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Posted by: Tanja Trezise on Jul 3, 2012

Court: TN Supreme Court

Attorneys 1:

Sandy Garrett, Senior Litigation Counsel, for the appellant, Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee.

Attorneys 2:

William S. Lockett, Jr., pro se.

Judge(s): HOLDER

While working for a law firm in which he was a shareholder, an attorney performed legal services for clients and failed to remit fees owed to the law firm. Members of the law firm confronted the attorney about the misappropriated legal fees shortly after the attorney resigned his position at the law firm to assume elected public office. As a result of his conduct, the attorney pleaded guilty to theft and to willful failure to file income tax returns. During a subsequent investigation, the Board of Professional Responsibility discovered that the attorney had accepted loans from the law firm’s clients while he was employed at the law firm. A hearing panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility found that the attorney should be suspended for four years. The attorney appealed, and the chancery court applied additional mitigating factors to reduce the suspension to two years. We hold that the chancery court erred in modifying the judgment without finding that any of the circumstances in Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, section 1.3 applied. We also hold that the hearing panel erred in imputing a conflict of interest to the attorney with respect to the loan from the law firm’s client and in misapplying aggravating and mitigating factors. Despite these errors, we conclude that the length of suspension imposed by the hearing panel is consistent with the sanctions imposed on attorneys for similar conduct. We therefore reverse the chancery court’s reduction of the suspension to two years and affirm the hearing panel’s imposition of a four-year suspension.