Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

In re Owens

Supreme Court of Kansas

December 14, 2018

In the Matter of Lara M. Owens, Respondent.

         ORIGINAL PROCEEDING IN DISCIPLINE

         Original 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.

          Lara M. Owens, respondent, argued the cause and was on the brief pro se.

          Per Curiam

         This 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).

         The 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.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The 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.

         An 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."

         In 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.

         Before 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.

         Owens 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.

         A.R. 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.

         On 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.

         In 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.

         On 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.'"

         Upon 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.

         On 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.

         Owens 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 stipulated:

• 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)."

         Owens 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 never ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.