CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has suspended a Putnam County attorney for failing to file an appeal in a personal injury suit, and complying with a court order he surrender his client files after abandoning his law practice.
Prior to its adjournment, the Court on June 22 recommended John A. Grafton's license be suspended for two years. The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Thomas McHugh, was inclusive of Grafton's abandonment of not only Cheryl and Danny Briscoe in appealing the dismissal of their personal injury suit in 2007, but also all his other clients in the midst of investigations into other ethics complaints.
Earlier this year, the Court agreed to hear the petition of the Lawyer Disciplinary Board that Grafton's license be suspended for a year for missing the deadline to file the Briscoe's appeal to the Court from Putnam Circuit Court. Shortly before it heard that case, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel petitioned the Court to immediately suspend Grafton's license for abandoning his practice in March after losing a landlord-tenant dispute in Putnam Magistrate Court.
According to its petition, ODC had eight pending ethics complaints against Grafton.
Initially, the Court did not immediately rule on ODC's petition except to order Putnam Circuit Judge Phillip M. Stowers to appoint a trustee for Grafton's client files. However, when Grafton, a sole practitioner in Winfield, failed to turn over his files to Poca attorney Richard Whitt, the court-appointed trustee, the Court reversed course, and ordered the immediate suspension of its license.
In its renewed petition filed April 12, ODC asked the Court to hold Grafton in contempt for not abiding by its March 23 order. The Court considered ODC's motion for contempt on May 25 during the hearing on the Briscoe case.
In his opinion, McHugh said "it is apparent in the present case that Mr. Grafton not only failed to communicate, he also deceived his client by allowing her to believe that he was acting diligently and an appeal had been perfected in her case." According to court records, Grafton not only missed deadlines in the Briscoe's case while it was pending in Putnam Circuit Court, but also led Cheryl to believe for over a year past missing the deadline he filed the appeal.
Though the Court took note of an automobile accident in March 2007 that resulted in the amputation of his left foot, and expressing remorse for his actions during the Board's hearing last year, McHugh said communication with clients seemed to be problem with Grafton. He noted that shortly after the Briscoe case was dismissed, the Court reprimanded Grafton in November 2007 for failing to timely communicate with three other clients in unrelated cases.
Also, McHugh said Grafton showed "seriously poor judgment and conduct unbecoming a lawyer" when he failed to comply with its order turning all his files over to Whitt. Instead of contacting ODC for guidance on what files he needed to release, McHugh said Grafton "unilaterally decided not to comply with an order of this Court" by turning over only his pending cases to Whitt.
"Such behavior further demonstrates Mr. Grafton's lack of appreciation of his duties to the legal system and the legal profession, as well as an understanding of the role of the ODC and disciplinary matters," McHugh said.
Regardless, McHugh said Grafton's actions did not amount to contempt. However, he said the Court considered it an aggravating factor to enhance the punishment for suspension of an additional year beyond what the Board was seeking.
"In light of the overall misconduct revealed through this proceeding," McHugh said, "we conclude that the one-year license suspension recommended by the HPS is inadequate. The public, the profession and the legal system of this State will be better served with the imposition of a two-year license suspension."
In addition to the suspension, the Court ordered Grafton, who was admitted to the state Bar on Oct. 2, 1995, not only formally reapply for reinstatement at the end of the two-year period, but also undergo a psychological or psychiatric evaluation before it. Also, upon reinstatement, Grafton was ordered to have his practice supervised for another two years, take an additional nine hours of continuing education, specifically in the area of office management and pay the cost of the disciplinary proceeding.
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case numbers 35283 and 11-0480