CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals suspended the law license of a Wheeling attorney for an incident involving heroin.
Justice Evan Jenkins authored the majority opinion, which was filed on June 7. Justice Margaret Workman authored a concurring opinion and Justice Tim Armstead authored a dissenting opinion.
George N. Sidiropolis' law license was suspended for two years, but after the first 60 days, his suspension will be stayed for a 22-month supervised probation, according to the majority opinion.
"The ODC, LDB, and Mr. Sidiropolis all agree with the sanctions recommended by the HPS," Jenkins wrote. "Upon careful review of the record submitted, the parties’ briefs and oral arguments, and the relevant law, this Court finds that the sanctions recommended by the HPS, which are supported by the ODC and the LDB, are appropriate under the circumstances of this case."
In 2008, Sidiropolis was involved in a car accident that caused him to suffer from herniated disks with nerve root impingement, for which he was prescribed Vicodin and Oxycodone.
"Admitting his naiveté with respect to the opioid pain medications being prescribed to him, Mr. Sidiropolis testified that he used them without concern from 2008 until sometime in 2013 or 2014, when he finally came to realize he was addicted to them," Jenkins wrote. "At that time, he visited a Suboxone clinic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was given a prescription for ninety doses of the drug, which he used over a period of about six months."
Sidiropolis then began purchasing opioid pain medication off the street. He tried to then quit the drugs "cold turkey" but ended up in the hospital with withdrawal symptoms on several occasions.
"Thus, he continued to use the drugs, and, eventually, due to the high cost and unavailability of illegal prescription opioid medications, he transitioned to heroin, a stronger and cheaper alternative for managing his pain," Jenkins wrote. "According to Mr. Sidiropolis, he 'didn’t necessarily use drugs' for their 'euphoric effect.' Instead, he sought 'to maintain...a baseline' to manage his pain."
Sidiropolis admitted that once he made the change to heroin, use spiraled and "was just unconscionably bad," and he was using heroin four times per day.
On March 27, 2015, Sidiropolis was pulled over by Pennsylvania State Police, who discovered heroin in his vehicle and he was taken into custody. Sidiropolis self-reported the incident to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
On that day, Sidiropolis' regular dealer was not answering his phone, so Sidiropolis reached out to the supplier, who met him and provided him with his own small amount of heroin, and then a substantial amount that was to go to the dealer. Sidiropolis claims it was the one and only time he had ever transported heroin intended for another person.
In her concurring opinion, Workman wrote that she was compelled to write separately because the case elicits competing strong views.
"On one hand, Mr. Sidiropolis has done an outstanding job of pulling himself out of the throes of active addiction and rebuilding his life," Workman wrote. "Such a sustained recovery is not easy. I respect what he has accomplished and how he is helping others with the same disease. But the circumstances of what led to this disciplinary proceeding are disturbing."
Workman cited three recent decisions the court had made regarding those involved with drugs.
"Although these three cases arise in vastly different contexts, they still beg the question, where is the equal justice? While truly equal justice is a rarely obtainable concept, because factual scenarios differ so much and judicial decision-making can vary greatly, at least in the context of professional ethics, a degree of consistency should be sought," Workman wrote. "Sadly, not everyone has the means to access addiction treatment, which furthers the inequality of opportunity of individuals to address addiction."
Workman wrote that while she agrees with the ruling, she wants the Lawyer Disciplinary Board to maintain a tight rein on the conditions of Sidiropolis’s continued status as a practicing attorney.
"I wish Mr. Sidiropolis the best and hope he realizes what an incredible trust is being placed in him as a lawyer not only to serve his clients professionally but going forward to also bring respect and trust of people to the legal profession," Workman wrote.
Armstead disagreed with the ruling.
"While I congratulate Mr. Sidiropolis on his recovery efforts and wish him further success, I am of the opinion that the de facto sixty-day suspension is overly generous in view of the facts surrounding his attempted transport of heroin from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, and in view of the need to restore public confidence in the legal profession," Armstead wrote. "In that regard, although our standards of review require that respectful consideration be given to the Subcommittee’s recommendations, those standards also confirm this Court’s authority to exercise independent judgment."
Armstead noted that Sidiropolis had demonstrated a "remarkable recovery" from addiction, but that in light of the devastating impact the trafficking and abuse of heroin has had on West Virginia, and the evidence that Sidiropolis was transporting large quantities of heroin for his own use and potential distribution to others, his suspension must be sufficient to deter further use of heroin by others and restore public confidence.
"Given the facts surrounding the traffic stop in March 2015 and the scope of Mr. Sidiropolis’s drug abuse prior to that time, I do not believe that a sixty-day suspension is adequate to satisfy the considerations set forth in Walker," Armstead wrote. "Therefore, I respectfully dissent."
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Case number: 17-1134