High Court suspends Braxton attorney for mishandling of estate

By Lawrence Smith | Mar 19, 2010

CHARLESTON - The state Supreme Court has suspended a Braxton County attorney's license for his mishandling of a Harrison County woman's estate.

The Court on March 4 ordered that William C. Martin be suspended from practicing law for six months. The Court agreed with the findings of the Lawyer Disciplinary Board, the prosecutorial arm of the state Bar, that Martin, 57, not only failed to properly account for work he did for the estate, but also timely turn over materials belonging to it when he was removed as executor.

According to court records, Martin, a sole practitioner in Sutton first admitted to the Bar on Dec. 19, 1978, was appointed executor of Anna Lee Davis Hornor estate on April 8, 2002 by the Harrison County Commission. Martin's appointment came less than a week after Hornor's death.

Almost 2 ½ years earlier, records show Martin helped Hornor prepare her last will and testament.

On three occasions, Martin wrote three checks to himself drawn from the estate totaling $11,000. The three checks were written on April 17, 2002 -- nine days after Hornor's death -- July 12 and Sept. 20, 2004, and deposited into his office account with City National Bank.

Three years after they appointed him, the commission ordered Martin removed as the estate's executor. The commission's action come in response to a complaint lodged by Barbara Warder, a beneficiary, who alleged in early 2005 Martin was improperly administering Hornor's estate.

In June 2005, records show the commission appointed Warder as the estate's new executor. However, when Martin failed to follow the commission's order to turn over all materials belonging to the estate, and refund the money he paid himself from it, Warder filed a lawsuit against him in Harrison Circuit Court.

A month later, Warder followed-up her suit with a complaint against Martin with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the Bar's investigative arm. In her complaint, Warder alleged Martin had "neglected Ms. Horner's estate, misappropriated funds and refused to comply the Harrison County Commission's order."

In his response to Warder's complaint, Martin maintained he had not misappropriated any of the estate's funds, but had repaid himself for services he'd performed. However, he admitted he could not verify his work due to a recent office fire that destroyed most of records.

Along with the response, Martin submitted a check for $11,000 made payable to the estate for the money he paid himself.

Two years later, the circuit court granted default judgment to Warder. Records are unclear as to why, but almost another two years later on Dec. 23, 2008, the court ordered Martin to pay the estate $13,841.40 in compensatory damages plus court costs and attorney fees.

Two months later, ODC issued a statement of charges against Martin accusing him of seven violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct. Among the Rules ODC accused Martin of violating were those dealing with diligence, safekeeping of property and declining or terminating representation.

In its unanimous, unsigned opinion the Court took notice of Martin's argument that despite Warder's allegations, there was no finding he misappropriated, converted or commingled any funds belonging to the estate. However, it found his actions, including his inability to provide an accounting for any work he performed, and turn over to Warder the estate's files, are still negligent.

"Because Mr. Martin failed to act reasonably, the estate still has not been closed and the beneficiaries have yet to realize their full inheritances," the Court said. "This dilatoriness on Mr. Martin's part has caused a delay in closing the estate, depriving the beneficiaries of their property."

"Further," the Court added, "Mr. Martin's procrastination, especially in the failure to file tax returns and the resulting penalties and interest now owed by the estate, has subtracted from the benefit rightfully due to the beneficiaries. Significantly, Mr. Martin is unable to account for any of his time spent on this case. While he claims that the records were destroyed in an office fire, to which this Court is sympathetic, he has made no attempt to reconstruct the records of his time or efforts involved in the case."

Along with the suspension, the Court ordered additional sanctions against Martin. The additional sanctions include having his practice supervised for a year following his reinstatement to the Bar, taking an additional 12 hours of continuing legal education and paying the cost of the disciplinary proceeding.

Also, Martin was instructed to fully comply with the 2008 judgment. According to a footnote in the Court's ruling, Martin paid the estate $14,000 a week prior to his hearing before the Board's Hearing Panel Subcommittee on June 10.

However, he still owes it an undetermined amount of pre-judgment interest.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 34734

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