Attorney, family law judge accused of harming Dunbar woman's divorce interests

By Lawrence Smith | Jul 20, 2012



CHARLESTON – A St. Albans attorney and a Putnam County family law judge, who are already under investigation for unrelated acts of misconduct, are accused by a Dunbar woman of failing to take notice of and correct errors in her divorce.

Charles L. "Dusty" Phalen Jr. and William M. "Chip" Watkins III are named in separate but related ethics complaints filed by Margaret Farmer. In her complaints filed Nov. 28 with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and Judicial Investigation Commission, respectively, Farmer alleges Phalen and Watkins each failed in their duties to stop from occurring at least two dozen errors submitted by her ex-husband, Richard Neil Farmer, a Charleston attorney, and his attorney, Marc Swartz, in the Farmer's proposed final divorce.

After she paid him a $2,500 retainer, Farmer says she found it difficult to communicate with Phalen. Also, she alleges "he filed nothing on my behalf."

According to her complaint, the final hearing in the divorce was scheduled for Aug. 23. During the hearing, Watkins instructed Phalen and Swartz to submit information to him within 10 days.

However, Farmer says not only did Phalen fail to submit any information to Watkins, but also inform her that the divorce was finalized on Nov. 14. After obtaining a copy from the Putnam Circuit Clerk's Office, Farmer says that's where she discovered over 24 errors including the value of the marital home on Wethersfield Crossing in Hurricane, which Richard was allowed to keep, and she was employed, and had health insurance.

The fact that Phalen failed to submit any information as instructed should have set off alarm bells for Watkins, Farmer says. However, she says by Watkins granting the final divorce with just Richard's information has "financially ruined me."

In her complaint, Farmer says Watkins failed to take notice of the disparities in their incomes in consideration for spousal support. Prior to their divorce, Richard was making $220,000 plus bonuses as corporate counsel for NiSource, Inc., while she made $28,700 working in the mental health field.

Farmer's appeal of Watkins' order is pending in Putnam Circuit Court.

According to ODC, Farmer's complaint is one of 19 pending against Phalen. Those complaints do not include the ones from other former clients that are part of the pending statement of charges against him.

The Lawyer Disciplinary Board on Dec. 23 issued a nine-count statement of charges against Phalen alleging he committed 47 violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct. Similar to Farmer, the nine clients alleged that after paying him their respective retainers, Phalen performed little, if any work, in their cases, and found it difficult to communicate with him.

Following an evidentiary hearing in April, a Board subcommittee said it was going to recommend Phalen be suspended for a year. However, it has yet to formally make any recommendations.

Farmer's complaint against Watkins is one of at least five pending against him. That includes one filed last month by Hurricane Pastor Arthur D. Hage following a May 23 hearing where Watkins goes on a tirade against Hage in falsely accusing him of being behind an article that appeared the day before in a Putnam County news website about Watkins and his wife previously being delinquent in paying their homeowner's association dues.

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