In an opinion that ends a years-long, two-prong disciplinary proceeding against Morristown attorney Douglas Ralph Beier, the Tennessee Supreme Court on Friday suspended Beier’s law license for two years. Beier argued his own case before the high court.
The unanimous court held in a 28-page opinion that both a hearing panel of the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility and a senior judge hearing the appeal in interchange as Hamblen County chancellor were correct in concluding Beier exhibited ethical lapses in two unrelated cases.
One involved Beier’s representation of a 62-year-old man, who suffered from a mental disability, in a probate case in which Beier – for the first time in his 40-plus-year practice – took the case on a one-third contingency basis and ultimately received $78,614 for handling the estate matter, according to the opinion.
The hearing panel concluded that Beier persuaded the client to agree to an “unreasonable” contingency-fee arrangement; took advantage of his client’s disability; misrepresented that his client was the sole heir; failed to disclose the existence of other heirs; and got the probate court to close the estate without a detailed accounting to avoid judicial scrutiny, according to the 28-page opinion.
The other matter involved Beier’s forging his client’s signature on an affidavit in a child-custody case in Hamblen County Juvenile Court. Beier claimed he forged and notarized the signature to prevent harm to a 5-year-old girl.
The boaard hearing panel suspended Beier’s law license for two years, with three months served on active suspension with the remainder of probation.
Judge Robert E. Lee Davis affirmed the hearing panel’s findings as to rule violations and aggravating and mitigating factors – five aggravating and zero mitigating – but modified the sanction to two years active suspension.
Beier appealed, arguing his conduct was not dishonest; he did not take advantage of a vulnerable client; and his probate fee arrangement was not unreasonable.
Justice Holly Kirby, writing for the unanimous court, concluded the hearing panel was justified in holding Beier acted knowingly when he initially claimed his client was the sole heir; when he failed to correct himself when the mother of his client’s cousins contacted him and he failed to notify the court of those cousins.
“Put simply, the hearing panel did not believe Mr. Beier’s claim of ignorance,” the opinion states. “There is ample evidence to support this conclusion … it is indisputable that Mr. Beier was told about the half cousins …”
In calculating the fee he charged in the probate case, Beier included real estate that was owned by the deceased but were “never actually part of the estate,” which significantly elevated his percentage, according to the opinion.
“The only work Mr. Beier performed regarding the real property was preparation of an administrator’s deed … Because the estate was closed without a detailed accounting, there was no judicial approval of the fee,” the opinion states.
In green-lighting the application of an enhancement factor for refusing to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct, Kirby writes that Beier continued to deny that his contingency agreement was unreasonable or that he made a false representation by signing his client’s signature to the affidavit.
“Attorneys often offer defenses while acknowledging their conduct was wrong,” the opinion states. “Mr. Beier does not. In this case, much of Mr. Beier’s defense is essentially insistence that his conduct was not wrong.”
With respect to finding no mitigating factors in the case, Beier unsuccessfully argued that the hearing panel and the judge improperly failed to consider that he self-reported both offenses and repaid the $78,614, with interest.
“Mr. Beier reported his misconduct only under threat by another counsel and … he only he only returned his fee in the … estate matter after (his client’s) new attorney demanded that he do so,” the opinion states.
“We also agree with the hearing panel that Mr. Beier cannot be said to have fully cooperated with the investigation when his testimony was not deemed credible and to this day he has not acknowledged the wrongfulness of his conduct,” the opinion further states.