Supreme Court hears attorney theft case

By Steve Korris | Nov 17, 2006

CHARLESTON – Leonard Coleman's partners at Goodwin & Goodwin forgave him when he stole from them, but forgiveness ran out when he stole again.

"He is a thief," Justice Brent Benjamin of the Supreme Court of Appeals said in Nov. 14 oral arguments on Coleman's discipline.

Benjamin said, "He used his law license to commit theft."

He said Coleman had a prior history of stealing from his partners. He said the partners were kind enough to overlook it the first time.

Chief Justice Robin Davis said that this time, Coleman took money "to pay for his high maintenance girlfriend."

The Lawyer Disciplinary Board wants Coleman to give up his license and pay Goodwin & Goodwin $167,000 in restitution at 10 percent interest.

Coleman's attorney, Sherri Goodman of Charleston, opposed both punishments. She said the Court once reprimanded a lawyer who stole from his firm.

She said Goodwin & Goodwin did not ask for restitution.

Lawyer Disciplinary Board director Rachael Fletcher told the Justices that Tom Goodwin just wanted Coleman out of the firm.

She said that six times in 2004 and 2005, Coleman put his personal account number on invoices. She said he converted $170,000 to his personal use.

Goodman said Coleman offered to repay Goodwin & Goodwin at $3,000 a month.

She said he made a payment but then left the firm. She said he had worked as bond counsel for Goodwin & Goodwin but could no longer find work in that line.

She said his income fell from $200,000 a year to $20,000.

That did not sway Benjamin. He said, "There is a very good argument here that he is not getting enough punishment."

He said Coleman made "excuse after excuse after excuse."

He told Goodman, "I am not inclined to grant your client much sympathy."

Goodman said the first time Coleman took money from his partners, in 1993, he was going through a divorce.

Justice Joseph Albright said he was troubled by Coleman's inability to make restitution. He said, "What is just and doable?"

He said 10 percent interest was about $1,500 a month.

He said the Lawyer Disciplinary Board should keep track of Coleman's income and assess him as his income goes up.

Benjamin asked Goodman to interpret a rule that covers lawyer conduct toward "third persons."

Goodman said Coleman harmed the profession but not the public.

Davis said, "You want us to distinguish between cheating your partners and cheating your clients?" Goodman said yes.

Albright said harming clients is the greatest harm a lawyer can do.

Justices Spike Maynard and Larry Starcher missed the argument, but Davis said they would participate in the decision.

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