MARTINSBURG – If a disbarred attorney did anything good during his nine years in private practice, as one state Supreme Court justice suggested, court records show little evidence of it.
Records show Keith L. Wheaton has nearly 20 complaints in his disciplinary file, and filed bankruptcy last year to avoid legal malpractice suits against many of the clients whom he victimized.
On Nov. 12, 2004, the state Supreme Court ruled on a 6-point statement of charges brought by the Lawyer Disciplinary Board, the prosecutorial arm of the state Bar Association, against Wheaton. In its statement, the Board alleged Wheaton committed 31 violations of the Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct.
In a 3-2 decision, the Court voted to annul Wheaton’s license to practice law. In its ruling, the Court categorically rejected Wheaton’s plea for leniency – who cited his absence of prior disciplinary action, inexperience in the practice of law and remorse in harm to his clients – saying all the mitigating factors where outweighed by aggravating factors.
From 1997 to 2002, the Court said Wheaton engaged in a pattern of misconduct including “misappropriating funds and unlawfully converting client funds to his own personal use” and “making false statements to disciplinary counsel during investigations of ethical complaints.”
Among the more serious charges leveled against Wheaton was his writing worthless checks to clients for judgments awarded them in civil suits. In one instance, Wheaton not only wrote worthless checks to his client, but also to physicians whom he hired as expert witnesses.
According to court records, Wheaton wrote worthless checks to Keith and Marianne Short, Dr. Richard Lurito and Dr. Gerwin for $23,150.86, $1,400 & $1,100 and $2,250, respectively. Though the Shorts and Luritio were successful in receiving the money owed them after filing respective felony worthless check charges and ethics complaints, Gerwin was never reimbursed.
In another case, Wheaton wrote a worthless check on Oct. 20, 2000 to Margo Bruce for $10,000 for the portion of her settlement in a civil suit. After Bruce filed felony worthless check charges against Wheaton on March 8, 2001, he made good on the settlement.
However, court records show that part of the delay in Bruce receiving repayment on the check was that “approximately one week after he had the cashier’s check drawn, he deposited the same into his own business account to cover the closing costs on his personal residence.”
Trouble surfaces early
Dissenting from the Court’s decision to annul Wheaton’s license was Justice Larry V. Starcher and former Justice Warren McGraw. In his dissenting opinion, Starcher acknowledged Wheaton did make “some errors in judgment,” but said the Court should consider “the many legal matters in which Mr. Wheaton did handle properly.”
Also, Starcher said the Court should consider how Wheaton brought an “important degree of racial diversity to the legal community in the Eastern Panhandle” by establish [ing] a solo practice there to help meet the under-served needs of that area’s large African-American community.”
In addition to the six people who’s complaints led to the Board’s statement of charges –- Elizabeth Crawford, Margo Bruce, Nancy Christiansen and Edward K. Pruden complaints were included with Mason’s and the Shorts -– 18 of Wheaton’s other clients filed complaints with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the Bar’s investigative arm.
As stated in the Court’s annulment ruling, the complaints go as far back as 1997, a year after he arrived in Martinsburg.
In fact, two of the three earliest complaints filed against Wheaton -– Patricia D. Richards of Martinsburg, and Cathy Bohrer of Grafton -– suggest that Wheaton’s ethical dilemmas were well-known. Both women state in their complaints, filed 15 months apart, that they were not the only people who had issues with the way Wheaton practiced law.
According to ODC records, of the 18 complaints filed against Wheaton, 10 were for his failure to filed a case despite being paid a retainer. In two of those cases – Lona Ramsey of Martinsburg and Karla K. Dozier of Charles Town – Wheaton went so far to provide clients with bogus docket numbers to “prove” the cases were filed.
Among the cases Wheaton failed to file dealt with employment discrimination –- Elvin C. Watkins of Chambersburg, Pa., against Denny’s Restaurant in Keyser, W. Va., and Sharon Puller of Kearneysville against Wal-Mart.
In her complaint, Puller said that though he was successful in making her case before the West Virginia Human Rights Commission in 1999, Wheaton failed to file a subsequent civil suit despite receiving a right to sue letter in 2001 from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In his reply to the ODC’s second letter of inquiry in Puller’s case, Wheaton said he didn’t recall being retained to represent her in the follow-up suit. The investigation into Puller’s, Watkins’ and 12 other complaints were closed in February 2005 due to Wheaton’s disbarment.
Cases voided by bankruptcy
About the time the ODC was closing out the cases against him, Wheaton filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Jan. 14, 2005. According to his petition, Wheaton listed $15,975 in personal property -– which he claimed as exempt -– as assets and $194,364.85 in liabilities.
Of the liabilities, over 40 percent, or $82,800 were from clients with current or pending malpractice suits. Over half of that, $45,000, was from one client, Pamela Mason.
According to court records, Mason hired Wheaton in May 1997 to pursue an employment discrimination claim on her behalf. In January 1999, Wheaton provided Mason an alleged copy of the suit he filed.
Mason, court records show, later filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in which she listed her interest in the suit as part of her assets.
However, the bankruptcy trustee later discovered Wheaton failed to file Mason’s suit.
According to court records, the trustee initiated an adversary proceeding against Wheaton on Nov. 26, 2001. The court later granted a partial motion for summary judgment, and on Oct. 23, 2003 ordered Wheaton to pay Mason’s estate $45,000.
All claims against Wheaton, including Mason’s, were voided on Jan. 9, 2006 when his bankruptcy case was closed.
‘Let it die’
When reached for a comment at his home in Martinsburg, Wheaton was reluctant to comment. The matter, Wheaton said is two years old, and doesn’t need to be rehashed.
“My family has been through enough as it is and we just want to let it die as it is and not rehash the past,” Wheaton said.
However, Wheaton acknowledged his actions were wrong and “I learned from it.” When asked if he planned to reapply to the Bar after the statutory period in which he’s prohibited from practicing, Wheaton said he’s undecided.
“I still have a long ways to go,” Wheaton said.
One person who’d like to see Wheaton return to the practice of law is James Tolbert, president of the state NAACP chapter in Charles Town. Like many in the community, Tolbert said he was shocked to hear of Wheaton’s disbarment.
Wheaton, Tolbert said, acted as the NAACP’s redress person in which he gave advice on how people who contacted them with a legal question should proceed. Because Wheaton was able to help them,
Tolbert said he hopes he and other NAACP members can help him.
“Everybody really liked him, and they’ll do what they can to help him,” Tolbert said.