CHARLESTON – A Washington, D.C., attorney spearheading an awareness and fundraising campaign for the victim in a Logan County torture case was disciplined last year by the District's Bar Association for not properly handling the settlement awarded in a civil case involving two minor children.
On Nov. 3, Malik Z. Shabazz, founder of Black Lawyers for Justice, lead an estimated 1,000 people from the state capitol to the Robert C. Byrd federal courthouse in downtown Charleston calling on federal and state prosecutors to file hate-crime charges in the Megan Williams case. Williams is the 20-year old black woman who alleges she was kidnapped, raped and tortured by six white people in Logan County in September.
Along with awareness, funds were also raised on Williams' behalf. At the conclusion of the rally, Shabazz announced that an estimated $6,000 was collected.
However, reports, including an Associated Press story, later put the figure closer to $5,000.
Since then, Logan County Prosecutor Brian Abraham petitioned the court for the appointment of a guardian ad litem for Williams.
Though he was not specific as to whom, Abraham was quoted in the Nov. 9 edition of the Gazette as saying the appointment of guardian was necessary because "the people in her social sphere and the people around her may be allowing things, media events, that are not in Megan's best interest or in the best interest of her case."
Though it is unclear if there is any connection, but records show that Shabazz was admonished by the D.C. Bar Counsel 18 months ago for violations of the Bar's Rules of Professional Conduct, including failing to safe-keep a client's property.
Unable to find a guardian
According to the D.C. Bar's Web site, the Bar Counsel issued Shabazz an informal admonishment on May 25, 2006 for four RPC violations.
The Bar Counsel cited Shabazz for failing to safe-keep a client's property, knowingly assisting another to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, failing to provide competent representation and serve a client with commensurate skill and care and failing to provide the proper writing of legal fees between two lawyers who are not of the same firm.
All this was done, the Bar Counsel said in its summary of action, "while retained by the parent to represent the interests of two minor children in a civil action against the District of Columbia."
In addition to Shabazz, the informal admonishment, which in D.C. is the lowest form of public discipline, was also issued to Gregory L. Lattimer. Records show he assisted Shabazz in the case.
Also, according to its Website, Lattimer is a member of the board of advisors to the Black Lawyers for Justice.
According to a letter sent to Shabazz and Lattimer from Bar Counsel Wallace E. Shipp Jr., two D.C. residents, identified only as "B.H." and "T.D.," filed a complaint against them on July 10, 2003.
In their joint complaint, T.D., the minors' mother, inquired as to why Shabazz and Lattimer were refusing to turn over funds from a settlement approved in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Likewise, B.H., the minors' father, was not only unaware of the settlement, but also that Shabazz brought Lattimer into the case.
The Bar Counsel's letter provides no details as to what the case was about.
However, what is known is that Shabazz and Lattimer brought the case on B.H.'s behalf as the next friend for his two minor children in U.S. District Court in 2001. Though B.H. only hired Shabazz, the retainer agreement provided that he could "associate with additional counsel for the purpose of securing additional legal experience, if needed."
In its letter, the Bar Counsel said Shabazz brought Lattimer into the case "within ten days of executing the retainer agreement." Despite a discussion Shabazz had with B.H. about Lattimer's participation in the case, the Bar Counsel said they created a Rules violation by not putting it in writing.
Nevertheless, Shabazz and Lattimer obtained a court-approved settlement for the children on Jan. 30, 2003 for $160,368.13. That settlement, the Bar Counsel's letter says, "included specified attorneys' fees."
Pursuant to D.C. Code, Shabazz and Lattimer were directed to promptly file "the appropriate documents with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in order to have a guardian appointed to manage the proceeds of the settlement awarded in this manner."
According to the Bar Counsel's letter, the settlement check was issued on March 20, 2003, and made payable to "[B.H.] next friend of [the minor children] c/o Gregory L. Lattimer, Esquire."
However, difficulty ensued in turning the check over to B.H. By law, and under the terms of the settlement, a guardian has to be appointed when a minor is awarded any amount over $3,000. Initially, Lattimer prepared paperwork to have B.H., and an unidentified person believed to be a family member, appointed as guardian.
According to its letter, the Bar Counsel found that because of both his criminal record, and inability to post the required bond, B.H. could not be appointed as guardian. Also, it found that Shabazz and Lattimer later discovered that the other person wanting to be appointed guardian was not a family member.
As B.H. proved to be uncooperative, Lattimer returned the settlement check to the Court and "requested separate checks be issued for attorneys' fees and for the benefit of the minors." Those checks, the Bar Counsel says in its letter, were issued on April 23, 2003.
About that time, Lattimer met with the mother, T.D. and the minor children. It was then, Bar Counsel found, that the children had been living with the mother during the course of the settlement negotiations.
According to its letter, the Bar Counsel found that "T.D. opposed turning over any funds to B.H., the father, and stated that she would try to find an appropriate person who could serve as guardian."
After five months of hearing nothing from either T.D. or B.H., Lattimer wrote both a letter on Sep. 3, 2003 saying that unless they contacted him within 10 business days, he would seek a court-appointed guardian for the children. Shabazz, the Bar Counsel found, penned a similar letter on Sep. 9, 2003.
Apparently, no guardian was appointed as B.H. "opposed any guardian being appointed other than himself." The stalemate led to Shabazz writing a letter dated May 12, 2004 to B.H. announcing his decision to withdraw from the case. In his letter, Shabazz told B.H. the settlement check was in Lattimer's possession.
Over a year later in June 2005, the elder of the two children, who was now 18, requested his share of the settlement. When the young man came to Lattimer's office with his proof of age, Lattimer realized he could not release the check because it was over two years old.
According to its letter, the Bar Counsel found that Lattimer contacted the D.C. finance office, which reissued a check on Oct. 3, 2005. Accompanied by B.H., the elder child signed a settlement distribution statement acknowledging his share of the settlement three days later.
At the request of the younger child, who was at time still a minor, according to the Bar Counsel's latter, Lattimer "placed the remainder of the funds in an interest bearing account for the benefit of the minor."
No prior discipline
In its letter, the Bar Counsel found that Shabazz and Lattimer should have placed in the check in an interest-bearing account in April 2003 when it began to appear there would be difficulty in securing a guardian. By allowing the check "to become void on its face," they "depriv[ed] the minor children of interest."
In doing so, the Bar Counsel found they committed a Rules violation dealing with safe keeping of a client's property. Despite Shabazz withdrawing from the case, he knew Lattimer still had the check and should have instructed him to deposit it into an interest-bearing account.
His failure to do so led the Bar Counsel to cite Shabazz for knowingly assisting another attorney to commit a Rules violation.
Finally, the Bar Counsel found that Shabazz and Lattimer failed to provide competent representation to a client, and serve him with commensurate skill and care in two ways. First, by failing to "timely secure a court-appointed guardian to receive and manage the proceeds of the settlement," and, second, by, again, preventing interest from being earned on the settlement proceeds.
According to its letter, the Bar Counsel decided on an informal admonishment for Shabazz and Lattimer rather than more severe discipline because they both had no prior discipline, cooperated fully in its investigation and took actions which "were not motivated by self-gain, but were intended to protect the settlement award for the benefit of the minor children."
Both Shabazz and Lattimer were given the option to have a formal hearing on the complaint filed against them. In its letter, the Bar Counsel noted such a hearing could lead to the dismissal of the charges, or a "finding of culpability, in which case the sanction recommended by the Hearing Committee is not limited to an Informal Admonition."
It is not clear if Shabazz took the option of requesting a hearing as he did not return calls by presstime.