CHARLESTON – Huntington attorney Michael Markins, who stole about 150 e-mails from a firm where his wife worked, has lost his law license for two years.
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals on May 23 adopted a recommendation of the Lawyer Disciplinary Board to suspend Markins.
To earn reinstatement, he must take ethics courses. If the Court reinstates him, he must practice under supervision for a year.
Although Markins faces no criminal charges, chief disciplinary counsel Rachael Fletcher Cipoletti told the Justices he committed a criminal act.
Markins did not dispute the facts but objected that two years was too harsh.
The Justices answered that they must not only impose appropriate punishment but they must also ensure that discipline serves as an effective deterrent to other attorneys.
"This Court does not take lightly the fact that, in this case, it was an attorney who repeatedly accessed the confidential e-mails of other attorneys without their knowledge or permission," they wrote in an unsigned opinion.
Markins worked at Huddleston and Bolen. His wife Andrea Markins worked for D.C. Offutt at Offutt, Fisher and Nord.
In November 2003, Markins started reading his wife's office e-mail without her knowledge. He said he did so because he suspected she was having an affair with a client, Soon he started reading e-mail of other Offutt lawyers.
He often read personal information, and once he read confidential financial information from the chief accountant to partners.
He read an attorney's e-mail during a trial where he and the attorney represented defendants with potentially conflicting interests.
In all, he read about 150 e-mails of nine Offutt lawyers.
An attorney eventually spotted the leak and reported it. The firm hired computer engineer Paul Law, whose investigation stirred a buzz in the office.
In March 2006, Andrea Markins told her husband someone broke into Offutt e-mail. She said the firm was close to finding out who it was.
He told her who it was.
At almost the same moment, engineer Law discovered the thief's identity. He told D.C. Offutt, who asked Andrea Markins if she knew what her husband had done.
"Though she had just learned of Defendant's misconduct, she denied any knowledge of it to Mr. Offutt," wrote the Justices.
Markins hired Charleston lawyer Michael Callaghan, who immediately contacted Offutt to disclose his actions.
Huddleston and Bolen fired Markins. Offutt, Fisher and Nord fired his wife.
The Lawyer Disciplinary Board brought Markins before a subcommittee of attorneys John Lukens and Charlene Vaughan and lay member Victoria Weisiger.
Callaghan pleaded that Markins never disclosed what he saw to anybody.
Markins expressed remorse and took responsibility. Callaghan asked for a reprimand.
The board recommended suspension for two years.
Following his termination from Huddleston, Markins cooperated fully with both OFN and the Board in their respective investigations of his conduct. In the course of the disciplinary proceedings, Markins expressed remorse for what he did, asking the Court to consider his attempt to confirm or deny Andrea's alleged affair as a mitigating factor.
At oral arguments before the Justices on April 1, Callaghan dropped the request for reprimand and asked for a shorter suspension.
He said he and Markins appealed "on our knees," asking the Justices to think about the rest of his life, his marriage and his children.
"He has suffered greatly," Callaghan said. "He lived in obscurity and all of a sudden he's on the front page."
Justice Larry Starcher said, "But he caused it."
Cipoletti said that if not for mitigating circumstances, she would have asked the Justices to annul Markins's license.
Justice Robin Davis asked if Offutt lost clients. Cipoletti said at least one client has threatened to sue him. She said media coverage would continue causing damage.
She said nothing would stop Markins from disseminating the information in the future.
Chief Justice Spike Maynard said, "What does the victim want?"
Cipoletti said Offutt stated in an affidavit that two years wasn't enough to make up for the damage his firm will suffer.
"There is nothing that will erase that taint from his firm," she said.
That swayed the Justices.
"Not only was OFN forced to expend valuable time and resources to investigate the matter, but it was also required to disclose the unfortunate events to its clients, opening itself up to potential lawsuits and professional embarrassment," they wrote.
"Moreover, one is unable to predict or tangibly quantify the future impact of Respondent's misconduct on OFN or Respondent's former law firm in terms of attracting new clients."
Following his termination, Markins went to work for the law offices of John Fowler. According to his profile on FindLaw.com, Markins lists his past employment positions as "Large Law Firm, General Practice, 2001-2006." Also, his profile says "Markins has also successfully defended matters involving allegations of professional negligence against lawyers and insurance agents."
Reporter Lawrence Smith contributed to this report.