CHARLESTON – Believing a public rebuke for his misconduct is not enough, the state Supreme Court has placed a Wyoming County attorney on suspension.
The Court on Oct. 25 ordered the suspension of Dennie S. Morgan Jr.'s license for a year. In a unanimous, unsigned opinion the Court said Morgan's failure to not only timely communicate with four of his former clients, but also to return their money for work he didn't perform warranted more than the reprimand its Lawyer Disciplinary Board recommended.
"Based on the severity and number of instances of Mr. Morgan's misconduct," the Court said, "as well as the financial, legal, and emotional impact his actions have had on his clients and the public, the only adequate discipline that would serve the public policy interests is a one-year suspension of Mr. Morgan's law license."
Four allege no work
According to court records, following an investigation by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the Board on March 10, 2010, filed a four- count statement of charges against Morgan, 35, a sole practitioner in Oceana. A statement of charges acts like an indictment for disciplinary purposes.
The statement was based on complaints Claude E. Weatherly Jr., Trampes E. Morgan, Treasa Neace and Naomi Staton filed against Morgan with ODC in 2008 and 2009. All four said they paid Morgan a retainer in their respective cases only to have him perform little to no work, not return repeated telephone calls and refuse to refund their money.
Separately, the four paid Morgan $8,100. Weatherly, who paid Morgan $4,000 to represent his son Keith, in a criminal case in Monroe County, and Staton, who paid him $1,000 for a divorce modification in Wyoming Family Court, filed separate suits in Wyoming Circuit Court to recoup their retainers.
Records show Morgan initially refunded Weatherly his $4,000, but later stopped payment on the check.
The statement accused Morgan of at least 10 violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct including diligence, communication, safekeeping of property and failure to respond to ODC's inquiries. In the course of ODC's investigation into Weatherly's and Neace's complaints, Morgan did not provide requested copies of work he performed in their cases.
Knowing, intentional misconduct
In its decision, the Court noted that Morgan did respond to the statement of changes, and stipulated to the allegations leveled against him. Also, it noted with the exception of a prior admonishment for failing to communicate with a client, Morgan had no prior disciplinary history since first being admitted to the Bar on Oct. 10, 2001.
Furthermore, the Court considered mitigating factors in Morgan's case of "a vicious split with former law partners" that included litigation between them, and a divorce from his now ex-wife during the time he had Weatherly's, Morgan's, Neace's and Staton's cases.
In spite of that, and Morgan's expression of remorse, the Court said a reprimand was far too lenient. Because the totality of his misconduct was blatant and not just mere oversight, the Court said Morgan deserved a harsher punishment.
"If Mr. Morgan's actions were truly negligent and not intentional or knowing," the Court said, "the same misconduct would not have been repeated on numerous occasions. Instead, Mr. Morgan continued to charge clients money for work that he never performed; he lied to the clients about the status of their cases; and, when his actions were discovered, he failed to immediately refund their money or to respond to information requests from the ODC.
"Any funds that were eventually refunded were paid only after the threat or imposition of disciplinary proceedings," the Court added. "Mr. Morgan's misconduct, including his multiple failures to respond to the ODC's requests for information, has brought both the legal system and the profession into disrepute."
Along with the year-long suspension, the Court ordered Morgan to pay the cost of the disciplinary proceeding, refund Weatherly, Morgan and Staton their respective retainers, formally petition the Court for reinstatement and have his practice supervised for two years after reinstatement. The supervised practice includes a quarterly update to ODC, and an auditing of his client trust accounts.
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 35513