CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has ordered the suspension of a Bluefield attorney after they claim he committed multiple violations.
Among the issues cited are records that show Michael P. Cooke submitted vouchers for his work as a public defender at least twice in 2014 showing he worked more than 24 hours in a day.
The Hearing Panel Subcommittee of the Lawyer Disciplinary Board recommended a three-month suspension, a requirement of petition for reinstatement, one year of supervised practice, nine hours of continuing legal education and payment of costs for Cooke, according to the April 20 opinion.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel, however, requests a more severe sanction of 18 months’ suspension from practice.
Justice Margaret Workman authored the majority opinion.
“We agree with the twelve enumerated violations found by the HPS; however, based on this Court’s independent review of the record, we find that Cooke additionally violated Rule 8.4(c) of the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct by engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation relative to the complaint filed by Public Defender Services,” Workman wrote. “We commensurately find that the recommended sanctions of both the HPS and ODC are inadequate to fully effectuate the goals of the disciplinary process.”
The Supreme Court modified the HPS’ recommendation and ordered that Cooke be suspended from the practice of law for two years and adopt the remainder of the HPS’ recommended sanction.
Cooke was admitted to the West Virginia State Bar in 2005 and his practice consists almost entirely of court-appointed work in the areas of criminal defense, juvenile truancy and abuse and neglect in both Mercer and Raleigh counties. Cooke also worked for an unspecified period of time as a Mental Hygiene Commissioner until 2014.
The complaints against Cooke included one by the ODC; one by Dana Eddy, the executive director of the West Virginia Public Defender Services Department; and one by a former client.
On Nov. 26, 2014, Eddy wrote to Cooke about certain “billing anomalies,” including times in which Cooke was found to have exceeded 15 billable hours a day on 31 dates from January to September in 2014. Also, there were four dates on which he submitted vouchers for 23 or more billable hours. On two dates, he submitted vouchers for greater than 24 hours. Eddy also said Cooke’s actual time billed seemed suspicious, saying it seemed Cooke billed the same travel time to multiple matters, billed multiple entries of the same activity and amount of time on multiple matters and outright duplicate billing of activity on the same file.
Also, Eddy noted the cumulative amount of time Cooke was billing PDS. From 2011 through 2014, Cooke billed $122,300.50, $108,474.50, $128,654.00 and $157,291.50, respectively. His annual hours billed during this time period ranged from a low of 2,279.3 hours in 2012 to a high of 3,259.46 in 2014.
“Significantly, although Cooke has not been formally disciplined previously, he was ‘strongly warned’ in the Investigative Panel’s dismissal of another complaint in October 2013 that future violations of Rule 1.3 (diligence) and 1.4 (communication) would subject him to more severe discipline,” Workman wrote.
The Supreme Court found that Cooke’s misconduct warrants a two-year suspension from the practice of law.
“Cooke’s defrauding of the State through overbilling, gross mishandling of a client matter and funds, his dereliction of duty to his infant clients as a guardian ad litem—all of which is compounded by his unrelenting pattern of unresponsiveness and empty reassurances of remediation—plainly justify this degree of discipline,” Workman wrote.
The Supreme Court imposed the two-year suspension, along with the other sanctions recommended by the HPS.
W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 15-1243