Justices reprimand Clarksburg attorney

By Lawrence Smith | Jan 20, 2011

CHARLESTON – For failing to communicate with three clients, the state Supreme Court has issued a mild rebuke to a Harrison County attorney.

The Court on Oct. 27 reprimanded Clarksburg attorney April D. Conner. The Court's decision came in response to a statement of charges filed against Conner, 39, by the Lawyer Disciplinary Board on Jan. 12, 2010, alleging she either failed to communicate with or diligently handle the cases of two clients seeking a divorce, and a third needing help defending against criminal charges.

A statement of charges acts as an indictment for disciplinary purposes.

According to the statement, Mark L. Murphy, and Natasha L. Helmick, respectively, paid Conner $1,500 and $1,750 in September 2007, and March 2008 to file their divorces. In Murphy's case, the $1,500 was paid by his wife, Pam, while he was deployed by the U.S. Air Force to Iraq to handle any legal matters stemming from child support payments he was making to his previous two wives.

After returning from Iraq on Jan. 31, 2008, Murphy asked the $1,500 be applied toward filing a divorce from Pam from whom he had then become estranged.

According to the statement, both Murphy and Helmick made unsuccessful attempts to contact Conner about the status of their respective cases. In her case, Helmick alleged, despite Conner's assurances she would promptly file the divorce, Helmick's ex-husband beat her to the punch, and Conner did not return her repeated phone calls for the next four months.

Also, Helmick alleged Conner missed both a telephonic conference with her ex-husband's attorney on June 17, 2008, and a hearing in family court on July 9, 2008, that left her without a temporary order for child or spousal support. Helmick terminated Conner as her counsel shortly after a July 22 mediation session.

Upon learning she failed to file his divorce petition, Murphy asked for a refund, and return of his file. When Conner failed to provide them, he filed his complaint with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the Bar's investigative arm.

In response to Murphy's complaint, Conner stated the $1,500 paid her was to handle child support modification issues. Though she remembered discussing filing a divorce, and even receiving the necessary paperwork to initiate one, Conner said Murphy would have to pay over and above the $1,500.

In rebuttal, Murphy said the $1,500 was only in the event a child support issue arose while he was deployed which it didn't. Despite ODC asking her to provide a response to Murphy's rebuttal, Conner never did.

In response to Helmick's complaint, Conner admitted she not only failed to timely file her divorce petition, but also was negligent in missing the June 17 telephone conference. However, she said an abuse and neglect hearing in Lewis County prevented her from getting to the July 9 hearing in Harrison County.

Prior to Murphy and Helmick hiring her, James W. Hendrickson retained Conner following his indictment for kidnapping, and malicious assault in October 2006. According to the statement, Hendrickson paid both Conner, and another attorney, Ira Haught, each $20,000 in January 2007.

Their retainer agreement called for Conner and Haught to provide Hendrickson monthly statements of their respective work, and a refund of any unused retainer. Though Haught provided a monthly statement, and upon the conclusion of the criminal trial refunded him "several thousand dollars," Hendrickson alleged Conner never provided him a statement of her work nor a refund.

In response to Hendrickson's complaint, Conner admitted she neglected to send him a monthly statement. However, she said she would send him one by April 17, 2009.

A month later, Hendrickson informed ODC he still had not received an itemized statement from Conner. According to the statement, Conner failed to send the itemized statement to Hendrickson despite receiving two additional letters from ODC directing her to do so.

In all three cases, Conner only responded to the complaints after being subpoenaed by ODC. All total, Conner was charged with nine violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct including those dealing with communication, diligence, safekeeping of property, declining or terminating representation and responding to a disciplinary inquiry.

Though it found she clearly violated her "duties of candor, loyalty, diligence and honesty" to Murphy, Hendrickson and Helmick, the Board recommended Conner be reprimanded since she acted without a "selfish or dishonest motive in those matters" and "expressed remorse for her conduct." Also, it cited as mitigating factors her lack of prior disciplinary action, and having to deal with personal, and family medical issues in 2007 and 2008.

In addition to the reprimand, the Court ordered Conner refund the balance of Hendrickson's retainer of $5,143.98, and pay $1,962.98 for the disciplinary proceeding. Also, the Court ordered her practice to be supervised for a year, she continue seeking treatment from a doctor or psychologist during that year and perform 50 hours of pro bono legal service.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 35434

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