Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Bd. v. Bartley, No. 14–0757.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtCADY, Chief Justice.
Citation860 N.W.2d 331
PartiesIOWA SUPREME COURT ATTORNEY DISCIPLINARY BOARD, Appellee, v. Verla Jean BARTLEY, Appellant.
Decision Date27 February 2015
Docket NumberNo. 14–0757.

860 N.W.2d 331

IOWA SUPREME COURT ATTORNEY DISCIPLINARY BOARD, Appellee
v.
Verla Jean BARTLEY, Appellant.

No. 14–0757.

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Feb. 27, 2015.


860 N.W.2d 333

David L. Brown of Hansen, McClintock & Riley, Des Moines, for appellant.

Charles L. Harrington and David J. Grace, Des Moines, for appellee.

Opinion

CADY, Chief Justice.

The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board charged attorney Verla Jean Bartley with violating the rules of professional conduct based on neglect, misrepresentations, and trust account and fee violations in the representation of the executors in two separate estates. After reviewing a written stipulation entered into by the parties, the Grievance Commission of the Supreme Court of Iowa found Bartley violated several rules and recommended a 180-day suspension.

I. Background Facts and Prior Proceedings.

Verla Jean Bartley was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1961. She rose to prominence in the profession over the years and was active in the state bar association. She has no prior disciplinary record. In 2002, she began practicing as “of counsel” with an Iowa City law firm and retired from the active practice of law in 2014.

The events leading to this disciplinary action against Bartley involved her conduct in serving as the attorney for the executors in two estate proceedings. In 2001, Bartley opened the Shepherd estate. She completed most of the work for the estate in a timely manner. She billed and collected fees for her work on the estate in late 2006. The fees were not approved by the district court at that time and were deposited directly into the firm's business account rather than the trust account. In February 2008, the final report for the estate was filed and the previously paid fees were approved, but the estate did not close at that time because, according to Bartley, the Iowa Department of Revenue had not issued the “Certificate of Acquittance from Income Tax.” The court granted multiple extensions of time to file the certificate from the time of the final report through June 2013 without resolution. In reality, Bartley was unable to close the estate due to tax difficulties, including unfiled returns and an unpaid creditor claim that remained outstanding until late 2013. In the course of trying to close the estate and then to resolving the tax returns and creditor-claim problems, Bartley made numerous misrepresentations to the court and members of her law firm regarding her actions. The misrepresentations included creating a false check purportedly

860 N.W.2d 334

paying the creditor claim, creating a letter from the bank indicating the false check was processed, and knowingly misrepresenting the status of the estate's tax returns to the court. The interlocutory reports to the court on the status of the estate also contained false information.

In 2005, Bartley opened the Gergis estate. Again, Bartley completed the majority of the estate in a timely manner. In 2005, 2007, and 2008, the estate's executor paid Bartley a total of $65,000 in fees from the estate for her services. The court did not approve the fees at the time any of the payments were made. The fees represented an amount that was approximately half of the maximum ordinary statutory fee. The fees paid in 2005 and 2008 were deposited directly into the firm's business account; and the 2007 fee, though initially deposited into the firm's trust account, was immediately transferred to the business account. The estate included a charitable trust and could not be closed until the necessary tax clearances from the Internal Revenue Service were received. The final clearance was not issued until March 14, 2013. On June 24, 2013, the court approved the final report. In the report, the court approved the fees previously collected by Bartley in 2005, 2007, and 2008. No additional fees were requested under an agreement with the executor.

The Shepherd estate was open under Bartley's direction from March 2001 through 2013, over twelve years, including over five years after the final report was filed with the court. The Gergis estate was opened in May 2005 and closed in June 2013, just over eight years later. The court granted numerous extensions in both estates.

In November 2012, the court informed a partner in Bartley's law firm of its concerns regarding her conduct in the Shepherd and Gergis estates. The partner discussed the problems with Bartley. This discussion prompted Bartley to send a letter to the Board dated January 23, 2013, to self-report her neglect on a tax matter for the Shepherd estate, her conduct in collecting fees from the Gergis estate without a court order, and her neglect in handling the tax matters in the Gergis estate.

On April 29, 2013, a formal complaint was filed with the commission. The Board amended the complaint once in October after reviewing case files and a second time at the end of November in response to a letter from a partner in Bartley's law office documenting ongoing violations that had occurred subsequent to Bartley's self-report.

II. Board Complaint.

The Board charged Bartley with multiple violations of the rules of professional responsibility, Iowa court rules, and statutes. Count I included all the violations resulting from her actions with the Shepherd estate. She was charged with violations of Iowa Code section 633.198 (2013) (court determination of probate fees); Iowa Court Rules 7.2 (probate fees) and 45.7 (advance fee deposit requirement); Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct 32:1.3 (2014) (reasonable diligence), 32:1.5(a) (payment of fees), 32:1.15 (trust account), 32:3.3(a)(1) (candor with tribunal), 32:8.4(c) (dishonest, fraudulent, or deceitful conduct), and 32:8.4(d) (prejudice to the administration of justice); and for actions predating the 2005 rules change, Iowa Code of Professional Responsibility for Lawyers rules DR 1–102(A)(5) (prejudice to administration of justice), DR 1–102(A)(6) (fitness to practice law), and DR 6–101(A) (failure to act competently). Count II, concerning the Gergis estate, charged violations of Iowa Code section 633.198 ; Iowa Court Rules 7.2 and 45.7 ;

860 N.W.2d 335

and Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct 32:1.3, 32:1.5(a), 32:1.15, and 32:8.4(d).

Bartley and the Board entered into a written stipulation rather than proceeding to an evidentiary hearing before the commission. As to the Shepherd estate, she agreed she failed to perform her responsibilities with reasonable diligence, made misrepresentations to the court and her law firm regarding tax matters and creditor claims, received attorney fees without court approval, and either did not deposit those fees in the trust account or withdrew them prematurely. In the Gergis estate, Bartley stipulated that she failed to exercise reasonable diligence and preparation, received attorney fees without court approval, failed to deposit fees into the trust account, and prematurely withdrew fees from the trust account. The Board and Bartley also stipulated to a recommended sanction of a sixty-day suspension from the practice of law.1 The commission accepted the stipulated violations. However, it concluded the number and nature of the violations warranted more than a sixty-day suspension and recommended the court suspend Bartley for 180 days with a supervision condition upon reinstatement.

III. Scope of Review.

“ ‘We review attorney disciplinary matters de novo.’ ” Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Carter, 847 N.W.2d 228, 231 (Iowa 2014) (quoting Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Lemanski, 841 N.W.2d 131, 133 (Iowa 2013) ); see also Iowa Ct. R. 35.11(1) ( “Upon submission, the supreme court shall proceed to review de novo....”). Attorney misconduct must be proven by a convincing preponderance of the evidence. Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Clarity, 838 N.W.2d 648, 651 (Iowa 2013). “We respectfully consider the commission's findings and recommendations, but they do not bind us.” Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Wheeler, 824 N.W.2d 505, 509 (Iowa 2012). Although stipulations of fact are binding on the parties, stipulations to violations and sanctions are not binding on us. Clarity, 838 N.W.2d at 651.

IV. Violations.

Bartley's conduct falls into three general categories of violations of the rules of professional conduct: neglect, fee-payment violations, and misrepresentation. We will discuss each category separately.

A. Neglect. Neglect “involves an attorney's failure to perform obligations assumed for the client, or a conscious disregard for the responsibilities a lawyer owes to a client.” Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Thomas, 794 N.W.2d 290, 293 (Iowa 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). One duty of an attorney for an executor is to close the estate in a timely manner. Generally, estates must be closed within three years unless otherwise ordered by the court. Iowa Code § 633.473. In the Shepherd estate, Bartley failed to timely file tax returns and neglected to settle an outstanding debt for a period of over twelve years. Likewise, her neglect delayed the closing of the Gergis estate for five years. Although the court...

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29 practice notes
  • Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Bd. v. Deremiah, No. 15–1917.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • February 26, 2016
    ...has not had prior discipline, which we have recognized as a mitigating factor. See Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Bartley, 860 N.W.2d 331, 339 (Iowa 2015). Notwithstanding the restitution issue, he has accepted responsibility for his acts and seems genuinely remorseful, a mitiga......
  • Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Bd. v. Kingery, No. 15–0673.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • October 30, 2015
    ...Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Kelsen, 855 N.W.2d 175, 181 (Iowa 2014) ; accord Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Bartley, 860 N.W.2d 331, 335 (Iowa 2015) ; Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Gailey, 790 N.W.2d 801, 804 (Iowa 2010) ("Nowhere in our rules have we given the pa......
  • Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Bd. v. Jacobsma, No. 18-1267
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • December 7, 2018
    ...his law partners confronted him lessens the mitigating force of this factor. See Iowa Supreme Ct. Att’y Disciplinary Bd. v. Bartley , 860 N.W.2d 331, 339 (Iowa 2015) ("[M]itigation is lessened somewhat when the self-reporting is at least in part motivated by knowledge that the law firm woul......
  • Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Bd. v. Willey, 21-0214
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • October 15, 2021
    ...Willey had no prior discipline before 2017, which we also consider a mitigating factor. Iowa Sup. Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Bartley , 860 N.W.2d 331, 339 (Iowa 2015). Finally, Willey has engaged in extensive community service, another mitigating factor. Willey I , 889 N.W.2d at 658 (cit......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
29 cases
  • Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Bd. v. Deremiah, No. 15–1917.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • February 26, 2016
    ...has not had prior discipline, which we have recognized as a mitigating factor. See Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Bartley, 860 N.W.2d 331, 339 (Iowa 2015). Notwithstanding the restitution issue, he has accepted responsibility for his acts and seems genuinely remorseful, a mitiga......
  • Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Bd. v. Kingery, No. 15–0673.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • October 30, 2015
    ...Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Kelsen, 855 N.W.2d 175, 181 (Iowa 2014) ; accord Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Bartley, 860 N.W.2d 331, 335 (Iowa 2015) ; Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Gailey, 790 N.W.2d 801, 804 (Iowa 2010) ("Nowhere in our rules have we given the pa......
  • Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Bd. v. Jacobsma, No. 18-1267
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • December 7, 2018
    ...his law partners confronted him lessens the mitigating force of this factor. See Iowa Supreme Ct. Att’y Disciplinary Bd. v. Bartley , 860 N.W.2d 331, 339 (Iowa 2015) ("[M]itigation is lessened somewhat when the self-reporting is at least in part motivated by knowledge that the law firm woul......
  • Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Bd. v. Willey, 21-0214
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • October 15, 2021
    ...Willey had no prior discipline before 2017, which we also consider a mitigating factor. Iowa Sup. Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Bartley , 860 N.W.2d 331, 339 (Iowa 2015). Finally, Willey has engaged in extensive community service, another mitigating factor. Willey I , 889 N.W.2d at 658 (cit......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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