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24949 - In the Matter of Mary P. Miles

Shearouse Adv. Sh. No. 19
S.E. 2d

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA

In The Supreme Court

In the Matter of Mary

P. Miles, Respondent.

Opinion No. 24949

Heard April 9, 1999 - Filed June 1, 1999

DEFINITE SUSPENSION

Mary P. Miles of Lexington, pro se.

Attorney General Charles M. Condon and Assistant

Deputy Attorney General J. Emory Smith, Jr., both

of Columbia, for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.





PER CURIAM: In this attorney grievance matter, Mary P. Miles

(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 BACKGROUND





The Commission on Lawyer Conduct (Commission) began

investigating these matters after Midlands Medical Center filed a complaint in

November 1996. The Court placed Respondent on interim suspension

December 10, 1997. The three-member subpanel issued a report October 22,

1998, finding misconduct and recommending that Respondent be indefinitely

suspended. The full panel adopted the report and recommendation December

10, 1998.

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MATTER OF MILES





THE MIDLANDS MATTER





Investigators from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (disciplinary

counsel) reviewed documents provided by Midlands Medical Center in

Columbia, as well as financial records and various client files from 1992 to 1997

that were subpoenaed from Respondent. The review showed that, from April

1995 to April 1997, Respondent withheld $21,304 from the settlement of

fourteen cases to pay clients' medical bills at Midlands. Respondent delayed

payment of the bills from eight to twenty-two months after settlement of the

cases. Midlands agreed to reduce the delinquent bills if Respondent did not

delay payment any longer. After paying the reduced bills, Respondent failed to

return $3,996 in surplus funds to the fourteen clients.





Respondent's trust account during the two-year period should have

contained at least the amount of the unpaid medical bills as those amounts

accumulated. It did not. For example, in February 1996, when the trust

account should have contained at least $7,186, it had a negative balance of

$1,050. In February 1997, when the account should have contained at least

$17,804, it had a negative balance of nearly $594. The record shows that

Respondent either converted the funds for her own use, to pay toward another

client's matter, or for purposes other than which they were intended.





IMPROPER USE OF TRUST ACCOUNT

AND INSUFFICIENT RECORDKEEPING





Respondent used her trust account from 1992 to 1997 to make

contributions to charitable organizations, buy office supplies, buy personal and

office lunches, and pay off a personal loan to a car dealer, among other things.

Many of the checks contained inconsistent information. For example, checks to

Burlington Coat Factory, Pep Boys, Young's True Value Hardware, J.B. White,

S&K Mens Wear, and Champs Sports all listed "office" or "office supplies" in the

memorandum line.







Deposits to Respondent's trust account from 1993 to 1997 usually

were identified only by the name of the insurance company that wrote the

check. Twenty-six of the deposits were made since January 1997. Some

deposits listed only the name "Miles" or were deposits of cash, and Respondent

was unable to identify the source of the funds. Respondent wrote checks on her

trust account made payable to herself and marked "attorney fees." The checks

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MATTER OF MILES





did not identify the client, and Respondent was unable to identify the source of

the funds or show that the funds were earned fees and not clients' funds.





THE PINCKNEY MATTER





Marvin Pinckney testified he hired Respondent in October 1997 in

an effort to set aside a previous judgment in a civil suit because he had not

consented to it. He paid Respondent a $1,250 retainer. Respondent filed a two

page motion in circuit court, but did no other work on his case, Pinckney

testified. Respondent has not refunded any of the fee. While questioning

Pinckney at the subpanel hearing, Respondent noted the retainer was

nonrefundable under the fee agreement Pinckney signed.





THE SCHULTZ MATTER





Earl W. Schultz testified he hired Respondent in July 1997 to

represent him in an employment discrimination case after the Court suspended

his first attorney. He paid her $25 for the initial visit and a $1,000 retainer.

Respondent made a couple of telephone calls to a federal agency in Washington,

D.C., during the initial visit, but did no other work on the case. His appeal was

successful, but that was a result of work done by his first attorney, not

Respondent, Schultz testified. Respondent refused to refund any of the fee.

Again, while questioning Schultz, Respondent noted the retainer was

nonrefundable under the fee agreement Schultz signed.





UNPAID COURT REPORTER CHARGES





Clevette Hudnell, a court reporter, testified she took a deposition

at Respondent's request in August 1997. She sent Respondent four notices

about the unpaid bill of $299.60, but Respondent never paid her. Another court

reporter, Callie Morrison, testified she took a deposition at Respondent's

request in March 1996. She sent respondent four notices about the unpaid bill

of $229.25, but Respondent never paid her.





DISCUSSION





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

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MATTER OF MILES





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

(1976).





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

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

Respondent misappropriated funds from her trust account and failed to pay the

clients' medical bills upon settlement of the cases, a violation of Rule 1. 15(a) and

(b), RPC. By delaying payment of the medical bills from eight to twenty-two

months after settlement of the cases, she failed to act with reasonable diligence

and failed to keep her clients reasonably informed about the status of their

cases. Those acts were violations of Rules 1.3 and 1.4(a), RPC.





In the matter of improperly using her trust account and insufficient

recordkeeping, Respondent violated Rule 1. 15, RPC, by commingling funds and

using the trust account for personal and family purposes. Although recently

enacted Rule 417, SCACR,1 provides greater guidance in the handling of trust

accounts than Rule 1.15, a lawyer has always had the burden of keeping

adequate records. "This Court has made it abundantly clear that an attorney




1 Under Rule 417, effective January 1, 1997, a lawyer must keep

adequate records showing the date, source or payee, and description of each

deposit and disbursement in any bank account which affects the lawyer's

practice of law. With trust accounts, the records must show, for each client, the

source of all funds deposited, the names of all persons for whom the funds are

held, the descriptions and amounts of charges and withdrawals, and the names

of persons to whom funds were disbursed. Rule 417(a)(1) and (2), SCACR.



Receipts must be deposited intact and records of deposits should be

sufficiently detailed to identify each item. Rule 417(b), SCACR. A lawyer also

must keep other records, including copies of accountings to clients or third

parties showing the disbursement of funds, copies of bills for legal fees and

expenses, and copies of portions of clients' files necessary to understand a

particular financial transaction. Rule 417(a)(4), (5), (6),and (9), SCACR.

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MATTER OF MILES





is charged with a special responsibility in maintaining and preserving the

integrity of trust funds." Matter of Padgett, 290 S.C. 209, 349 S.E.2d 338 (1986)

(suspending attorney who failed to maintain adequate records in a single case).

When disciplinary counsel presents clear and convincing evidence of trust

account violations or other inadequate recordkeeping, a lawyer's records must

be sufficiently detailed to overcome the allegations.





In the Pinckney and Schultz matters, Respondent committed

misconduct by refusing to refund any portion of the purportedly nonrefundable

retainer. A "lawyer may retain a reasonable nonrefundable retainer." Rule

1.16(d), RPC. The fee, however, must be reasonable under the factors outlined

in the rules and any unearned portion must be returned to the client. Rule

1.5(a) and Comments, RPC.2





In the Hudnell and Morrison matters, Respondent committed

misconduct by refusing to pay for transcripts of depositions that she ordered

from court reporters. Her conduct violated Rule 8.4(d), RPC. See Matter of

Smith, 296 S.C. 86, 370 S.E.2d 876 (1988) (failure to pay a court reporter for a

transcript held as sanctionable misconduct).




2 Nonrefundable retainers such as the one at issue in Respondent's case

have come under fire in recent years. The New York Court of Appeals recently

banned "special nonrefundable retainers" in a landmark case, finding them to

be a per se violation of ethics rules. Matter of Cooperman, 633 N.E.2d 1069

(N.Y. 1994).





A special nonrefundable retainer is one in which the client pays a

nonrefundable fee for specific services, in advance and irrespective of whether

any professional services are actually rendered. Id. at 1070. A special retainer

is distinguished from a general retainer "in which the client agrees to pay a

fixed sum in exchange for the attorney's promise to be available to perform, at

an agreed price, any legal services ... that arise during a specified period."

Lester Brickman & Lawrence A. Cunningham, Nonrefundable Retainers

Revisited, 72 N.C. L. Rev. 1, 5-6 (1993); Cooperman, 633 N.E.2d at 1074.

While we do not decide the legitimacy of special nonrefundable retainers

today, we urge lawyers to proceed with caution in using such retainers.

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MATTER OF MILES





We have imposed various penalties for similar misconduct in other

cases. See Matter of Floyd, 321 S.C. 306, 468 S.E.2d 302 (1996) (disbarring

attorney who misappropriated client's funds, failed to deliver promptly to client

or third party funds that he or she was entitled to receive, and failed to render

promptly a full accounting of the property); Matter of Watson, 319 S.C. 437, 462

S.E.2d 270 (1995) (three-month definite suspension of attorney who failed in a

single case to timely pay medical providers after settling the case; attorney also

had misused his trust account); Matter of Screen, 318 S.C. 367, 458 S.E.2d 39

(1995) (publicly reprimanding attorney who negligently collected excessive fee,

failed to maintain identity of client funds, failed to properly deliver funds to

clients or third persons, and neglected a legal matter); Matter of Edwards, 323

S.C. 3, 448 S.E.2d 547 (1994) (disbarring attorney who misappropriated client

funds, failed to notify medical providers of receipt of settlement and promptly

disburse funds to them in numerous cases, failed to diligently and competently

represent clients, failed to keep clients informed of status of their cases,

knowingly made false statements of material fact, and failed to cooperate in

investigation; attorney also had to make restitution).





CONCLUSION





For the foregoing reasons, we find Respondent committed

misconduct. We conclude the appropriate sanction is a definite suspension of

six months. The definite suspension is retroactive to the date of Respondent's

interim suspension, December 10, 1997, meaning Respondent may immediately

resume the practice of law after complying with the following conditions. Before

the reinstatement of her license to practice law, Respondent shall disburse

surplus funds to clients that she received in connection with the Midlands

matter, make restitution in the Pinckney and Schultz matters by refunding the

unearned portion of the fees,3 pay the delinquent court reporter charges in the

Hudnell and Morrison matters, and obtain legal finance training through the

Bar. Respondent shall provide appropriate proof of her compliance with this

order pursuant to Rule 32, RLDE.




3 If Respondent and the clients are unable to agree on what portion of the

fees should be refunded, the dispute shall be submitted to the Resolution of Fee

Disputes Board of the South Carolina Bar. See Comment to Rule 1.5, RPC;

Rule 416, SCACR.

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MATTER OF MILES





DEFINITE SUSPENSION.



p.31