ORIGINAL PROCEEDING IN DISCIPLINE
Original proceeding in discipline.
Three-years' supervised probation.
This is an original proceeding in discipline filed by the office of the Disciplinary Administrator against respondent, Shelley Kurt Bock, of Lawrence, an attorney admitted to the practice of law in Kansas in 1979. A hearing panel of the Kansas Board for the Discipline of Attorneys conducted a formal hearing, as required by Kansas Supreme Court Rule 211 (2007 Kan. Ct. R. Annot. 304).
The hearing panel concluded that Bock violated Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct (KRPC) as follows: KRPC 1.1 (2007 Kan. Ct. R. Annot. 384) (competence); KRPC 1.3 (2007 Kan. Ct. R. Annot. 398) (diligence); KRPC 1.4 (2007 Kan. Ct. R. Annot. 413) (communication); KRPC 1.15(a) (2007 Kan. Ct. R. Annot. 473) (safekeeping property); KRPC 1.16 (2007 Kan. Ct. R. Annot. 487) (declining or terminating representation); and KRPC 3.2 (2007 Kan. Ct. R. Annot. 503) (expediting litigation). The hearing panel recommended that Bock be suspended from the practice of law for a period of 3 years but that suspension be stayed subject to Bock's compliance with a probation and supervision plan for a period of not less than 3 years.
Hearing Panel's Findings of Fact
This action arose from two disciplinary complaints (DA 9860 and DA 9861). One complaint arose from Bock's representation of a client in a divorce action. Consistent with the usual practice in Douglas County District Court, the divorce proceeding was bifurcated. The first stage of the proceeding resulted in the granting of the divorce in March 2005. The second stage of the Douglas County proceeding related to the resolution of the issues of property division, child custody, and support. In this case, Bock failed to complete the second stage of the proceeding, despite his client's repeated attempts to contact him. Through several telephone messages, the divorce client advised she was experiencing financial hardship because she was not receiving any child or spousal support.
A year after the divorce was granted, Bock's client filed a complaint with the Disciplinary Administrator's office. Even after Bock was informed of the complaint, Bock did nothing to assist his client in completing the second phase of the divorce proceeding and failed to contact her.
Following the docketing of the complaint, the Disciplinary Administrator wrote Bock on March 21, 2006, requesting that he provide a written response to the complaint. On three occasions (April 13, May 2, and May 9, 2006) the attorney assigned to investigate the complaint requested a written response from Bock. Despite these repeated requests, Bock did not respond regarding this complaint. Later, he told the investigating attorney that he thought the parties had settled, the divorce "fell through the cracks," and he "felt like a deer in the headlights" because of his workload. As of the date of the panel hearing, Bock still had money deposited in this trust account that included costs advanced by the client.
The second complaint arose from Bock's handling of a conservatorship. Bock was appointed as a guardian and coconservator of William Breshears in 1990. Mr. Breshears died in January 2005; his great-niece, who lived out of state, was appointed as the other coconservator. Bock arranged for Breshears' funeral but did not pay any of the final debts of Breshears, did not file an accounting for 2004 or a final accounting, and failed to close the conservatorship estate or to distribute the assets to Breshears' heir at law. The coconservator tried repeatedly to contact Bock by telephone, e-mails, and letters and informed Bock that Breshears' sister and sole heir needed the money from the conservatorship to provide for her assisted living care and other expenses. Bock failed to respond to these communications and on July 29, 2005, the coconservator retained an attorney to assist her. The attorney, George Catt, tried to contact Bock, making many unsuccessful attempts. During a chance meeting at the Douglas County Courthouse, Catt asked Bock to render an accounting and close the conservatorship. Bock said he was ready to do so but needed the names and addresses of the heirs. Catt provided the information.
Still, Bock failed to provide an accounting or to take any action to close the conservatorship. On September 13, 2005, Catt filed a petition to have Bock removed as coconservator, to require Bock to render a final accounting, and to produce the financial records of the conservatorship estate. Bock received notice of the hearing to be held September 27, 2005, but did not appear even though he was in the courthouse on different matters. The court ordered Bock to file a final accounting within 30 days and to produce the requested financial records. Bock failed to respond to the court's order and on March 7, 2006, was removed as coconservator. Catt then obtained financial records of the conservatorship from the bank. The records showed that Bock paid himself attorney fees which were not approved by the court. Additionally, Catt's investigation of the conservatorship financial records revealed that certificates of deposit were titled in joint tenancy with Bock and Virgil Breshears, a deceased brother of William Breshears, who had resigned as coconservator of William Breshears' estate in September 2002. The certificates of deposit did not indicate that they were part of the conservatorship. Since Bock was listed as the owner, the bank refused to release the money represented by the certificates of deposit. Catt attempted to communicate with Bock, but Bock did not respond. Catt eventually went to Bock's office and, after confronting Bock, obtained Bock's signature on the necessary forms to release the money to Breshears' estate.
Hearing Panel's Conclusions of Law
Based upon the findings of fact, the hearing panel made several conclusions of law. Noting that KRPC 1.1 requires that lawyers provide competent representation to their clients and KRPC 1.3 requires lawyers to act with reasonable diligence, the panel found Bock failed to meet these requirements when he: (1) failed to complete the divorce proceeding and obtain child support, spousal support, and a division of the marital estate for his client; (2) failed to perform the duties of coconservator and attorney for the conservators of the Breshears' conservatorship by failing to render accountings when due and when requested by the coconservator; and (3) failed to competently provide representation by not closing the conservatorship after Breshears' death.
Next, the hearing panel found that Bock's failures in both cases also violated KRPC 1.4(a), which requires lawyers to keep their clients reasonably informed about the status of a matter and to promptly comply with the reasonable requests for information.
The hearing panel also concluded that Bock's holding of the certificates of deposit of the Breshears' conservatorship in his own name violated KRPC 1.15(a), which requires a lawyer to hold property of clients separately from the lawyer's own property.
Further, Bock's failure to turn over the property and bank records of the Breshears' conservatorship after Catt's numerous requests and the failure to return the cost deposit advanced by his divorce client were found to violate KRPC 1.16(d), which provides that a lawyer should take reasonably practical steps to protect the client's interests when the attorney's representation is terminated, including surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled and refunding any advance fee that is unearned.
Finally, the hearing panel found that Bock's failure to complete the divorce proceeding, to terminate the Breshears' conservatorship, and to promptly comply with court orders in the conservatorship proceeding violated KRPC 3.2, which requires an attorney to make reasonable efforts to expedite litigation consistent with the interests of the client.
In deciding what discipline to recommend, the hearing panel considered the factors outlined by the American Bar Association in its Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions (1991). In applying Standard 3, the hearing panel considered the duty violated, the lawyer's mental state, the potential or actual injury caused by the misconduct, and the existence of aggravating or mitigating factors.
"Duty Violated. Respondent violated his duties to his clients to provide diligent and competent representation, to provide reasonable communication, and to return his clients' property promptly when he ceased representing them. He also violated his duty ...