CHARLESTON – At least for the foreseeable future, a former Berkeley County attorney will not be returning to the practice of law.

The state Supreme Court on Nov. 17 denied Keith L. Wheaton's petition for readmission to the state Bar. In a unanimous, five-page memorandum opinion, the Court said it was agreeing with the recommendation of its Lawyer Disciplinary Board that Wheaton, 44, not be readmitted due to his failure to satisfy any of the requirements the Court set forth as a condition of his readmission when he was disbarred in 2004.

"Having failed to satisfy any of the requirements for reinstatement set forth in Wheaton, it appears that [he] relies on the mere passage of time since his annulment as his strongest argument," the Court said.

Memorandum opinions are issued by the Court in cases that present no new or significant questions of law.

Unconvincing argument

The Court on Nov. 12, 2004, voted 3-2 to annul Wheaton's license finding that between 1997 and 2002, while as a sole practitioner in Martinsburg, he 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." Former justices Warren McGraw and Larry V. Starcher were the dissenting votes.

Specifically, the Court found Wheaton wrote $37,900.86 in worthless checks to either clients or expert witnesses. An investigation into the complaint filed against him by Margo Bruce found the delay in Wheaton paying her the $10,000 she received in medical malpractice settlement was due to him using the proceeds to cover the closing costs on his home.

As a condition of seeking readmission to the Bar at the conclusion of the five-year prohibition on practicing law, the Court ordered Wheaton to make restitution to two clients, Nancy Christensen and Edward K. Pruden, Sr. $450 and $300, respectively, $45,000 to Pamela Mason to satisfy the judgment she received against him in an adversarial proceeding in her bankruptcy, and $13,353.39 to the Board for the cost of his prior disciplinary proceeding.

The Court also ordered Wheaton take an additional 18 hours of continuing legal education focused on ethics and office management, and have his practice supervised for two years.

At both the evidentiary hearings held by the Board in Martinsburg on his petition in March, and during oral arguments before the Court on Oct. 18, Wheaton admitted he's made little, if any, of the required restitution. In fact, Wheaton said the reason he was seeking readmission was so he could find steady employment to begin repaying his former clients.

Following his disbarment, Wheaton moved to Cary, N.C. where he experienced both financial, and legal trouble. Along with the recession curtailing demand for his diversity consulting business, Wheaton admitted to entering guilty pleas for separate and unrelated convictions for criminal contempt in failing to pay child support and unlawful use of a vehicle.

During the hearings, Wheaton said it was his hope of finding work in either a large corporation or university in the Raleigh-Durham-area, since many only required an attorney be a member in good standing of any Bar, where he could have his practice supervised, and begin earning a steady income. During oral arguments, Wheaton said he has since moved back to Martinsburg, and was working as a paralegal for Steven Greenbaum, a fellow WVU College of Law student who previously shared an office with Wheaton.

The criminal convictions after moving to North Carolina along with judgments in two civil cases entered against him totaling nearly $7,000 was another reason the Court cited for denying Wheaton's petition for readmission.

"Although we appreciate that Petitioner performs good works in his community and in his church," the Court said, "he has, nevertheless, engaged in a course of conduct since the annulment of his law license which fails to show that " 'he presently possesses the integrity, moral character and legal competence to resume the practice of law.' "

"The civil and criminal entanglements described above are extensive and serious in nature. Petitioner has failed to demonstrate by this conduct that there is little likelihood that, if reinstated, he will not engage in unprofessional conduct again," the Court added.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 35462

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