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In re Starnes

July 31, 2003

IN RE DEANGELO STARNES, RESPONDENT. A MEMBER OF THE BAR OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS


On Report and Recommendation of the Board on Professional Responsibility (Bar Docket Nos. 269-97, 287-97 & 454-97)

Before Wagner, Chief Judge, and Farrell and Glickman, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Per Curiam

Argued July 17, 2003

In agreement with its Hearing Committee, the Board on Professional Responsibility concluded (1) that respondent DeAngelo Starnes violated Rule 8.1 (a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct by falsely stating in connection with his application for admission to the District of Columbia Bar that the legal work he had been doing was supervised by an attorney licensed to practice in the District of Columbia; and (2) that after being admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, Starnes violated multiple other disciplinary Rules *fn1 by seriously neglecting his obligations to his clients, failing to provide competent representation, abandoning his clients, and failing to withdraw as their counsel after he began working full time for a federal agency and could no longer shoulder his duties to his private clients. Starnes concedes all but the Rule 8.1 (a) violation. As an appropriate sanction, the Board recommends that Starnes be suspended from the practice of law for six months and that he be required to demonstrate his fitness before he is reinstated. Starnes objects that this sanction is too harsh. Bar Counsel takes no exception to the Board's findings or its recommended disposition.

The pertinent portions of the Board's report are appended to this opinion. Substantially for the reasons that the Board states, we accept the Board's findings and impose the sanction that the Board recommends. See D.C. Bar R. XI, § 9 (g)(1) ("[T]he Court shall accept the findings of fact made by the Board unless they are unsupported by substantial evidence of record, and shall adopt the recommended disposition of the Board unless to do so would foster a tendency toward inconsistent dispositions for comparable conduct or would otherwise be unwarranted."). The ethical violations in this case are essentially undisputed. *fn2 And because this case involves considerably more, in our view, than simple neglect of duties, we are not persuaded by Starnes's contention that a six-month suspension is unduly punitive or is inconsistent with sanctions meted out in comparable cases to protect the public. See In re Lyles, 680 A.2d 408, 418 (D.C. 1996); In re Rosen, 570 A.2d 728, 730 (D.C. 1989). Nor are we persuaded that the delay in concluding his disciplinary proceeding has prejudiced Starnes materially or justifies a reduction of his sanction beyond the consideration that the Board's recommendation already shows. *fn3 See In re Fowler, 642 A.2d 1327, 1331 (D.C. 1994) (holding that circumstances must be "unique and compelling" for delay to mitigate an otherwise appropriate disciplinary sanction that is imposed to protect the public interest).

We note, in particular, the importance of the requirementthat Starnes demonstrate his fitness to practice law in view of the concerns that his unremedied *fn4 violations raise regarding his honesty, competence, trustworthiness and professional responsibility. See, e.g., In re Small, 760 A.2d 612, 614 (D.C. 2000) (identifying respondent's "lack of candor with respect to his application for admission" as one factor justifying the imposition of a fitness requirement); In re Delate, 579 A.2d 1177, 1181 (D.C. 1990) ("given respondent's behavior revealed in this record - virtual abandonment of her conservatorship responsibilities in two cases - she should not be permitted to resume practice automatically upon expiration of her suspension"). The factors to be considered in assessing fitness for reinstatement have been set forth in In re Roundtree, 503 A.2d 1215, 1217 (D.C. 1985). They include the measures that the respondent has taken to make restitution and to addresswith specificity the personal and professional deficiencies that led to his ethical violations. See, e.g., In re Tinsley, 668 A.2d 833, 834-38 (D.C. 1995).

It is hereby ORDERED that respondent DeAngelo Starnes be suspended from the practice of law in the District of Columbia for six months, effective thirty days from the entry of this order, and that he be required to show fitness to practice as a condition of reinstatement. Respondent's attention is directed to D.C. Bar R. XI, §§ 14 and 16, which address the duties of suspended attorneys and the procedures for reinstatement.

APPENDIX

[EXCERPTED BOARD REPORT]

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS BOARD ON PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY

In the Matter of: DEANGELO STARNES, Respondent.

Bar Docket Nos. 269-97, 287-97 & 454-97

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE BOARD ON PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY

In these three consolidated matters, Bar Counsel charged Respondent with violations of several disciplinary rules, including Rules 1.1(a), 1.1(b), 1.3(a), 1.3(b), 1.3(c), 1.4(a), 1.7(b)(4), 1.16(a), and 8.1(a). After several days of hearings, Hearing Committee Number Six found no violation of Rule 1.7(b)(4), but otherwise sustained those charges. *fn5 The Hearing Committee recommended that Respondent be suspended from the practice of law for six months, with three months of that sanction stayed, and that Respondent be placed on one year of probation and monitoring should he return to private practice. See HC Rpt. 44-45.

Respondent excepts to the Hearing Committee's conclusion that he violated Rule 8.1(a), and argues that a public censure or a shorter period of suspension should be imposed. *fn6 Bar Counsel excepts to the Hearing Committee's conclusion that Respondent did not violate Rule 1.7(b)(4), and argues strenuously that a lengthier period of suspension (nine months) is warranted, along with a requirement that Respondent demonstrate his fitness to practice law before being allowed to resume practice. After reviewing the Hearing Committee's report and the record, we conclude that the Committee reached correct determinations as to the violations. We therefore sustain all the Committee's violations findings including the Committee's conclusion that Respondent violated Rule 8.1(a), and its conclusion that he did not violate Rule 1.7(b)(4).

On the question of sanction, we agree in part with Bar Counsel that the sanction recommended by the Committee is insufficient. We recommend that Respondent be suspended for six months, and that he be required to show fitness before resuming the practice of law in the District of Columbia. We also find this case inappropriate for probation.

I. FINDINGS OF FACT

1. Respondent's Admission to the D.C. Bar

Respondent is a member of the District of Columbia Bar, having been admitted after examination on August 26, 1996. As the Hearing Committee observed, the process of Respondent's admission to our Bar was "long and tortuous." HC Rpt. 7. *fn7

Respondent is a member of the California Bar and initially attempted to secure admission to the D.C. Bar by waiver. In January 1994, Respondent submitted a waiver application to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals' Committee on Admissions, based on his membership in good standing in the California Bar. Two months later, and just days before the waiver period expired, Respondent received a letter from the Committee on Admissions requesting additional information. Although he promptly responded to that request, the delay in requesting the information resulted in the expiration of his Certificate of Good Standing from the California Bar. Respondent was unable to obtain a replacement Certificate in time to meet the time limits for waiving into the D.C. Bar, and his application was returned again. Following an unsuccessful appeal of this matter, Respondent was therefore compelled to sit for the July 1994 District of Columbia Bar Examination in which he was not successful. He sat again for the February 1995 Bar Examination. He was notified in April 1995 that he passed.

Respondent's success on the Bar exam triggered the character and fitness phase of the admissions process. On June 19, 1995, Claire Root, who served as Director of both the Committee on Admissions and the Court of Appeals' Committee on Unauthorized Practice of Law ("UPL Committee"), sent Respondent a letter on behalf of the Committee on Admissions requesting additional information. The letter was occasioned in part by the fact that, in his applications for admission, Respondent had stated that he had been employed as an "associate" at a D.C. law firm:

[Y]our application reflects that you were admitted to the California Bar in October 1992 and that since July 1992 you have been employed as an associate with several firms in the District of Columbia. Provide an explanation/description concerning the nature of your duties. Also please advise the members concerning your current employment and/or any other circumstances to update your applications which were filed on June 23, 1994, and on February 6, 1995.

BX C-7(a). On August 10, 1995, in response to this Committee inquiry, Respondent wrote:

[A]ll my work is subject to the supervision of an attorney licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia. I have not independently drafted any documents which would affect the personal or real property rights of any individual, nor provided or expressed a formal legal opinion to anyone, nor consulted with respect to any of the foregoing, without being so advised and on behalf of an attorney licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia. Finally, I have never made a court appearance in the District of Columbia, nor have I signed any court pleading submitted in the District of Columbia. BX C-7(b).

Meanwhile, an ethical complaint concerning Respondent had been filed with Bar Counsel about his representation of Mr. Eric Mitchell. After the Office of Bar Counsel reviewed the Mitchell complaint and determined that Respondent was not licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia, it referred the matter to the UPL Committee. In September 1995, the UPL Committee began to investigate the Mitchell matter. That investigation was conducted by a member of the UPL Committee, John Mott, who interviewed Respondent by telephone. After reviewing Respondent's letterhead on a letter to Mr. Mitchell dated September 14, 1995, which described himself as "Attorney at Law" with a D.C. address, but without a notation that he was not admitted to practice in D.C., Mr. Mott advised Respondent that he was in violation of D.C. App. R. 49, prohibiting the unauthorized practice of law. Mr. Mott did not investigate any activities of Respondent other than the Mitchell matter.

On February 16, 1995, Mr. Mott and the Chair of the UPL Committee, Stuart Pierson, generated a report on Respondent's activities, in which they concluded that Respondent had violated D.C. App. R. 49. They did not, however, recommend further action against Respondent, and they noted that Respondent had represented that he had changed his letterhead. That report was introduced into the file on Respondent's application for admission, and the Committee on Admissions decided to conduct a personal, informal interview with Respondent. After that interview, the Committee on Admissions voted to certify Respondent's admission to the Bar. Respondent was then duly admitted to the D.C. Bar.

2. Inaccuracy of Respondent's Letter to the Committee on Admissions

Unfortunately, Respondent's letter of August 10, 1995, to the Committee on Admissions was inaccurate even at the time it was written, and those inaccuracies were never corrected. First, the letter was inaccurate with respect to the Mitchell matter. Although Respondent told the Committee on Admissions that he had not independently drafted any documents "which would affect the personal or real property rights of any individual" without being supervised by an attorney licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia, in fact, prior to drafting and sending the August 10, 1995, letter to the Committee on Admissions, Respondent drafted a complaint for absolute divorce for Mr. Mitchell to be filed over Mr. Mitchell's signature in a Maryland court, and accepted money from Mr. Mitchell for drafting the complaint. BX C-7(b).

Second, on August 2, 1995, Mr. Billy P. Greer retained Respondent to represent him in connection with an Equal Pay Act claim against his employer the University of the District of Columbia ("UDC"), where he was employed as a temporary security guard. Mr. Greer had been passed over in his bid to obtain a permanent position at the University after eight years on the job. He retained Respondent to help him obtain back pay he believed he was owed under the Equal Pay Act. He met with Respondent at the latter's home in the District of Columbia, and Respondent agreed to represent Greer as his lawyer, stating that his fee would be $1,500.

Third, and most strikingly, on the very same day that Respondent sent his letter to the Committee on Admissions, Respondent signed a retainer agreement with a client, Tel-Art Communications, in which he represented that the "LAW OFFICES OF DEANGELO STARNES" had agreed to represent Tel-Art in litigation brought by Tel-Art against CIGNA Insurance Company in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The retainer agreement gave no indication that Respondent was not admitted to practice in D.C., or that he was to be supervised in his work for Tel-Art by a D.C. attorney. One day later, on August 11, 1995, a scheduling conference was held in the case and a praecipe was filed, entering the appearance of Mr. Michael Luster, a D.C. attorney, as attorney for Tel-Art. Respondent was loosely associated with Mr. Luster; he sometimes used Luster's letterhead and often used Luster's mail and telephone service, although Luster actually worked out of his home. The record does not establish who, if anyone, appeared in Superior Court on behalf of Tel-Art on that date. *fn8

3. Representation of Tel-Art

As the Hearing Committee found, Respondent's representation of Tel-Art Communications was not satisfactory to the client. Respondent propounded discovery requests in 1995, before he was admitted to the D.C. Bar. Serious difficulties began in 1996, when Mr. Luster's D.C. office mail and telephone services, which Respondent shared, were interrupted on a number of occasions for failure to pay the monthly rent. *fn9 These interruptions lasted for up to 10 days at a time. Opposing counsel attempted to communicate a settlement offer to Tel-Art via Respondent in early May 1996, by leaving a voice-mail message. Weeks later, Respondent wrote a letter rejecting the offer until discovery was ...


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