CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has suspended the law license of a Fairmont attorney.
The Lawyer Disciplinary Board’s Hearing Panel Subcommittee determined that Heidi M. Georgi Sturm committed violations of the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct in connection with each action filed against her and recommended she be reprimanded, subjected to supervised practice for two years, required to refund a retainer fee in the cases of the two complaints made against her and required to pay the costs of the disciplinary proceeding, according to the April 7 opinion.
The Supreme Court did not agreed with the recommended disposition of the HPS in the two lawyer disciplinary actions and scheduled oral argument.
Justice Margaret Workman delivered the majority opinion.
“The court has before it the recommendations of the HPS, the parties’ briefs and oral arguments and all matters of record,” the opinion states. “Based upon our review, we find clear and convincing evidence to support the factual findings of the HPS. We disagree, however, with the HPS’s recommended sanctions of reprimand for each case and, accordingly, impose a ninety-day suspension of Ms. Sturm’s law license and adopt the remaining sanctions recommended by the HPS.”
Sturm began practicing law in 2003 and on Aug. 17, 2010, Laverne G. Wright-Ochoa met with her about retaining her to represent her son, Lael Brown, who was incarcerated.
Wright-Ochoa wanted to institute a habeas corpus proceeding for her son and she signed a retainer agreement with Sturm and paid her the full $5,000 retainer fee.
Between Aug. 27, 2010, and Sept. 10, 2010, Wright-Ochoa e-mailed Sturm about the time frames for filing a petition of habeas corpus for her son and send her the documents regarding Brown’s case. When Sturm failed to respond to her inquiries, she sent Sturm a letter on Sept. 22, 2010, regarding her failure to communicate.
Sturm finally returned an e-mail and told Wright-Ochoa she would have the petition completed by the beginning of the following week and that she would need to review the petition with Brown to obtain his signature before it could be filed in circuit court.
On Sept. 28, 2010, Sturm indicated that she would leave a copy of the signed fee agreement for her to pick up, and was also going to leave a copy of the petition for habeas corpus for Wright-Ochoa’s review and another copy for her to provide to Brown for review.
On Nov. 24, 2010, Wright-Ochoa inquired about whether Sturm had visited Brown or completed the petition and Sturm responded that she was sorry about not providing the petition sooner, but that several people in her family had passed away and her children had been sick.
On July 12, 2011, Wright-Ochoa sent a certified letter to Sturm, indicating she had not heard from her since March and still had yet to receive the habeas petition for Brown.
On that same day, Brown also requested a refund of the $5,000 retainer that his mother had paid for him and stated that he had never received any communication from Sturm since October 2010, where she had indicated she would visit him to go over the petition.
On Aug. 2, 2011, Wright-Ochoa sent a second certified letter, also requested the refund. Brown filed his petition of habeas corpus pro se on Aug. 18, 2011.
On May 3, 2012, Wright-Ochoa and Brown filed complaints with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
On Dec. 12, 2012, Sturm agreed to represent Kenneth L. Greynolds in a criminal matter and on Jan. 15, 2013, the circuit court appointed her to represent Greynolds for the purpose of filing an appeal and instructed her to contact him.
Without ever meeting with him, Sturm wrote Greynolds a letter stating that, after reviewing his case file and the plea and sentencing order, there were no grounds for him to appeal the order. She took no action regarding his appeal.
Greynolds wrote twice to the court, indicating he had attempted to contact Sturm to no avail. In June 2014, he asked for a new attorney and was informed the time frame to file an appeal had passed.
On June 25, 2014, Greynolds filed an ethics complaint against Sturm.
The ODC consented to the sanctions recommended by the HPS and Sturm did not file any objections to the HPS’s reports.
“The totality of Ms. Sturm’s conduct warrants more than a reprimand, especially in light of the ineffectiveness of the two admonishments that she already received in other cases with similar conduct,” the opinion states. “Therefore, we impose a ninety-day suspension from the practice of law and adopt the remaining recommendations made to this court by the HPS.”
Prior to being reinstated, Sturm must pay the costs of the disciplinary proceeding in the Wright-Ochoa/Brown case and the Greynolds case, according to the opinion.
Sturm represented herself.
The LDB was represented by Jessica H. Donahue Rhodes.
W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals case numbers: 14-0749, 15-0009