In the Matter of Lara M. Owens, Respondent.
PROCEEDING IN DISCIPLINE
proceeding in discipline. Six-month suspension.
Matthew J. Vogelsberg, Deputy Disciplinary Administrator,
argued the cause, and Stanton A. Hazlett, Disciplinary
Administrator, was with him on the brief for the petitioner.
M. Owens, respondent, argued the cause and was on the brief
original proceeding in attorney discipline arises from Lara
M. Owens' representation in two matters. On March 15,
2017, the office of the Disciplinary Administrator filed a
two-count formal complaint against Owens alleging violations
of the Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct (KRPC). After a
hearing, a panel of the Kansas Board for Discipline of
Attorneys determined Owens violated KRPC 1.1 (2018 Kan. S.Ct.
R. 289) (competence); KRPC 1.3 (2018 Kan. S.Ct. R. 292)
(diligence); KRPC 1.4(a) (2018 Kan. S.Ct. R. 293)
(communication); KRPC 1.15(b) (2018 Kan. S.Ct. R. 328)
(safekeeping property); KRPC 1.16(d) (2018 Kan. S.Ct. R. 333)
(termination of representation); KRPC 8.1(b) (2018 Kan. S.Ct.
R. 379) (failure to respond to a demand from a disciplinary
authority); KRPC 8.4(d) (2018 Kan. S.Ct. R. 381) (engaging in
conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice); and
Kansas Supreme Court Rule 207(b) (2018 Kan. S.Ct. R. 246)
(failure to cooperate in disciplinary investigation).
hearing panel unanimously recommended this court suspend
Owens from the practice of law for a period of six months and
the court reinstate her only after a hearing under Kansas
Supreme Court Rule 219 (2018 Kan. S.Ct. R. 264). In
proceedings before this court, Owens challenges the hearing
panel's conclusions that she violated KRPC 1.15(b) and
KRPC 1.16(d). In her brief, Owens requested the court place
her on supervised probation for two years. During oral
argument she asked this court to impose a sanction of
published censure rather than to suspend her from the
practice of law. We reject her arguments and conclude clear
and convincing evidence establishes violations of KRPC
1.15(b) and KRPC 1.16(d). Because of Owens' many
violations of the KRPC, the injuries caused to Owens'
clients, and other factors, a majority of the court holds the
appropriate sanction is a six-month suspension from the
practice of law and the court reinstate her only after a
hearing under Rule 219.
and Procedural Background
Disciplinary Administrator received a complaint about Owens
from her former client, G.T. He alleged Owens failed to
advise him of the statute of limitations for an employment
discrimination claim in Missouri, failed to timely file his
lawsuit, and failed to timely communicate with him about the
status of his case.
attorney was assigned to investigate G.T.'s complaint.
The investigator sent Owens a letter on July 13, 2016, asking
her to schedule a meeting with him sometime between July 27
and August 1, 2016, to discuss the complaint. The
investigator also requested Owens provide him with a summary
of her communications with G.T. and a copy of her client file
before the meeting. Owens did not respond to the letter. The
investigator emailed Owens on August 24, 2016, noting she had
not responded to his letter, which he attached to the email.
He asked whether she intended to respond. Again, Owens did
not respond. On August 31, 2016, the investigator sent a
second letter to Owens stating he had not received a response
to his previous letter or email. The letter was returned as
undeliverable with a note "UNABLE TO FORWARD."
addition to the complaint filed with the Kansas Disciplinary
Administrator, G.T. filed a complaint with the Missouri
Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. Owens is also licensed
in that state. The complaint was investigated by Division II
of the Region IV Missouri Supreme Court Regional Disciplinary
Committee, which found probable cause to believe Owens'
conduct violated Missouri Supreme Court Rule 4-1.1
(competence) and Missouri Supreme Court Rule 4-1.3
(diligence). These rules are identical to KRPC 1.1 and KRPC
1.3. The Missouri Committee determined Owens' conduct
warranted a formal letter of admonition under Missouri
Supreme Court Rule 5.11(b), which it sent to Owens on August
23, 2016. The letter conveyed the Committee's finding
that Owens committed the violations. It also informed her she
had 15 days to reject the admonition and request a hearing,
otherwise it would become part of her disciplinary record and
be available to the public under Missouri Supreme Court Rule
5.31(b)(3). Owens ultimately accepted the admonition.
Kansas had acted on G.T.'s complaint, the Disciplinary
Administrator received a second complaint. In this complaint,
P.Z. stated she had paid fees to Owens after Owens agreed to
undertake necessary proceedings to obtain an amended birth
certificate for P.Z.'s granddaughter. P.Z. and the
grandchild's mother, A.R., had first consulted with Owens
on July 14, 2015. P.Z.'s deceased son, D.Z., had been
engaged to A.R., and A.R. had been pregnant at the time of
D.Z.'s death. Later DNA testing confirmed D.Z. was the
child's father. P.Z. and A.R. wanted D.Z.'s name on
the birth certificate. P.Z. advanced a fee of $2, 000, and
Owens agreed to prepare and file the appropriate documents
and pleadings in the Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court.
prepared the documents and sent them to A.R. to review and
then sign and return. A.R. emailed Owens to inform her the
documents had no signature lines. An employee of Owens'
firm responded to A.R.'s email on October 14, 2015. Hard
copies with signature lines were mailed to A.R. shortly
thereafter. A.R. promptly signed the documents and mailed
them back to Owens.
subsequently made several phone calls to Owens about the
status of the case. When Owens did not return the calls, she
emailed Owens six times between November 17, 2015, and August
8, 2016. In those emails, A.R. asked for a status update,
referenced the unreturned calls, and asked whether Owens
needed her to provide anything further so the pleadings could
be filed. P.Z. also made repeated inquiries during that same
time frame about the status of the case. Owens failed to
respond to several of P.Z.'s and A.R.'s calls or to
A.R.'s emails. In October 2016, P.Z. contacted Owens to
request a billing statement. Owens provided no billing
statement nor any refund of the advanced fee.
December 19, 2016, P.Z. filed a complaint with the
Disciplinary Administrator. She alleged Owens failed to
timely file any documents or pleadings and failed to respond
to several inquiries from P.Z. and A.R. about the status of
the case. On December 20, 2016, the Disciplinary
Administrator sent Owens a letter advising her of P.Z.'s
complaint and asked for a written response within 20 days.
Owens did not respond.
January 2017, A.R. and P.Z. hired a new attorney to pursue
their goal of amending the Missouri birth certificate to
reflect that D.Z. was the child's father.
January 12, 2017, an investigator from the Disciplinary
Administrator's office assigned to investigate P.Z.'s
complaint sent Owens a letter asking for a response within 10
days. Owens did not respond. On January 27, 2017, the
investigator emailed Owens, noting her failure to respond to
the previous letters and reminding her that her participation
in the investigation was required under Supreme Court Rule
207 and KRPC 8.1(b). The investigator asked Owens to call him
that day. Owens emailed the investigator about three hours
later and attached her response to P.Z.'s complaint. In
her response, Owens stated:
"'First, [P.Z.] is not my client. [A.R.] engaged my
services . . . . [P.Z.] paid for the services but she is not
the client. Because [P.Z.] is not the client, I could not
divulge information to her. Without disclosing client
information, I needed something from [A.R.] to file the
petition. We called and left a message but did not hear back
from her. I noted that I missed a call from [A.R.] recently;
however, I had not had the opportunity to return the call as
I was immersed in trial preparations and without an assistant
while she was on her honeymoon. I need one item from [A.R.]
to complete the necessary filing and am willing to continue
to represent her.'"
receiving Owens' email, the investigator sent a second
email on January 27, 2017, asking Owens to provide a complete
copy of her client file and all information in her possession
(communications, court records, notes, and billing records)
relating to the complaint within ten days. On February 6,
2017, Owens sent the investigator an email with several
attached documents: (1) A.R.'s fee agreement; (2) an
engagement letter to A.R. and P.Z. indicating Owens was
representing both of them and requesting a waiver of conflict
of interests, which A.R. and P.Z. signed; (3) unsigned
pleadings and a proposed order; (4) a copy of the child's
birth certificate; (5) a copy of a prior judgment changing
the child's last name; and (6) a copy of D.Z.'s birth
certificate. At times during these proceedings, Owens has
represented she did not have signed pleadings from A.R., and,
before this court, she said she did not have the child's
birth certificate. But the panel found Owens did have signed
copies of the pleadings. And we know Owens sent the
child's birth certificate to the investigator. Also
significant, Owens did not send several documents. For
example, she did not provide evidence of receipt of any funds
from P.Z., billing records, or records of communications with
A.R. and P.Z.
March 15, 2017, the Disciplinary Administrator filed a
formal, two-count complaint. The first count related to
Owens' representation of G.T. and alleged Owens violated
KRPC 1.1, KRPC 1.3, KRPC 1.4, KRPC 8.1, KRPC 8.4, and Kansas
Supreme Court Rule 207. The second count related to the
handling of the matter for A.R. and P.Z. The Disciplinary
Administrator alleged Owens violated KRPC 1.1, KRPC 1.3, KRPC
1.4, KRPC 1.15, KRPC 1.16, KRPC 8.1, KRPC 8.4, and Kansas
Supreme Court Rule 207 in that representation. Owens filed an
answer to the complaint admitting to some of the alleged
facts. She also filed a formal request to be placed on
probation and provided a proposed plan of probation.
and the Disciplinary Administrator entered into a joint
stipulation about two weeks before the disciplinary hearing.
Relating to her conduct in representing G.T. (Count I), Owens
• She had failed to provide G.T. "timely updates
regarding the status of his lawsuit after it was filed";
• The Missouri circuit court presiding over G.T.'s
lawsuit had dismissed G.T.'s retaliatory discharge claim
because it "was not timely filed";
• She had failed to respond to G.T.'s complaint and
to letters and emails from the Disciplinary Administrator and
the disciplinary committee's investigator;
• She had accepted Missouri's determination that her
conduct warranted a formal letter of admonition, and,
"[accordingly, under Kansas Supreme Court Rule 202 (2017
Kan. S.Ct. R. 233) (concerning reciprocal discipline),
[Owens'] Missouri admonition establishes violations of
KRPC 1.1 and 1.3"; and
• Owens' "conduct, as described . . . in Count
I, violated Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1, 1.3,
1.4, 8.1(b), 8.4(d), and Kansas Supreme Court Rule 207 (2017
Kan. S.Ct. R. 246)."
also entered into stipulations relating to Count II arising
from her contact with A.R. and P.Z.:
• Owens "contends that she never received the
signed pleadings from [A.R.]. Regardless, the pleadings were