CHARLESTON – Before becoming a family law judge, records show multiple complaints were lodged against a Putnam County judge for making unprofessional, abrasive and insensitive comments as an attorney against his clients or other litigants.
Since January, at least six ethics complaints have been lodged against William M. “Chip” Watkins III with the Judicial Investigation Commission, the arm of the state Supreme Court that investigates misconduct by judicial officers, for unprofessional behavior.
Those include one filed by Hurricane Pastor Arthur D. Hage in June that included a video from a May 23 hearing showing Watkins screaming at and falsely accusing Hage of being behind an article posted on a Putnam County news website the day before about Watkins and his wife previously being delinquent in paying their homeowner’s association dues.
A review of his disciplinary file at the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the arm of the Court that investigates attorney misconduct, shows 11 complaints were filed against Watkins between 1993 and 2004. The last two were filed following his election as Putnam County’s family law judge in 2002, but stemmed from his actions, or lack thereof, while in private practice.
In at least three complaints, Watkins received warnings for his conduct. A fourth resulted in formal disciplinary action.
Also, in at least two other complaints, ODC took notice of inappropriate comments made by Watkins including calling a former client’s ex-wife a “bitch.”
Admitting to ‘intemperate language’
In a complaint lodged Jan. 14, 2002, Brian A. Sims of Scott Depot accused Watkins of failing to timely handle a child custody dispute with his ex-wife. In his complaint, Sims alleged Watkins failed to “perform his duties in the timeframe that was set forth by the court which caused delays in my case,” and “did not provide me with any billing information.”
Also, Sims said when he asked why his ex-wife, who is not indentified in the complaint, was not allowing him visitation with their children pursuant to the final divorce decree, Watkins replied “that is was because she was a bitch.” As a result of his unprofessional conduct, Sims said he fired Watkins, and hired a new one.
In response to Sims’ complaint, Watkins said he “achieved the objectives of the litigation, communicated fully with [Sims], and billed exactly the work that he had done.” The reason Sims lodged his complaint, Watkins said, was in part due to him turning Sims’ overdue account to a collection agency, and in part because “the ex-wife had not received the death penalty.”
Nevertheless, Watkins “agreed with much of [Sims'] description of his use of intemperate language in dealing with the ex-wife.”
Then-Chief Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel Lawrence J. Lewis dismissed the complaint on Oct. 24, 2002 finding that Watkins’ “intemperate language may have been contrary to the voluntary Standards of Professional Conduct, [it] did not rise to the level of a violation of the mandatory Rules of Professional Conduct.” Also, he said any disputes with Watkins’ billings should be taken up with the state Bar’s Voluntary Fee Dispute Resolution Committee.
Like Sims, Carl A. Clark of Charleston accused Watkins of unprofessionalism in both his actions and words. The difference was Clark’s case dealt with a property dispute.
According to his complaint filed Aug. 31, 1998, Clark he paid Watkins to represent both he and his parents in a civil suit against Wanda Sue Cremeans, a realtor who helped sell the Clark’s home in Hurricane. They accused Cremeans of converting the proceeds from the sale for her personal use.
Though Watkins did file the suit, he only listed Clark’s parents as plaintiffs. Clark eventually would be involved in the suit when Cremeans named him as a third-party defendant.
For one of the hearings in the case, Clark, who works in a factory, appeared “as neat and well-groomed as anyone.” Clark says he took a remark Watkins made about him dressing up for the lawyers and the judge as offensive.
In responding to Clark’s complaint, Watkins said he explained that he would only represent the parents. Also, he said his handling of the case was “vindicated” when the jury ruled that Clark, who at one time was Cremeans’ boyfriend, spent half the proceeds.
Furthermore, Watkins said his comment about Clark’s attire “was not intended to sarcastic.” Instead, “he was trying to be helpful.”
Then-Chief Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel Bruce A. Kayuha dismissed Clark’s complaint on July 11, 2000. In dismissing it, Kayuha, who is now the Court’s chief counsel, said “while [Watkins'] comment may have been offensive to [Clark], rude conduct does not constitute unethical behavior.”
Despite the dismissals the early 2000s, Watkins was not let off the hook as easily in the 1990s. Records show, four ethics complaints filed against him between 1993 and 1997 regarding his failure to communicate with clients led to warnings, and in one instance, an admonishment.
In separate ethics complaints filed on Feb. 9, 1996 and Sept. 18, 1997, Gary D. Ellithrop, then a resident of Ft. Bliss, Texas, and Hazel P. Harmon of Red House, alleged that Watkins neglected to take meaningful action in their respective domestic cases. Both alleged Watkins not only failed to return repeated telephone calls, but also refund their retainers.
In Harmon’s case, Watkins refused to return it because the retainer she paid him was non-refundable.
Ellithrop also alleged after he discharged him, Watkins was slow in returning his file.
Both complaints were closed on May 1, 1999 without formally disciplinary action taken against Watkins. However, David J. Romano, chairman of the Lawyer Disciplinary Board’s investigative panel warned Watkins that “he must return his clients’ calls in a more diligent manner” and determined that he was not entitled to a non-refundable retainer in Harmon’s case.
In his closing letter dated July 1, 1999, Romano noted that Watkins and Ellithrop resolved their dispute via the Bar’s Voluntary Fee Dispute Resolution Program.
Also, Romano said that as a result of “several formal and informal ethics complaints concerning [Watkins'] communication with clients,” aside from those lodged by Ellithrop and Harmon, “there appear to be areas of [his] practice which need to be improved upon.” At the panel’s direction, Romano said he would be meeting with Watkins “to discuss potential areas of improvement.”
In her complaint filed Feb. 23, 1994, Nitro resident Janet E. Adkins, like Ellithrop and Harmon, said Watkins failed to take meaningful action in her domestic case, and return repeated telephone calls.
Specifically, Adkins alleged Watkins was dilatory in “obtaining a ‘QDRO’ [qualified domestic relations order] for her ex-spouse’s retirement, in getting a clear deed to property and in getting money repaid for insurance.”
Records show, the Board admonished Watkins for not only his failure to communicate with Adkins, but also with ODC. In his closing letter dated Oct. 21, 1995, Panel Chairman Stephen P. Jory said Watkins is “admonished and advised to refrain from dilatory conduct and to respond to telephone calls and letters more diligently in the future, including those to Disciplinary Counsel, should the need arise in the future.”
Six months earlier, the Board closed the first complaint that was ever filed against Watkins. In her complaint filed Aug. 11, 1993, Ila Jeannie Anderson of Cross Lanes accused Watkins of failing to act promptly in getting property given to her following the divorce from her ex-husband, Kenneth Koch, Jr., into her name.
In closing Anderson’s complaint on April 8, 1995, Jory said though Watkins admitted “to a certain lack of diligence … [he] has not been the sole cause of the delay.” Nevertheless, Jory warned Watkins “to avoid such delays in the future” adding “[t]his conduct appears to be an isolated incident.”