In re White, 26482.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
Citation378 S.C. 333,663 S.E.2d 21
Decision Date23 June 2008
Docket NumberNo. 26482.,26482.
PartiesIn the Matter of William Gary WHITE, III, Respondent.
663 S.E.2d 21
378 S.C. 333
In the Matter of William Gary WHITE, III, Respondent.
No. 26482.
Supreme Court of South Carolina.
Heard April 1, 2008.
Refiled June 23, 2008.

[663 S.E.2d 23]

Lesley M. Coggiola, Disciplinary Counsel, C. Tex Davis, Jr., Senior Assistant Disciplinary Counsel, of Columbia; for Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

Irby E. Walker, Jr., of Conway; for Respondent.

PER CURIAM.


This is an attorney disciplinary matter involving a Complaint against William Gary White, III (Respondent) for his representation of a client in a personal injury case. After a full investigation by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC), the Commission on Lawyer Conduct filed formal charges against Respondent. After a hearing before the Commission on Lawyer Conduct Panel (Panel), the hearing panel recommended Respondent be sanctioned to a ninety-day definite suspension from the practice of law and be required to pay the costs of the proceedings. Due to the gravity of Respondent's misconduct, we believe a harsher sanction is warranted. After we issued our original opinion suspending Respondent for six months and ordering him to pay the costs of the proceedings, Disciplinary Counsel petitioned for rehearing. We deny the petition for rehearing, withdraw our original opinion in this matter, and substitute it with this

663 S.E.2d 24

opinion which corrects a single factual statement that Respondent gave testimony to Disciplinary Counsel pursuant to a Notice to Appear and Subpoena rather than appearing as the "sole witness for a hearing conducted by disciplinary counsel before an investigative panel."

FACTS

On October 5, 2004, Client was involved in an automobile accident in which she sustained injuries. Three days later, Client sought to retain Respondent to represent her to recover for her injuries and property damage. During the initial meeting, Client signed a retainer agreement which stated in part, "I authorize my attorney to receive settlement checks on my behalf, endorse my name and deposit same for distribution."

In the latter part of July 2005, Respondent negotiated a settlement with GEICO in the amount of $5,500. In a letter dated August 3, 2005, GEICO submitted a Release to Respondent and referenced a settlement check. According to the letter, the settlement check dated August 3, 2005, had been sent under a separate cover. The letter instructed Respondent to hold all funds in escrow until Respondents' clients had signed and returned the Release to GEICO. The Release and settlement check were to be signed by Client and her husband. Client's husband was not represented by Respondent and had never accompanied his wife to any of her meetings with Respondent. Upon receipt of the check, Respondent endorsed it by signing his name, Client's name, and her husband's name. Respondent deposited the check into his trust account and then disbursed his legal fees from the settlement proceeds and transferred the amount into his operating account.

On August 22, 2005, Client met with Respondent who informed her that the case was closed and there was nothing else that could be done despite Client's complaints that she was still in pain and receiving medical treatment. Client expressed dissatisfaction with the settlement and ceased any further contact with Respondent. In December 2005, Respondent's office contacted Client in a failed attempt to get Client to pick up her settlement check.

In May 2006, Client retained another attorney (Attorney) to represent her in a legal malpractice action against Respondent and to further pursue her personal injury claim. During Attorney's investigation of the personal injury case, she discovered from GEICO that a Release had not been signed. Because Respondent had retained the settlement proceeds, Attorney corresponded in writing with him requesting that he return the proceeds to GEICO in order that she could settle Client's case. In his responses, Respondent claimed that Client had authorized him to settle the case and he was not required to return the funds. Respondent also challenged Attorney's allegation that Client had an additional claim and implied that such a claim would be fraudulent.

Ultimately, Respondent returned the settlement proceeds to GEICO less his fee of $1,879.75. Following the return of the funds, Attorney negotiated a settlement of $15,000 from GEICO less the fees retained by Respondent. Attorney also settled with State Farm, Client's insurance carrier, for $50,000, which represented her underinsured coverage. This settlement took into account the medical bills that Client acquired after she terminated her representation with Respondent, which included a rotator cuff surgery in September 2005 for an injury attributed to the October 2004 automobile accident.

Due to Respondent's conduct, Client filed a Complaint against Respondent with the ODC. On May 25, 2006, ODC notified Respondent regarding the investigation of Client's Complaint. Respondent filed a response to the notice on June 22, 2006. On November 30, 2006, Respondent gave testimony to Disciplinary Counsel pursuant to a Notice to Appear and Subpoena.

Based on its investigation, the investigative panel authorized formal charges against Respondent. The ODC filed formal charges against Respondent on March 22, 2007. In his Response to the charges, Respondent admitted he: (1) had negotiated the settlement on behalf of Client; and (2) endorsed the settlement check with his name and Client's name. Because he believed that Client had authorized him to settle her case,

663 S.E.2d 25

he denied any misconduct. Although he neither admitted nor denied signing Client's husband's name, he admitted that he deposited the settlement check in his trust account and transferred the amount of his legal fees into his operating account. He further admitted that at the time of the disbursement of the legal fees Client had not signed any type of settlement or disbursement sheet.

At the hearing before the Panel, the following witnesses were presented: Client, Client's husband, Attorney, and another witness (Witness A)1 who recounted Respondent's actions.

Respondent gave a different account of his representation of Client. Respondent, a sole practitioner, testified he had practiced law for thirty-one years during which time he had handled personal injury cases. In terms of representing Client, Respondent testified he felt Client was "anxious to settle" given she frequently called his office to inquire about a settlement. Because he believed that Client was released from medical treatment on July 8, 20052, he pursued a settlement with GEICO in the latter part of July 2005. According to Respondent, Client authorized him to settle her case for $6,000. Respondent claimed he entered into an agreement with GEICO to settle the case after several failed attempts to consult with Client regarding a settlement. He further stated that in all of his years of practice he had never settled a claim without his client's permission.

Respondent admitted that after receiving the settlement check from GEICO he signed Client's name to the check. Although he could not specifically recall signing Client's husband's name to the check, he testified that if he signed the check it was done without a fraudulent intent. Respondent further admitted he deposited the settlement check in his trust account and transferred the amount of his legal fees into his operating account. Respondent believed this conduct was permissible and not in violation of GEICO's instructions because he received the settlement check prior to receiving GEICO's letter. Respondent further testified he did not believe any of his conduct, while representing Client, was unethical.

On cross-examination, Respondent admitted he sent a medical release to Client's orthopedist on August 22, 2005, in which he requested Client's medical records from August 1, 2005. Respondent was unable to explain why he made this request after he entered into a settlement agreement with GEICO in July 2005. In terms of endorsing the settlement check, Respondent conceded that he was not authorized to sign for Client's husband; however, he claimed he did so because he was concerned about losing the check before it was properly endorsed.

After the hearing, the Panel found Respondent engaged in misconduct in violation of the following Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 407, SCACR: Rule 1.1, RPC (Competence); Rule 1.2, RPC (Scope of Representation; Allocation of Authority between Client and Lawyer); Rule 1.4, RPC (Communication); Rule 1.5 (Fees); Rule 1.15, RPC (Safekeeping Client's Property); and Rules 8.4(d) and (e), RPC (Misconduct). The Panel recommended that Respondent be suspended for a period of ninety days and pay the costs of the proceedings.

DISCUSSION

Although Respondent raises eleven exceptions to the Panel's report, we believe Respondent is essentially challenging the Panel's: (1) factual findings; (2) decision regarding the exclusion of certain testimony;

663 S.E.2d 26

and (3) imposition of a ninety-day suspension.

"This Court has the sole authority to discipline attorneys and to decide the appropriate sanction after a thorough review of the record." In re Thompson, 343 S.C. 1, 10, 539 S.E.2d 396, 401 (2000). "Although this Court is not bound by the findings of the Panel and Committee, these findings are entitled to great weight, particularly when the inferences to be drawn from the testimony depend on...

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