NATURE OF CASE
Lenny W. Thebarge, Jr. (Respondent), a member of the Nebraska State Bar Association, has been formally charged with violations of the Nebraska Rules of Professional Conduct and his oath of office as an attorney. Formal charges involved misappropriation of client funds, failure to communicate with clients, and obstruction of justice. We granted judgment on the pleadings, and we now determine the appropriate discipline for Respondent.
In 2011, Respondent was admitted to practice law in the State of Nebraska. At all times relevant to these proceedings Respondent was engaged in the private practice of law in Omaha, Nebraska.
Charges against Respondent are set forth below in detail. Respondent has not answered any of the formal charges against him, and therefore, judgment on the pleadings was entered.
In April 2012, Respondent was engaged in legal services with his client Jonathan Nelson. On August 28, 2012, Respondent received a check for $10,939.50 on behalf of Nelson. Respondent placed the check in his client trust fund account. Nelson says he never gave Respondent permission to apply this check to his outstanding bill, although Respondent claims he was authorized by Nelson to do so. However, on August 29, Respondent withdrew $1,700 from his client trust fund, leaving an account balance of only $9,989.50 and leaving Respondent out of trust by $950 in regard to Nelson's funds.
In November 2012, Nelson filed a grievance with the Counsel for Discipline, claiming that Nelson had never been provided an accounting on the check received by Respondent. During the investigation, Respondent claimed he had a written fee agreement with Nelson, but failed to provide copies of the written fee agreement to the Counsel for Discipline.
Therefore, Respondent was charged with violating and was determined to have violated Neb. Ct. R. of Prof. Cond. §§ 3-501.15 (safekeeping property), 3-501.16 (declining or terminating representation), 3-508.1 (bar admission and disciplinary matters), and 3-508.4 (misconduct).
In October 2012, Respondent engaged in legal services for Kimberly Cabriales. Cabriales paid Respondent an advance fee of $300. Respondent deposited Cabriales' check into his trust account. Prior to this deposit, Respondent's client trust account had a zero balance. Immediately upon depositing Cabriales' check, Respondent transferred $200 from the trust account to his own personal account, leaving a balance in the trust account of only $100. The next day, Respondent transferred the remaining $100 to another account owned by Respondent.
Cabriales filed a grievance with the Counsel for Discipline. In response to the grievance, Respondent submitted copies of four letters he claims he mailed to Cabriales in October, November, and December 2012. However, these letters were dated 2013. Cabriales denies ever having received any letters from Respondent, while Respondent claims that none of the letters were returned to him by the post office. Respondent refused the Counsel for Discipline's request to have his computer examined by an expert to establish when the letters in question were actually created on Respondent's computer. Therefore, it is assumed that the four letters were fabricated
Therefore, Respondent was charged with violating and was determined to have violated Neb. Ct. R. of Prof. Cond. §§ 3-501.3 (diligence) and 3-501.4 (communications) and conduct rules §§ 3-501.15 (safekeeping property), 3-508.1 (bar admission and disciplinary matters), and 3-508.4 (misconduct).
In June 2013, Respondent engaged in legal services for Michael Miller. Miller paid Respondent a $1,000 advance fee for the handling of his divorce. No portion of this advance fee was placed into Respondent's client trust fund account. Miller filed a grievance alleging that Respondent failed to communicate with him and failed to provide Miller with an accounting regarding his advance fee.
Therefore, Respondent was charged with violating and was determined to have violated conduct rules §§ 3-501.3 (diligence), 3-501.4 (communications), § 3-501.15 (safekeeping property), and 3-508.4 (misconduct).
When Counsel for Discipline informed Respondent that it was performing an audit of his client trust account, he failed to produce any requested information.
Therefore, Respondent was charged with violating and was determined to have violated conduct rules. §§ 3-501.15 (safekeeping property), 3-508.1 (bar admission and disciplinary matters), and 3-508.4 (misconduct).
In July 2012, Respondent entered into legal services on behalf of Brian Rodwell to represent him regarding his child support. On July 25, Rodwell paid Respondent a $1,500 advance fee, against which Respondent agreed to bill Rodwell at an hourly rate. On July 26, Respondent had zero funds in his client trust account. On July 27, Respondent deposited Rodwell's advance fee payment into his trust account and immediately withdrew $1,000 of the funds. On July 30, Respondent withdrew Rodwell's remaining $500 from his trust account, leaving a zero balance.
Respondent filed a complaint to modify decree on behalf of Rodwell on May 23, 2013, but then failed to take further action on behalf of Rodwell's case and failed to keep him informed of his case's status. On November 15, the district court issued a progression order stating that Rodwell's complaint to modify would be dismissed unless he failed to schedule a mediation. Respondent did not inform his client of this order, and no response to the district court was filed.
Therefore, Respondent was charged with violating and was determined to have violated conduct rules §§ 3-501.3 (diligence), 3-501.4 (communications), 3-501.15 (safekeeping property), and 3-508.4 (misconduct).
PROCEEDINGS AGAINST RESPONDENT
On December 18, 2013, Respondent's license to practice law was suspended by the Nebraska Supreme Court. Respondent failed to notify either the district court or Rodwell of his suspension.
Formal charges were entered against Respondent on February 13, 2014. The process server has stated that after diligent search and inquiry, Respondent could not be found in Douglas County, Nebraska. The process server also stated that he verified the address with Respondent's apartment manager and that Respondent was avoiding service.
On May 7, 2014, we granted judgment on the pleadings and the facts were deemed established. On June 30, counsel
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A proceeding to discipline an attorney is a trial de novo on the record.
An attorney is bound to the Nebraska Rules of Professional Conduct, under which an attorney must perform diligently and promptly in representing a client, communicate fully with a client, and properly administrate a client's funds in a separate trust account until the attorney has earned the fees he withdraws.
The goal of attorney disciplinary proceedings is not as much punishment as determination of whether it is in the public interest to allow an attorney to keep practicing law.
We have held that absent mitigating circumstances, disbarment is the appropriate discipline in cases of misappropriation or commingling of client funds.
Similarly, neglect of client cases and failure to cooperate with the Counsel for Discipline are grounds for disbarment.
In State ex rel. Counsel for Dis. v. Ellis,
As reiterated in the formal charges, Respondent did not communicate with his clients regarding their cases and did not properly appropriate his clients' trust fund accounts. He did not properly withdraw from representation of any of his clients and still maintains their files to this day. Correspondingly, Respondent prejudiced several of his clients' cases; in particular, he allowed Rodwell's case to be dismissed completely for failure to update the court. The Respondent has not cooperated with the Counsel for Discipline in its efforts to investigate his case, and in fact, Respondent is evading service from the Counsel for Discipline and this court. Respondent failed to provide records necessary to audit his client trust account. In the one instance when Respondent did reply to the Counsel for Discipline, he fabricated evidence of alleged communication with his clients. Thus, Respondent has engaged in dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation.
Because Respondent has not given any sign of mitigating factors to the court, there are none to consider. However, it is considered an aggravating factor that he has exhibited a complete failure to regard the rules of professional conduct and abide by his oath as an attorney. In order to protect the public and to end Respondent's pattern of conduct, disbarment is the proper sanction.
Upon due consideration of the facts of this case, and based upon Respondent's
It is the judgment of this court that Respondent should be and is hereby disbarred from the practice of law, effective immediately. Respondent is directed to pay costs and expenses, if any, in accordance with Neb.Rev.Stat. §§ 7-114 and 7-115 (Reissue 2012).
Judgment of Disbarment.