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In re Speights

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

July 26, 2018

In re Nathaniel H. Speights, Respondent. A Member of the Bar of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals Bar Registration No. 952036

          Argued June 6, 2018

          On Report and Recommendation Of the Board on Professional Responsibility (BDN-253-10)

          Nathaniel H. Speights, pro se.

          Hamilton P. Fox, III, Disciplinary Counsel, with whom Hendrik deBoer, Senior Staff Attorney, was on the brief, for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

          Before Thompson and McLeese, Associate Judges, and Farrell, Senior Judge.

          PER CURIAM

         The Board on Professional Responsibility (the Board) has recommended that respondent Nathaniel H. Speights be suspended from the practice of law in the District of Columbia for two years, and be required to prove fitness before reinstatement. In arriving at that recommendation, the Board adopted the findings of fact and conclusions of law of a Hearing Committee which determined that respondent, while acting as personal representative of the Estate of Arnold Lindsey, had violated Rules 1.1 (a), 1.1 (b), 1.3 (a), 1.3 (c), and 8.4 (d) of the District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct. Regarding sanction, however, the Board has taken into account discipline it previously recommended and this court imposed in In re Speights, 173 A.3d 96 (D.C. 2017) (Speights I), and on that basis recommends a suspension exceeding by one year the sanction recommended by the Hearing Committee. Respondent takes exception both to the sufficiency of Disciplinary Counsel's proof of the ethical violations, and to the fairness of the proceeding leading to the imposition of sanction.

         In considering respondent's objections, we review de novo the Board's legal conclusions and related legal questions, but defer to the factual findings of the Hearing Committee and the Board "unless they are unsupported by substantial evidence" in the record. In re Vohra, 68 A.3d 766, 769 (D.C. 2013) (quoting D.C. Bar R. XI, § 9 (h)(1)); see also In re Martin, 67 A.3d 1032, 1039 (D.C. 2013). We will adopt the Board's recommended discipline "unless to do so would foster a tendency toward inconsistent dispositions for comparable conduct or would otherwise be unwarranted." D.C. Bar R. XI, § 9 (h)(1); see also In re Pierson, 690 A.2d 941, 946-48 (D.C. 1997). We are not persuaded by respondent's exceptions, and thus impose the sanction recommended by the Board.


         The disciplinary matter before us stems from what we had occasion five years ago to style "the long and tortuous probate administration of Arnold Lindsey's estate." In re Estate of Lindsey, No. 09-PR-1201, Mem. Op. & J. at 1 (D.C. May 29, 2013). After over nine years of litigation, the Superior Court in August 2009 removed respondent as the estate's personal representative, a position to which he had been appointed in August 2000. Respondent appealed from his removal and the simultaneous requirement that he reimburse the estate for $51, 312.32 in lost interest because of his failure to diligently collect and distribute proceeds owed to the estate from the settlement of wrongful death and survival actions. In affirming the trial court's action, this court found "no grounds . . . for disturbing either the removal order or the order directing reimbursement." Id. We explained: "[Mr. Speights] offers no serious challenge to Judge [Rhonda] Reid Winston's well-substantiated conclusion that his repeated non-compliance with 'the [Superior] Court's Orders [requiring distribution of assets and related filing of accounts] and the attendant delays caused by [his non-compliance] prolonged the administration of [the] estate and . . . caused at least one of the decedent's heirs and his widow . . . to await that to which they were entitled,' and that in general he had 'failed to perform material duties of his office.'" Id.

         In the ensuing disciplinary proceedings brought by Disciplinary Counsel, the Hearing Committee received documentary evidence from the lengthy probate proceedings and heard respondent's testimony, then found that respondent had committed each of the ethical violations charged, namely, failure to "provide competent representation to a client," D.C. R. of Prof. Conduct 1.1 (a), failure to serve as personal representative "with skill and care commensurate with that generally afforded to clients by other lawyers in similar matters," id. 1.1 (b), failure to "represent a client zealously and diligently within the bounds of the law," id. 1.3 (a), and failure to "act with reasonable promptness in representing a client." Id. 1.3 (c). Further, it found that he had "[e]ngage[d] in conduct that seriously interferes with the administration of justice." Id. 8.4 (d). These violations, the Hearing Committee determined, were established by:

proof by clear and convincing evidence of: [respondent's] prolonged delay in collecting . . . total payments of $575, 000 from the three defendants [in the wrongful death and survival actions]; his claim that other lawyers represented the [e]state, after he himself had already discharged these lawyers; his extended failure - for approximately 17 months - to provide correct information to accountants for the [e]state; and his failures to comply with court orders, thereby prolonging administration of the [e]state . . . . Not only did [r]espondent's inaction over a significant period of time delay the collection of all the [settlement] funds for more than two years, he also failed to distribute them promptly even after he collected them. After that, he ignored the court-approved arbitration award [providing for distribution of the funds among estate members], and delayed the final resolution of the [e]state in a futile effort to further enrich himself with legal fees that the court had not authorized.

         The Board, in concluding that substantial evidence in the record supported these findings, unanimously agreed with the Hearing Committee that respondent had "failed to make even the slightest effort to collect the amounts due to the [e]state (even failing to negotiate checks sent to [his] law firm), failed to distribute the assets (even when ordered by the court to do so), and ...

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