Supreme Court suspends Ritchie Co. lawyer for a year

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Mar 4, 2014

CHARLESTON -- The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has suspended a Ritchie County attorney’s law license for one year for conduct that “did not conform to the expectations of the profession.”

The state’s high court issued its 30-page opinion Feb. 12 in Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Ira M. Haught.

In its per curiam ruling, the court suspended Haught for one year rather than three, as recommended by a hearing panel subcommittee.

However, Haught will face additional sanctions, as set forth in the subcommittee’s report and recommendation, including:

* Upon successful reinstatement to the practice of law, he shall sign and follow a plan of supervised practice for a period of two years with a supervising attorney, consistent with the specifications set forth by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel;

* He shall complete an additional nine hours of Continuing Legal Education during the CLE time period he is reinstated in the area of ethics and office management, over and above that already required;

* He shall have a certified public accountant audit his office accounting records for two consecutive years following his reinstatement, consistent with the specifications set forth by the ODC; and

* He shall pay the costs of the proceedings.

The ruling stems from a two-count statement of charges filed by the board’s investigative panel.

“Although the record in this matter is voluminous, the essential facts favorable and unfavorable to Haught, in relation to the statement of charges, are straightforward,” the justices wrote.

The first count alleged violations of the state’s Rules of Professional Conduct with regard to a complaint filed by Gerald Heister, chairman of the board of National Rendezvous and Living History Foundation Inc., or NRLHF.

The second count alleged violations of the rules with regard to a complaint filed by Jack D. Wright and Wanda R. Wright.

In a written agreement dated April 30, 2008, Haught agreed to represent Linda B. Blizard and Richard E. Blizard Jr. in a contract dispute with NRLHF.

Linda Blizard, an independent contractor performing accounting, reporting and financial management services for NRLHF, claimed that the foundation wrongfully terminated her contract in 2007. Richard Blizard claimed that NRLHF wrongfully asserted a $1,300 debt against him.

Subsequent to Haught’s agreement to represent the Blizards, Linda Blizard allegedly withdrew, without authorization, money from a certificate of deposit owned by NRLHF.

The record includes a copy of a check dated June 27, 2008, drawn on WesBanco Bank Inc. and payable to NRLHF. The check, in the amount of $11,402.50, was endorsed in the name of Linda Blizard and with the NRLHF initials.

The record also includes a copy of a second check of the same date, drawn on WesBanco Bank Inc. and payable to Linda Blizard and Haught. The second check, also in the amount of $11,402.50, was endorsed on June 30, 2008 in the names of Linda Blizard and Haught.

In May 2010, Heister filed an ethics complaint against Haught. Heister had not learned of the alleged conversion of the certificate of deposit by Linda Blizard until after the action against NRLHF was settled.

Heister’s complaint alleged that Linda Blizard and Haught cashed the second check in the amount of $11,402.50 and that, “with the possible knowledge of Mr. Haught,” the money was to be used to pay the Blizards’ legal fees in the action against NRLHF.

Haught testified that, in June 2008, the Blizards brought $11,402.50 in cash to his office to hold, pending the Blizards’ litigation against NRLHF.

Denying that the money was for attorney fees, he indicated the Blizards brought the cash to his office in connection with Linda Blizard’s claim against NRLHF for unpaid compensation.

Haught testified before the investigative panel that he did not deposit the money in his Interest on Lawyer Trust Account, or IOLTA, maintained at Huntington National Bank. Such an account is designed for the safekeeping of client funds that are “expected to be held for a brief period.”

Instead, Haught said he kept the money in his office safe.

Haught later testified that when the action against NRLHF settled, he returned the money to the Blizards, and they paid an outstanding invoice for attorney fees in the amount of $4,340.

Following Haught’s sworn statement, the disciplinary counsel asked him to provide a receipt for the cash deposit by Linda Blizard in the amount of $11,402.50. On Dec.14, 2010, Haught responded that, upon a review of his receipt books for the year 2008, he could not find a copy of a receipt written to Linda Blizard.

Thereafter, the disciplinary counsel obtained, by subpoena, a copy of the records of Haught’s IOLTA for the period May 2008 through September 2009. The bank records revealed that on June 30, 2008, Haught deposited $11,402.50 in his account.

The bank records also revealed that, much later, on Sept. 11, 2009, Haught wrote a check from his IOLTA to the Blizards in the amount of $7,062.50. Specifically, Haught’s invoice for attorney fees, upon the settlement of the action against NRLHF, indicates that $4,340 in fees were subtracted from the $11,402.50, leaving a $7,062.50 remainder for the Blizards.

“In Haught’s favor, the evidence does not show any participation by Haught in the alleged conversion by Linda Blizard of the NRLHF certificate of deposit or any evidence that the Blizards, or Haught, earmarked the disputed money simply to retain Haught or pay his attorney fees,” the state Supreme Court wrote in its ruling.

“In addition, the subcommittee asserted that Haught stated falsely that the issues surrounding the certificate of deposit, allegedly converted by Linda Blizard, had been resolved, in 2009, through the settlement and dismissal of the NRLHF litigation.

“The subcommittee’s assertion, however, is unpersuasive because, as part of the settlement of the NRLHF litigation, the Blizards were released from all past, present and future claims, known and unknown.”

Finally, the court wrote, nothing in the record supports the subcommittee’s conclusion that Haught violated Rule 8.4(b), which sets forth an ethics violation for the commission of a criminal act.

“Neither the statement of charges nor the subcommittee’s report and recommendation identified any criminal act allegedly committed by Haught, and the record contains no evidence of such a violation,” the justices wrote.

“Nevertheless, the evidence does not support Haught’s assertion that the Blizards instructed him to hold the $11,402.50 in cash in his office safe.”

Both Linda Blizard and Richard Blizard testified they did not recall telling Haught how to hold the money.

During a Dec. 5, 2012, hearing, Linda Blizard stated she assumed Haught “would put it into safekeeping -- in his escrow account, like other lawyers do.”

“In view of the testimony of Linda Blizard and Richard Blizard, the subcommittee’s conclusion is well-taken that there was no legitimate reason for the $11,402.50 to be converted to cash and kept in Haught’s office safe,” the court concluded. “In any event, if the money was held in the safe, its transfer back and forth between the Haught Family Trust and Blizard envelopes is disturbing.”

Meanwhile, the Wright complaint, filed against Haught in July 2010, alleged Haught prepared a deed for the couple, who were buying tracts of real property in Doddridge County.

According to the complaint, Haught mistakenly left out the mineral interests as part of the purchase.

The Wrights alleged they did not discover the omission until they attempted to update the county tax ticket, and their repeated attempts to speak with Haught were unsuccessful.

Subsequent evidence revealed that many of the calls the Wrights made to Haught’s office were never returned.

The complaint alleged that it was not until May 13, 2010, after Wanda Wright threatened to file an ethics complaint, that Haught provided the Wrights with a copy of a corrective deed -- which the seller, L.L. Tonkin, has never signed.

The Wrights’ complaint also alleged that Haught continued to be unresponsive to their inquiries.

“As Haught correctly states, he is not charged in this matter with violating the Rules of Professional Conduct with regard to the disputed mineral interests. Rather, the statement of charges filed by the investigative panel alleges that Haught engaged in untruths in an effort to avoid detection of who his client was,” the justices wrote.

However, nothing in the record indicates that Haught ever told the Wrights that he was not representing them, the court noted.

“In this matter, this court is of the opinion that the conclusion of the hearing panel subcommittee, that an attorney-client relationship existed between Haught and the Wrights should not be disturbed,” it wrote.

This isn’t the first time Haught has been in hot water over his “lack of diligence.”

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