State ex rel. Okla. Bar Ass'n v. Woodward, SCBD-7269

CourtSupreme Court of Oklahoma
Writing for the CourtGURICH, J.
Citation2022 OK 72
PartiesSTATE OF OKLAHOMA ex rel. OKLAHOMA BAR ASSOCIATION, Complainant, v. DAVID LUTHER WOODWARD, Respondent.
Docket NumberSCBD-7269
Decision Date13 September 2022

2022 OK 72

STATE OF OKLAHOMA ex rel. OKLAHOMA BAR ASSOCIATION, Complainant,
v.

DAVID LUTHER WOODWARD, Respondent.

No. SCBD-7269

Supreme Court of Oklahoma

September 13, 2022


ORIGINAL PROCEEDING FOR ATTORNEY DISCIPLINE

Tracy Pierce Nester, Assistant General Counsel, Oklahoma Bar Association, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Complainant

GURICH, J.

¶ 0 The Oklahoma Bar Association instituted this reciprocal discipline proceeding pursuant to Rule 7.7 of the Rules Governing Disciplinary Proceedings, 5 O.S.2021, ch. 1, app. 1--A. Respondent attorney was found guilty of misconduct for violating multiple provisions of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar Association. The Florida Supreme Court suspended Respondent from practicing law for a period of seventy-five days and placed him on probation for a period of two years. As reciprocal discipline, Respondent is suspended for a period of seventy-five days, to commence on the filing of this decision.

¶ 1 David Luther Woodward was admitted to the Oklahoma Bar Association (OBA) in 1981. Woodward was also licensed by the Florida Bar in 1979, and he maintained his law practice in Pensacola. Reverend Barbara Simmons initiated a grievance against Woodward in connection with his representation of Simmons in a partition case in Escambia County Florida. On April 14, 2022, the Florida Supreme Court issued an order suspending Woodward from the practice of law. We must now determine what reciprocal discipline, if any, to impose.

Facts and Procedural History

¶2 Simmons' mother died a resident of Pensacola, Florida in Escambia County. The decedent owned a home, which she left to her eight children via testamentary instruments. One of the siblings, Dwayne Simmons, had been living in the home for approximately three years, and he refused to leave. Simmons commenced a pro se action to partition the residence on Mary 25, 2018. After Simmons ran into difficulty conducting the litigation pro se, she retained Woodward to represent the group of siblings in the civil suit. Simmons paid Woodward a total of $1,250.00 in two installments to represent a retainer fee. Woodward entered an appearance in the case; he also sought leave to amend the pro se complaint, and later requested a new trial date, both of which were granted.

¶3 Woodward neglected to notify Simmons and her siblings of the re-scheduled date for trial proceedings. In fact, after the initial consultation, Woodward failed to reply to any of the clients' communication regarding the case. On September 25, 2019, neither Woodward nor the clients appeared for trial proceedings. A judicial assistant contacted Woodward to ascertain his whereabouts and he informed the trial court that he failed to appear because opposing counsel failed to comply with discovery and a directive to appear for mediation.

¶4 The trial judge issued a directive to Woodward, ordering him to show cause on or before September 27, 2019, and answer (1) whether his clients' action should be dismissed without prejudice; and (2) whether Woodward and/or his clients should be assessed a sanction of attorney fees for failing to appear. It further directed Woodward to provide a copy of the show cause order to the clients. Woodward failed to respond to the judge's order and failed to deliver the order to his clients. On October 4, 2019, the trial judge issued a second show cause order, directing Woodward to respond on or before October 11, 2019. The order directed Woodward to serve his clients with the second order. Once again Woodward did not provide a response to the order or notify the clients; however, he did request to appear before the circuit court to provide a verbal response.

¶5 On October 10, 2019, Woodward appeared before the Escambia County judge to explain his nonappearance at trial and noncompliance with the show cause orders. Woodward advised the trial judge that he did not properly calendar the date. When questioned about service of the show cause orders on his clients, Woodward provided no substantive response; instead, he simply excused his disregard by shifting responsibility to the local court clerk for serving papers on pro se litigants. The following day, the trial court issued an order dismissing the case without prejudice, wherein the judge noted:

Mr. Woodward's comment that this case is ripe for summary judgment is off point. It does not explain his willful failure to appear at trial. It does not explain his failure to respond with [sic] the first order to show cause. It does not explain his failure to comply with either order to show cause to alert his clients that his decision not participate in the trial might result in the case being dismissed. And while this court has concern regarding the impact of [sic] the plaintiffs based on the actions or inactions of their counsel, this Court is attuned to the speedy, just and inexpensive disposition of actions and the expense as it relates to the defendant and his counsel

Moreover, the trial judge conditionally sustained the defendant's motion for attorney fees (subject to submission of an affidavit from defendant's attorney). Simmons and her siblings were forced to retain a different attorney, who filed a new partition action on their behalf.

¶6 Simmons submitted a bar complaint in November 2019. The Florida Bar sent a letter to Woodward on November 15, 2019, requesting a response to Simmons' allegations. Woodward did not provide an answer to the complaint until July 2020. Later that year, the Florida Bar filed a formal complaint against Woodward and assigned the case to a referee for issuance of factual and legal findings. On January 24, 2022, the referee filed a formal report with the Florida Supreme Court. Therein, the referee concluded Woodward had violated the following Rules Regulating the Florida Bar: 4-1.3 (diligence); 4-1.4 (communication); 4-3.2 (expediting litigation); 4-3.4(c) (knowingly disobey an obligation under the rules of a tribunal); 4-8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice); and 4-8.4(g) (failure to respond to the Florida Bar).

¶7 Included in the report were findings relating to aggravating and mitigating factors, which are used in assessing the appropriate level of discipline for ethical violations in Florida. [1] Aggravating factors found by the referee included: (1) a pattern of misconduct; (2) multiple rule violations; (3) vulnerability of the victims; and (4) lengthy experience as an attorney. In mitigation of the rule violations, the referee pointed to: (1) the absence of any prior discipline; (2) lack of a selfish or dishonest motive; (3) restitution to the victims by refunding legal fees ($1,250.00); (4) Woodward's good character and reputation; (5) mental health problems were a contributing cause of the violations; and (6) Woodward expressed remorse for his misconduct.

¶8 The referee recommended a seventy-five-day suspension, together with a two-year probationary term. In addition, the referee suggested Woodward should attend a professionalism workshop and submit to an evaluation by Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc. (FLA). The referee urged that Woodward should be required to follow any recommendations made by FLA and would be subject to their monitoring of his probation. On April 14, 2022, the...

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