Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Bd. v. Aeilts

Decision Date13 May 2022
Docket Number21-1799
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Tara van Brederode, Lawrence F. Dempsey IV, and Crystal W. Rink (until withdrawal), for appellee.

Matthew M. Boles and Adam C. Witosky of Gribble Boles Stewart & Witosky Law, Des Moines, for appellant.

Oxley, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which all justices joined.

OXLEY, Justice.

Honesty is the hallmark of the legal profession. It should go without saying that misrepresenting facts to a court and to law enforcement violates the rules of professional conduct Iowa attorneys take an oath to uphold. Attorney Andrew Aeilts appears before us after: receiving an OWI, falsely reporting a crime, and misrepresenting his professional experience during allocution to the court sentencing him on the resulting malicious prosecution charge in an effort to excuse his conduct. The Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission recommends we suspend Aeilts's license for six months for his violations of Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct 32:8.4(b), 32:8.4(c), and 32:8.4(d). Upon our de novo review of the record, we suspend Aeilts's license for six months.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Andrew Aeilts was admitted to practice law in Iowa in 2015. He maintains a private law practice with his wife in Pella, Iowa.

The conduct bringing Aeilts to the Board's attention began on August 21, 2018, when Randy Cornelison, the father of one of Aeilts's clients, called Aeilts to complain about the lack of progress on his son's custody case and to get his son's retainer back. During the phone call, Cornelison told Aeilts he was going to file an ethics complaint against him. Later that day, Aeilts told Pella Police Officer Tim Donelson that Cornelison threatened to physically assault him during the telephone call. Aeilts requested that harassment charges be brought against Cornelison and sought a no-contact order. Donelson asked Aeilts if he had a recording of the conversation. Aeilts replied he did not but that he was not afraid to testify and informed Donelson that Cornelison had a criminal history.

Donelson contacted Cornelison during his investigation. Cornelison denied making any threats against Aeilts and provided a recording of the conversation as proof. At no point during the three-minute-and-thirty-two-second audio recording did Cornelison make any threats that he was going to physically assault or harm Aeilts. On October 1, Aeilts was charged with Malicious Prosecution in violation of Iowa Code section 720.6 and with False Report of an Indictable Offense to a Public Entity in violation of Iowa Code section 718.6(1) for his conduct related to pressing harassment charges against Cornelison.

The second incident giving rise to the Board's complaint against Aeilts occurred less than a month later on September 16, when Aeilts drove while intoxicated. Around 3:40 a.m., Aeilts drove his vehicle off of the roadway, through a cornfield causing damage to the field and to his vehicle, and then drove approximately six miles with a damaged windshield before being stopped by law enforcement. Aeilts was arrested by the Marion County Sheriff's Office for Operating While Under the Influence First Offense in violation of Iowa Code section 321J.2(2)(a ). The Marion County Sheriff's Office also cited Aeilts for Failure to Maintain Control in violation of Iowa Code section 321.288(1).

Prior to being booked into the Marion County jail, Aeilts sent Assistant Marion County Attorney Mathias Robinson two text messages at 5:28 a.m. that read: "Need help" and "911." Aeilts knew Robinson socially and occasionally communicated with him by text message regarding cases. Less than an hour later, Aeilts blew a .122 on a breathalyzer. Later in the day, Robinson responded to Aeilts's texts asking, "What's up?" Aeilts responded with two more text messages: "Made a mistake that'll be coming across your desk. Hopeful we can work something out," and "And hopeful we can do so quickly and quietly if possible."

Aeilts pleaded guilty to the Operating While Intoxicated Charge on June 13, 2019, and the court granted a deferred judgment on July 26. The court placed Aeilts on supervised probation for one year, imposed a civil penalty, and required Aeilts to complete fifteen hours of unpaid community service.

Aeilts ultimately tendered an Alford1 plea to the Malicious Prosecution charge in exchange for dismissal of the False Reporting charge. At his sentencing hearing on February 18, 2020, Aeilts stated during his allocution to the court:

I would like for the record's sake to clarify a misrepresentation that was made about my history. At the time of the facts giving rise to this case, I was not a criminal defense attorney. I had handled maybe two or three OWIs. I had never handled anything else. I was not a criminal defense attorney. I didn't know the elements of harassment....
I did not know -- I was not a criminal attorney -- that to get a no-contact order from law enforcement it required criminal charges. As my professional statement, I did not know that to be true. I had never handled a harassment charge. I had never handled so much as a simple assault.

In reality, Aeilts had represented clients in at least twenty-two criminal matters on charges that included OWI, trespass, assault, disorderly conduct, two different harassment charges, burglary, neglect of a dependent person, child endangerment, and drug possession. Ten were misdemeanor OWIs; two were felonies. The court sentenced Aeilts to three days in the Wayne County Jail and a $315 fine on the Malicious Prosecution charge.

On April 27, 2021, the Board filed an ethics complaint against Aeilts alleging that Aeilts violated the following Rules of Professional Conduct: rule 32:8.4(b), based on Aeilts's criminal convictions for malicious prosecution and OWI; rule 32:8.4(c), based on Aeilts's misrepresentations to Officer Donelson concerning Cornelison's threats of physical violence and his separate misrepresentations about his professional experience during his sentencing allocution; and rule 32:8.4(d), based on Aeilts's misrepresentations that subjected Cornelison to criminal charges and his text messages to Robinson, the Assistant Marion County Attorney, related to his OWI charges.

The parties waived a formal hearing and submitted the matter on the basis of a Partial Stipulation. The parties agreed that Aeilts violated rule 32:8.4(b) and rule 32:8.4(d) with respect to the Malicious Prosecution charge, but Aeilts argued his actions did not violate rule 32:8.4(c) and his texts to Robinson did not violate rule 32:8.4(d). The commission concluded that Aeilts violated all the rules alleged by the Board but agreed with Aeilts that he did not violate rule 32:8.4(d) when he texted the assistant county attorney. The commission recommended Aeilts's license to practice law be suspended for six months. Aeilts appealed.

II. Standard of Review.

We review the alleged violations and evidence de novo to ensure that the Board has proven each allegation of misconduct by a convincing preponderance of the evidence. Iowa Sup. Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Willey , 965 N.W.2d 599, 605 (Iowa 2021). The convincing preponderance of the evidence standard is "less demanding than proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but requires a greater showing than the preponderance of the evidence." Iowa Sup. Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Adams , 809 N.W.2d 543, 545 (Iowa 2012).

III. Ethical Violations.

Aeilts's appeal centers on whether he violated rule 32:8.4(c) by misrepresenting facts to Officer Donelson and misrepresenting his experience to the sentencing court. However, because we review attorney disciplinary matters de novo, we address each alleged violation. After conducting our review, we agree with the Board and the commission that Aeilts violated all of the alleged rules.

A. Iowa Rule of Professional Conduct 32:8.4(b). Rule 32:8.4(b) prohibits a lawyer from "commit[ing] a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects." Iowa R. Prof'l Conduct 32:8.4(b). When assessing whether a lawyer has violated rule 32:8.4(b), we consider "[t]he nature and circumstances of the act ... to determine if the commission of the criminal act reflects adversely on the attorney's fitness to practice law." Iowa Sup. Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Schmidt , 796 N.W.2d 33, 40 (Iowa 2011) (omission and alteration in original) (quoting Iowa Sup. Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Templeton , 784 N.W.2d 761, 767 (Iowa 2010) ). "One's fitness to practice law ... is determined by more than one's competency in legal matters. It includes one's [moral] character and one's suitability to act as an officer of the court." Id. (omission in original) (quoting Iowa Sup. Ct. Bd. of Prof'l Ethics & Conduct v. Mulford , 625 N.W.2d 672, 683 (Iowa 2001) (en banc)). The following considerations factor into our determination of whether there was a rule 32:8.4(b) violation:

the lawyer's mental state; the extent to which the act demonstrates disrespect for the law or law enforcement; the presence or absence of a victim; the extent of actual or potential injury to a victim; and the presence or absence of a pattern of criminal conduct.

Id. (quoting Templeton , 784 N.W.2d at 767 ).

Aeilts's conduct easily meets this standard. Aeilts drove his car through a cornfield, damaging his vehicle and the field, and placed other drivers at risk of injury when he then drove another six miles before being stopped. He was clearly intoxicated during the incident as he later blew a .122. See Iowa Sup. Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Cannon , 821 N.W.2d 873, 878 (Iowa 2012) (concluding attorney violated rule 32:8.4(b) based on conviction for OWI, first offense, where he damaged the parking lot of a grocery store and operated "a motor vehicle while intoxicated ‘creat[ing] ... grave...

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