Inflated fees led to charges against Morgantown attorney

By Lawrence Smith | Feb 17, 2012

CHARLESTON – A Monongalia County attorney is accused of swindling one of his former clients out of nearly $150,000.

The Lawyer Disciplinary Board on April 27 filed a single-count statement of charges against John C. Scotchel Jr. accusing him of violating seven Rules of Professional Conduct. The statement accuses Scotchel, 60, a sole practitioner in Morgantown, of taking advantage of a businessman's misfortune by grossly exaggerating the work he did to help the man sell his business.

A statement of charges acts as indictment for disciplinary purposes.

A 10-year ordeal

According the statement, Lewis Snow Jr. hired Scotchel in October 2002 to help sell his sanitation business. Without reducing it to writing, Snow agreed to pay Scotchel a flat $25,000 for the work he performed in selling the business.

Over the next five years, Snow was involved in various criminal and administrative proceedings regarding his business. Scotchel in some, but not all, of the proceedings represented Snow.

Eventually, on Nov. 6, 2007, Scotchel received a letter from Roger L. Cutright, another Morgantown attorney, expressing his client's interest in buying Snow's sanitation business. Two days later, Scotchel replied to Cutright's letter saying Snow was willing to sell it for $300,000.

A month later, Cutright sent Scotchel a purchase agreement for Snow to sign. On Feb. 12, 2008, Snow sent Scotchel a letter directing he receive $25,000, Scotchel receive $25,000 for his fee, a relative receive $50,000 and the remainder go to pay all Centra Bank loans.

According to the statement, Scotchel apparently added "'Does not include fees over $100,000'" and the $25,000 toward the business that "'appeal to bus only.'" For reasons that remain unclear, the original document Snow signed is no longer in existence.

A week later Cutright sent Scotchel two original versions of the purchase agreement. Scotchel returned them two days later with Snow's signature, and on March 5 Cutright sent one of the originals to the state Public Service Commission.

According to the statement, Snow sold his business on June 12 for $275,000. The money was deposited into a Scotchel's client trust account.

The same day, Scotchel had Snow sign an agreement stating "'I authorize addition [sic] payment of $145,000 to John C. Scotchel Jr. For atty's fees. From 2002 to present.'" That document, which also is no longer is existence, bears the signatures of Snow and Deborah Robinson, who is unidentified in the statement.

Thereafter, Scotchel made payments to Snow, his ex-wife, daughters and companies to whom he owed money. Believing there was still some to be disbursed, Snow met with Scotchel on March 21, 2009, requesting the rest of his money, and a receipt for Scotchel's fees.

According to the statement, Scotchel told Snow there was no money left, and he would provide him a receipt in a few weeks. When no was forthcoming, Snow filed an ethics complaint against Scotchel on April 6.

In his response to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel dated May 29, 2009, Scotchel listed seven of the criminal or administrative hearings Snow was involved with between 2002 and 2007. Though the total bill came to $217,000, Scotchel reduced the fee to $146,500, rounding it down to $145,000.

After he was provided a copy of Scotchel's response, Snow, through Morgantown attorney Allan N. Karlin, said he "denies he ever agreed to or approved of a fee of $145,000." On Jan. 7, 2010, Scotchel made a sworn statement that he kept time records for the work he performed but shredded them in December 2008.

The only ones he kept, according to the statement was the Feb. 21, 2008 purchase agreement, and the June 12, 2008 attorney fee agreement. A week later, ODC asked Scotchel to provide '"time receipts/bills/invoices of your work in the Snow matter from October 2002 until March 2009.'"

His failure to do so resulted in the statement of charges. In it, Scotchel is accused of violating Rules dealing with fees, safekeeping of property, misconduct, and failing to respond timely to an ethics inquiry.

Two days of hearings are scheduled on the statement of charges for Feb. 21 and 22 in Morgantown.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 11-0728

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