CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has admonished a Nicholas County attorney for not immediately disclosing a sexual relationship with a client.
The Chief Justice, however, thinks the majority of the court should have been harsher with its punishment of Sarah Campbell of Summersville, who works as a public defender.
According to court filings, Campbell had a relationship with a man only identified as Mr. H since both were in junior high school in 2002. The on-and-off relationship continued after she was admitted to the State Bar in October 2013. The relationship ended in December 2013.
In April 2014, Campbell was appointed to defend Mr. H in a child abuse and neglect case. Campbell advised him at least twice that he could request a different public defender because of their past, but he declined. After four months of being represented by Campbell, Mr. H. told her that he loved her.
Campbell advised Mr. H to discuss the situation with Nicholas County Chief Public Defender Cynthia Stanton. According to court documents, Mr. H didn’t tell Stanton about his previous relationship with Campbell, and Stanton decided Campbell could continue to represent him. They soon resumed their sexual relationship.
In July 2015, State Trooper Daniel White found at least seven photos of Campbell on Mr. H’s cell phone, including one in which she was wearing lingerie. He told White he was in a relationship with Campbell, and White decided to notify Nicholas County Assistant Prosecutor Samuel R. White.
When asked about the relationship, Campbell denied it at first, and she filed to withdraw as Mr. H’s defender. Still, White filed the complaint with the Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel based on his mandatory reporting obligations under state law.
In April 2016, Campbell admitted to Stanton that she had lied about her relationship with Mr. H, who had pled guilty to two counts of the misdemeanor third-degree sexual abuse and registered with the Sex Offender Registry in December 2015. Campbell and Mr. H also had agreed to end their relationship then.
The Lawyer Disciplinary Board of the ODC filed its formal statement of charges against Campbell in November 2016. Campbell and the ODC reached an agreement that her law license would be suspended 60 days followed by six months of probation. She also agreed to pay for the costs of the proceedings.
The Hearing Panel Subcommittee of the LDB had a hearing on the matter on March 2 during which it found Campbell violated two rules of lawyer conduct, and it recommended that she be admonished and pay the costs of the proceedings.
The ODC, however, objected to the sanctions and wanted the harsher 60-day suspension followed by probation. Thus, the matter was brought before the Court.
“In order to resolve this case, we must consider whether a sexual relationship between an attorney and her client predates the attorney-client relationship,” Justice Beth Walker wrote for the 3-2 majority. “Given the long history of the relationship in this case, we find that it does. 1 Even so, this Court finds that there is clear and convincing evidence1 to support the findings of the HPS that Ms. Campbell violated Rules 4.1 and 8.4(c) of the Rules of Professional Conduct because she misrepresented to her supervisor the nature of her relationship with a client. …
“Not only does the evidence fail to support a finding that Ms. Campbell took advantage of Mr. H., but the type of longstanding relationship between the two simply does not present the same concerns associated with new relationships that truly begin after representation begins.”
Walker also writes that it is clear that Campbell knew the rules and “honestly and understandably” believed her conduct was exempt because the relationship had been ongoing for more than 10 years.
“Such an interpretation was reasonable and rational,” Walker wrote. “We believe she read the rules accurately and correctly and, insofar as her dealings with her client were concerned, acted ethically and responsibly.
“The same cannot be said with respect to her dealings with her supervisor but, given the circumstances attendant to when she lied to her supervisor and the representations made by her supervisor and others, [we] believe that her transgressions in this regard, for the most part, are better dealt with by her supervisor and her employer, working with respondent.
“Taking into account the unique circumstances of this case, as well as the mitigating and aggravating factors present, we agree with HPS’s recommendation that Ms. Campbell be admonished and forced to pay the costs of this proceeding.”
Justices Menis Ketchum and Robin Jean Davis sided with Walker on the majority. Chief Justice Allen Loughry and Justice Margaret Workman disagreed, and Loughry chastised the majority in his written dissent.
“The subcommittee and the majority of this court manipulate uncontested facts and ignore key rule provisions to reach the unwarranted conclusion that the respondent did not run afoul of the very rules she conceded violating,” Loughry wrote. “Moreover, when choosing to impose a mere-wrist slap of discipline, the majority fails to address several of the rules that the respondent violated.”
Loughry also says the majority went “out of their way to ensure” Campbell received a light sanction.
“In an analysis that would be more suited for the readers of a romance novel, the subcommittee theorized about what the respondent’s and Mr. H.’s feelings were, or might have been, about their prior, intermittent relationship,” he wrote. “Reasoning that ‘relationships do not stop and start with mathematical precision,’ the subcommittee found that this was an ongoing sexual relationship.
“Blindly following the subcommittee’s lead, the majority somehow concludes that the respondent is exempt … However, the uncontested facts and unambiguous rule language should not be disregarded based upon the subcommittee’s romantic musings.”
He also notes that Campbell admitted she ended the relationship because of the ramifications his criminal conviction would have on her, saying she “testified that as a new lawyer ‘building a career and a reputation,’ she broke up with Mr. H. after he was convicted because it ‘would be in the best interest of myself and my career not to have a relationship with him after he’s required to registered as a sexual offender.’ This admission proves she had a conflict of interest.”
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 16-1036