In re Wade

Decision Date07 June 2022
Docket NumberD-132 September Term 2020,085931
Citation250 N.J. 581,275 A.3d 426
Parties In the MATTER OF Dionne Larrel WADE, An Attorney at Law.
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

HoeChin Kim, Deputy Ethics Counsel, argued the cause on behalf of the Office of Attorney Ethics (Ryan J. Moriarty, Deputy Ethics Counsel, on the brief).

Donald M. Lomurro, argued the cause for respondent (Lomurro, Munson, Comer, Brown & Schottland, attorneys; Donald M. Lomurro and Christina Vassiliou Harvey, Freehold, of counsel and on the brief).

Robert B. Hille, Roseland, argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey State Bar Association (New Jersey State Bar Association, attorneys; Domenick Carmagnola, President, Morristown, of counsel, and Robert B. Hille and Abdus-Sami M. Jameel, on the brief).

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This attorney disciplinary matter involves a clear case of knowing misappropriation of client and escrow funds. From 2002 to 2017, Respondent Dionne Larrel Wade knowingly and repeatedly borrowed money from clients, without their knowledge or approval, to cover the needs of other clients and for her personal use. During a random audit conducted by the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE), Respondent admitted she transferred funds from her trust account because she needed the money to cover personal and business expenses. She represented that she never intended to steal the funds and had returned all the money. No clients were harmed.

Ms. Wade's remarkable personal and professional accomplishments are also clear from the record. She overcame obstacles early in life and persevered with her studies. Throughout her legal career, she volunteered her time and skill and provided pro bono legal services to underserved clients. She also conducted free legal clinics at her church. She has no prior disciplinary history.

Respondent and the State Bar Association ask the Court to revisit the rule imposed in In re Wilson, which calls for automatic disbarment of attorneys who knowingly misappropriate client funds. 81 N.J. 451, 453, 461, 409 A.2d 1153 (1979). Respondent suggests that mitigating factors be considered when no client is harmed. The State Bar submits that proof of intent to steal or defraud should be required to establish that an attorney knowingly misappropriated client or escrow funds.

This Court has long recognized that "[t]here are few more egregious acts of professional misconduct of which an attorney can be guilty than misappropriation of a client's funds held in trust." Id. at 455, 409 A.2d 1153 (quoting In re Beckmann, 79 N.J. 402, 404-05, 400 A.2d 792 (1979) ). In the four decades since Wilson, the Court has consistently disbarred attorneys who knowingly misappropriated client funds regardless of their motives or other mitigating factors. The rule has remained inviolate because of the critical aims it seeks to serve: to protect the public and maintain confidence in the legal profession and the Judiciary. See id. at 461, 409 A.2d 1153. If a lawyer knowingly misappropriates client funds, both the attorney and the public should know that the person will be disbarred.

Because the record in this case -- including Respondent's admissions -- clearly and convincingly demonstrates that she knowingly misappropriated client and escrow funds, the Court will enter an order of disbarment.

Under New Jersey's longstanding disciplinary rules, disbarment is permanent and marks the end of a person's ability to practice law. In that respect, our approach differs from most jurisdictions. Forty-one states and the District of Columbia allow disbarred attorneys to apply to be reinstated to the bar -- most of them after 5 years.

Although we decline to revisit the Wilson rule, we believe it is time to reevaluate the current approach to permanent disbarment. To be clear, lawyers will still be disbarred in all matters in which they knowingly misappropriate client or escrow funds, consistent with decades of precedent. The question -- and the challenge -- is whether and how to create a rigorous system that can determine if a lawyer disbarred for those reasons deserves a second chance years later.

Many considerations would likely factor into that type of decision, including the nature and seriousness of the misconduct, whether the person honestly accepts that their prior behavior was wrong, the extent of any rehabilitation, how much time has passed, whether the individual possesses the necessary integrity to practice law, and whether readmission would compromise public confidence in the bar, among other criteria.

Under any such system, it is unlikely that attorneys who stole from clients and caused substantial harm could ever be trusted to practice law again. On the other end of the spectrum, lawyers who knowingly misappropriated client funds while suffering from addiction, mental health issues, or great personal challenges; who did not cause harm; and who have been rehabilitated, might prove worthy of having their license restored at a later date. In between those examples lie many other scenarios, to be sure.

The Court will establish a broad-based committee to analyze whether disbarment for knowing misappropriation should continue to be permanent, or whether New Jersey should join the majority of jurisdictions that allow for reinstatement. We will ask lawyers and members of the public who are not attorneys to serve on the committee and present recommendations on an expedited basis. The committee's report will be made available for public comment before the Court decides whether and how to act.

Foremost in our mind is the need to protect the public, to retain its confidence in the legal profession, and to promote the integrity of the bar. If the Court revises the current approach to permanent disbarment, Ms. Wade and others would be able to reapply for admission in accordance with a new court rule.

I.

To summarize the facts, we draw from the record before the Special Ethics Master, his detailed report, and the comprehensive decision of the Disciplinary Review Board (DRB).

A.

Respondent has been a solo practitioner since she was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 2002. On June 15, 2017, the OAE conducted a random audit of her financial records. The day before, Respondent deposited $12,000 she borrowed from a friend into her attorney trust account.

The audit covered two years, from mid-2015 to mid-2017, and it identified multiple problems. They included commingling and extensive shortages in client trust funds totaling more than $11,000. In response to the audit, Respondent admitted that she borrowed client and escrow funds in two matters, without permission from her clients, because she needed money and had no one else to turn to for a loan. She explained what happened in a letter she wrote and sent the OAE dated August 14, 2017:

Regarding my trust account being out-of-trust please be advised of the following:
Without the knowledge or permission of two (2) of my clients, Rev. Milena Eason and the Estate of Felix Anderson, I borrowed money, resulting in the two (2) accounts being out of trust for a time.
As your office is aware, Rev. Milena Eason entrusted twenty-one thousand dollars [$21,000] in my care. Upon doing so, I placed the funds in my trust account. Though I did not immediately begin to borrow the funds, as money became low in my business, I transferred funds from my trust account to my attorney general/business account. At no time did I ever intend to keep or steal Rev. Eason's money. Not only did I intend to return the funds; but, the funds were actually returned to the account. I had no idea that my actions would spark disciplinary proceedings.
In addition, I borrowed money from my client, the Estate of Felix Anderson. In August 2016, I borrowed approximately five thousand dollars [$5,000] from the Estate account ....
As stated previously, I had no idea my actions were wrong or that they would spark disciplinary proceedings. I never intended to steal or keep these funds. Not only did I intend to return the funds; but, here too the funds were actually returned to the account ....
I work earnestly to run what I believe is a law firm of integrity based on my Christian values. I strive to give my clients good value for their dollar and the best service. This comes at a cost because my clients are sometimes slow to pay. Unfortunately, there was no-one I could turn to for a loan .... My point is ... there was no one else to turn to, so I borrowed the funds. I had no idea that I could be disciplined for my actions or that what I was doing was wrong.
Once the auditor told me the effect of my actions, I had to deal with the guilt, embarrassment and shame. I spent many sleepless nights crying and praying. I told my family, friends, colleagues and my pastor. ...
I also had to bear the embarrassment and shame of telling my clients ... about my actions. They were understanding, compassionate and unexpectedly supportive. One colleague requested I have her represent me. ...
I am now aware that I broke faith with my clients, family, the bar and most importantly with God. My prayer is that at some point, I can work to restore that faith. There is no excuse for my actions. I was placed in a position of trust and I violated said trust. ... I have learned from my mistakes. Chiefly, I am not alone and I don't have to borrow from client funds. ... In the end, I am held accountable and required to answer for my mistakes. ...
I request this Office take the aforementioned into consideration in taking any possible disciplinary action at the completion of this random audit.

The OAE continued with the audit and later extended the scope of its review to seven years.

B.

The allegations against Respondent involved three clients: Reverend Eason and the Grace of God Church in Paterson; the estate of Felix Anderson; and Vivian Clayton. To provide relevant background, we briefly summarize the allegations contained in the OAE's complaint, along...

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1 cases
  • Wheeler v. Ky. Bar Ass'n
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court — District of Kentucky
    • August 24, 2023
    ...2023) ("Misappropriation of client funds alone is particularly serious misconduct and usually warrants disbarment"); Matter of Wade, 275 A.3d 426, 438 (N.J. 2022) ("[K]nowing misappropriation will lead disbarment[]"); Disciplinary Counsel v. Sharp, 205 N.E.3d 484, 422-23 (Ohio 2022) ("[D]is......

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