In re PRB Docket No. 2016-042, SUPREME COURT DOCKET NO. 16-259

Citation154 A.3d 949
Case DateAugust 24, 2016
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

154 A.3d 949



Supreme Court of Vermont.

August 24, 2016


¶ 1. Upon review of the hearing panel decision in this matter, the Court concludes as follows: The decision presents a well-reasoned discussion and resolution of a problem common in legal practice, particularly for small firms and solo practitioners. Accordingly, the Court orders review of the decision on its own motion, adopts the hearing panel decision in its entirety as a final order of this Court,

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waives briefing and oral argument, and orders that the decision be published in the Vermont Reports.


In re PRB File No. 2016–042

Decision No. 198

The Hearing Panel hereby approves Respondent receiving a private admonition from Disciplinary Counsel for violation of Rules 1.15(a), 5.3(a) and 5.3(b) of the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct, as Respondent failed to maintain proper control and oversight of his client trust accounts.

Hearing Panel No. 10, consisting of Joseph J. O'Dea, Esq., Chair, Jonathan M. Cohen, Esq. and Mr. Roger Preuss, has received and considered Disciplinary Counsel's and Respondent's written submissions. Disciplinary Counsel and Respondent jointly requested that this disciplinary matter be resolved by private admonition by Disciplinary Counsel. Based upon the parties' submissions, including the Stipulation of Facts, Joint Recommendation for Conclusions of Law, Disciplinary Counsel's Sanction Memorandum, letters of support submitted on Respondent's behalf, and Joint Recommendation for Admonition by Disciplinary Counsel, the Hearing Panel makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.


Respondent is an attorney licensed to practice law in Vermont and New Hampshire. He was admitted to the New Hampshire bar in 1972 and the Vermont bar in 2000. Respondent currently works as a sole practitioner. Respondent maintains an office in New Hampshire, but represents clients in both Vermont and New Hampshire. His practice is focused on business law, commercial transactions, business litigation, and real estate transactions.

In 1991, Respondent joined a New Hampshire law firm and was assigned to the firm's new satellite office. Respondent hired a nonlawyer employee to work with him. Respondent knew the employee prior to hiring her, as the employee had worked for Respondent's wife for five years, prior to Respondent's and his wife's marriage. The employee's work for Respondent's wife was highly regarded.

For the first nine years the employee worked with Respondent, the employee did not handle money or Respondent's office accounts because those tasks were handled by staff at the law firm's main office. Respondent found the employee to be smart and capable. During their years working together, Respondent and the employee became personal friends.

In 2000, Respondent left the law firm, established his own office, and began working as a solo practitioner. Respondent hired the employee to work for him in his new office.

At the new office, Respondent assigned the employee some new duties, including handling Respondent's operating account and client trust accounts.1 (Respondent maintained client trust accounts in New Hampshire and Vermont.) Respondent would make all of the bank deposits himself, and confirm the deposits were recorded in his QuickBooks accounting system. Respondent's employee was responsible for all of the other bookkeeping tasks associated with Respondent's accounts. For example, the employee opened the monthly

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bank statements and performed the monthly reconciliations for each account, including the client trust accounts.

Respondent performed some limited oversight of his client trust accounts.2 At the end of each month, the employee prepared a ledger report for each client's trust account, showing all deposits to and withdrawals from each client's trust account. Each ledger report also stated the balance for each client's trust account as of the end of the month. Each month, Respondent reviewed the employee's ledger reports for each client's trust account. The employee's ledger reports showed the client's respective trust accounts were in balance and there were no problems with the accounts. When Respondent concluded work on a client's matter, the client's trust account would be reduced to zero by payment of outstanding fees and costs, and by refunding the unexpended balance to the client. After final disbursement from the client trust account, the employee prepared a final ledger report for the client's trust account for Respondent's review. Respondent always reviewed the employee's final ledger report to confirm that the client's trust account showed a zero balance.

Annually, Respondent hired an outside certified public accountant (CPA) to review his financial records and prepare his tax returns. The CPA's work included a review of all of Respondent's QuickBooks entries. The CPA never brought any issues to Respondent's attention concerning Respondent's accounts or financial records.

Respondent's title insurance company periodically reviewed Respondent's IOLTA accounts and, it appears, the title insurance company never discovered any irregularities.

Respondent did not implement or follow reasonable procedures to safeguard client funds while he worked as a sole practitioner. Respondent did not personally review the monthly bank statements or cancelled checks. Respondent did not review his employee's monthly account reconciliations. Respondent's oversight was limited to reviewing the ledger reports prepared by his employee. Had Respondent compared the employee's ledger reports against the corresponding bank statements, Respondent would have discovered significant discrepancies, as the information recorded in his QuickBooks accounting system did not match the transactions reported in corresponding bank statements.

Unbeknownst to Respondent, the employee was engaged in an embezzlement scheme, and was periodically taking money from Respondent's operating account. The employee used different techniques to embezzle money from the operating account. For example, the employee wrote checks payable to herself, forged Respondent's signature on the checks, and cashed the checks. The employee did not record these checks in QuickBooks, but she would reduce the amount of a deposit previously recorded in QuickBooks by the amount of the check she had just written to herself. Following this procedure, the QuickBooks accounts always appeared to be in balance. The employee would also write checks payable to herself and record the checks in QuickBooks as payment of an office expense,

154 A.3d 953

thereby disguising her theft as a business expense.

During the course of her employment, the employee engaged in one instance of embezzling money from Respondent's client trust account. In November 2014, the employee wrote one trust account check, payable to herself, in the amount of $2020.18, and forged Respondent's signature on the check. The employee recorded the check in QuickBooks, falsely designating "Capitol One" as the payee.

In January 2015, Respondent needed to pay his fourth quarter estimated taxes. To make the payment, Respondent tried to transfer funds from his operating account, but the transfer failed due to insufficient funds. Respondent went to the bank to look into the matter and discovered his employee's unauthorized withdrawals from his operating account. Respondent was in disbelief that his trusted employee, with twenty-four years of service, had stolen money from him. Respondent felt completely betrayed.

Respondent immediately terminated the employee. Respondent hired an experienced paralegal to take over the former employee's duties. Respondent promptly notified law enforcement about the embezzlement.3 Respondent asked the CPA firm that annually prepared his tax returns to examine all of his accounts and financial records. Respondent also engaged the services of the CPA firm's forensic specialist to do a specialized review. Law enforcement and Respondent's title insurance company conducted their own examinations of Respondent's accounts and financial records. All of Respondent's financial records for his operating accounts and his client trust accounts were thoroughly examined.

The investigations revealed a substantial sum of money was missing from Respondent's operating account, but no money appeared to be missing from Respondent's client trust accounts. Respondent self-reported the embezzlement to Vermont Disciplinary Counsel, out of an abundance of caution and a desire for transparency.

In August 2015, Disciplinary Counsel selected Respondent's Vermont client trust account for a compliance examination. Once notified of the upcoming examination, Respondent and his paralegal re-reviewed the records for his client trust account. Respondent discovered his former employee had written a check to herself in November 2014 for $2020.18, as described above. On discovering the misappropriation, Respondent immediately transferred money from his...

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