC.
Respondent also committed misconduct by failing to respond to the
Commission's inquiries and requests for information. See Matter of Thompson,
310 S.C. 461) 427 S.E.2d 644 (1993) (members of the Bar are required to
cooperate fully with disciplinary authorities); Matter of Treacy, 277 S.C. 514,
290 S.E.2d 240 (1982) (failure to comply with investigation is itself a
disciplinable offense); Rule 7(a)(3), RLDE.
The appropriate sanction for neglect of several client matters
generally is a public reprimand, provided the clients are not greatly prejudiced.
Matter of Moore, 329 S.C. 294,494 S.E.2d 804 (1997); Matter of Alexander, 301
S.C. 212, 391 S.E.2d 254 (1990); accord Matter of Celsor, 330 S.C 497, 499
S.E.2d 809 (1998) (attorney's misconduct in violating various attorney
disciplinary rules while handling probate matter and related wrongful death
action warranted public reprimand where attorney falsely notarized signatures
of client and compounded dishonesty by submitting documents to court); Matter
of Tullis, 330 S.C. 502, 499 S.E.2d 811 (1998) (attorney's misconduct in failing
to competently represent client, failing to timely provide information at out case
to client or to client's employers, who had paid attorney to represent client,
failing to promptly deliver funds paid on client's behalf to state of Florida to
resolve matter of client's probation violation, and failing to reply promptly to
inquiries by the Commission on Lawyer Conduct, warranted public reprimand);
Matter of Golden, 329 S.C. 335, 496 S.E.2d 619 (1998) (making gratuitously
insulting, threatening, and demeaning comments during two depositions
warranted public reprimand); Matter of Johnson, 329 S.C. 363, 495 S.',-' .2d 777
(1998) (public reprimand of attorney was warranted by his misconduct in failing
to fulfill contractual obligation to materially assist former client's new counsel
in pursuing criminal appeal, in misleading disciplinary authorities to believe
that he had spent thirty hours on such criminal appeal, in accepting divorce
case he was not capable of handling, in not providing proper attention to divorce
matter, in terminating his representation of client without her knowledge or
consent and in failing to obey two child support orders); Matter of White, 328
S.C. 88,492 S.E.2d 82 (1997) (public reprimand was warranted against attorney
for improperly retaining file after termination based on assertion of retaining
lien without notifying client of amount owed, ex parte communication with
court in another matter, and commingling of personal funds with client trust
funds by paying personal expenses from escrow account).
Respondent's failure to appear in the investigation and at the
hearing before this Court, however, leads us to accept the panel's
recommendation of a definite suspension of nine months. As we recently noted,
[a]n attorney usually does not abandon a license to
practice law 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. 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 or indifferent lawyers.
Matter of Hall, Op. No. 24860 (S.C. Sup. Ct. filed November 30, 1998)
(Shearouse Adv. Sh. No. 38 at 12). Suspending Respondent for more than six
months means he must petition this Court to be reinstated, be screened by the
Committee on Character and Fitness, and meet other criteria. See Rule 33,
For the foregoing reasons, we find Respondent committed
misconduct. Respondent is hereby definitely suspended from the practice of law
for nine months, with the suspension to begin on the date this opinion is issued.
Within fifteen (15) days of the date of this opinion, respondent shall file the
affidavit required by Rule 30(g), RLDE. This suspension is entered without
prejudice to Respondent's right to move at any time to lift the suspension based
on lack of notice of the hearing before this Court.