Disbarred attorneys had multiple complaints, records show
Lawrence Smith Nov. 28, 2008, 2:45am
CHARLESTON – Should they seek to again practice law in starting in 2013, John E. Lutz and Anthony Tatano will still have to answer to collectively a dozen clients why they failed in their legal duties.
On Nov. 5, the state Supreme Court annulled Lutz's license. A week later Tatano's license was annulled.
Though Tatano's was annulled because of a criminal conviction related to converting client funds for personal use, the Court in its order gave no reason for Lutz's annulment except that he requested it. An annulment carries an automatic five-year prohibition of practicing law.
However, a former client, Shannon Mullins, alleged in a complaint filed with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the investigative arm of the state Bar, in July that Lutz used the $7,200 she paid him for a divorce to support a drug habit.
Records show that, in addition to Mullins, three of Lutz's other clients complained to ODC about his failure to render service in their cases. Similarly, about the time ODC filed its motion on Oct 1 to have his license annulled, Tatano had six clients question the quality of his representation.
Two months, four complaints
According to his disciplinary file, Lutz has six complaints going back to March 1995. Four complaints, including Mullins', were filed between July 3 and Sept. 29.
Like Mullins, Patricia Martin of Nitro and Jack M. Rife of Charleston retained Lutz for a divorce. They filed their complaints on July 16 and Sept. 29, respectively.
Unlike Mullins, they do not allege he converted the money they paid him for personal use. However, they do allege after they paid him, he failed to diligently handle their cases.
In her complaint, Martin says she was granted a divorce from her husband in May 2003. As part of the settlement, she was awarded a van, one-half of his pension, annuity and social security and $429 a month in spousal support.
By January 2007, Martin alleges her ex-husband failed to turnover the van, and was five month in arrears in spousal support.
Though in February 2008, Lutz signed paperwork "to get things started," Martin alleges he failed to file it as she, at the time her complaint was filed, had yet to receive "one penny" of the arrearage.
Records show Lutz was provided a copy of Martin's complaint on July 21, but did not reply to it.
In his complaint, Rife alleges Lutz failed to appear at a July 31 hearing, and keep him informed of the status of his divorce. In response to Rife's complaint, Lutz, via his attorney who is not named, admitted he failed to attend the hearing because he did not receive notice of it.
Furthermore, Lutz "Admitted that he should have taken steps to contact Complainant [Rife] and the Family Court about his unavailability for a period of time this past summer."
The other person to complain about Lutz, Michael A. Harper of Reedsville, alleges failed to return his numerous inquiries about completion of a basic and living will. The company from whom Harper purchased the will kit, ARAG, was also unsuccessful in contacting Lutz, records show.
After he filed it on July 3, ODC provided a copy of Harper's complaint to Lutz on July 10. Though Lutz's attorney on July 21 asked for an extension in filing a reply, records show he never did.
One year, eight complaints
Since 2005, records show 12 complaints have been lodged against Tatano. Eight of those complaints, including the one filed by ODC, came within the one-year period of June 5, 2007 and June 6, 2008.
James Hill of Frankford filed the first of the recent batch. In his complaint, Hill alleged after paying him a flat fee of $3,500 to dissolve a business partnership in 2004, Tatano wanted one-third of the $180,000 the court awarded Hill via mediation in 2007.
Because the check was issued in Tatano's name, Hill had to hire another attorney to petition the court to get the check reissued. In addition to hiring the attorney, Hill said he lost three months interest on the check.
Hill demanded ODC sanction Tatano for his actions saying emphatically in this complaint, "This is not a fee dispute. I do not want mediation."
Records show Tatano did not respond to ODC's subpoena issued on Sept. 5, 2007 that he provide a sworn statement to Hill's complaint.
Later on Oct. 17, Dec. 4 and 5, 2007, Margaret D. Fisher, of Buckeye, Kimberly Clark, of Greenbank and Crystal M. Halterman, of Bartow, lodged their respective complaints against Tatano. All three allege he failed to file paperwork in their respective domestic cases.
Though dates are not specified in her complaint, Fisher alleges Tatano failed to prepare a final order for $1,000 in child support from the father of her child. Similarly, Clark alleges Tatano did not file her divorce papers after paying him $500 to do so in April 2007.
In reply to Clark's complaint, Tatano maintains she only paid him $200 of the $500, and was awaiting the remainder before filing the papers. Also, he was unaware she made attempts to contact him as it was about the time the left the Pocahontas County Prosecutor's Office.
Tatano was employed as an assistant prosecutor from Feb. 1, 2002 to Aug. 31, 2007.
On Aug. 15, 2007, Halterman alleges she and her husband, James, paid Tatano $500 to begin adoption proceedings for Halterman's daughter, Natalie Sheets. Despite assurances he would forward the paperwork to Natalie's father, Halterman alleges Tatano never did.
However, after she was successful in personally getting Natalie's father to sign the papers, Halterman returned them to Tatano. When she did not hear from him, Halterman checked with the Pocahontas Circuit Clerk to discover Tatano had not filed them.
In his reply to Halterman's complaint, Tatano said the fault rested with Natalie's father as he sent the papers back to the father to ensure he gave his consent, and was supposed to pass them along to the court.
Along with domestic, former clients are dissatisfied with the way Tatano handles estate cases. In addition to two clients, Ralph K. McKeever, of Maxwelton and Robert R. Salyers of Viera, Fla., Larry Chidester, a loan officer at Davis Trust Company in Elkins, expressed their displeasure with Tatano.
On Dec. 26, McKeever lodged his complaint alleging Tatano failed to adequately represent him in a legal dispute concerning the will of his mother, Hazel. McKeever alleged Tatano failed to diligently pursue the case, keep him informed of the proceedings and signed a dismissal order without his knowledge or consent.
In his reply dated Feb. 14, Tatano said the court, over his objections, granted the opposing party's motion to dismiss the case. Also, he had $4,753.57 in checks and money orders from McKeever he would be willing to return to him.
About a month later, Chidester lodged his complaint with ODC. In it, he alleged he made three unsuccessful attempts between May 24 and Nov. 26 to contact Tatano about filing a claim against an estate he was handling.
After first notifying Tatano of Chidester's complaint on March 19 via regular U.S. Mail, ODC again notified him via certified mail on April 15. Though he signed for the April 15 letter, records show he did not reply to it.
In his complaint filed June 6, Salyers alleges he hired Tatano in 2006 to serve as executor of his grandfather's estate. Salyers paid Tatano $400 to cover costs, records show.
As part of their agreement, Tatano promised Salyers he would keep other family members from taking personal property from the grandfather's home, and investigate allegations family members where getting the grandfather's name taken off important documents.
When he discovered Tatano was not keeping his promise, Salyers called him to question him about it. After Tatano failed to return his calls, Salyers filed his complaint.
Records show ODC mailed two letters, one on June 10, and the second on June 30, to get a reply to Salyers' complaint. Each time the letters were returned marked "Return to Sender-Unable to Forward."
Because of the Court's annulment of their licenses, no action was taken on any of the complaints filed against Tatano and Lutz.
Instead, all complainants were informed their complaints would be placed in a reinstatement file "so should the Respondent seek reinstatement at any time in the future, the allegations contained within this complaint may be considered at that time."
The annulment is not the first time Tatano was disciplined, records show. On Aug. 27, 2005, he was admonished for creating a conflict of interest in a divorce case in Randolph County Family Court.
Though the dates and parties are not specified, Tatano was counsel of record for the petitioner in the divorce. Despite preparing paperwork and filing on the petitioner's behalf, Tatano also prepared and filed an answer on behalf of the defendant.
In his reply, Tatano said while all parties were in agreement on the all the issues, the defendant had yet to file an answer. He filed the answer only after both parties asked him to do so.
However, he realized that he made a mistake and apologized for it.