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Attorney in contempt for violating suspension

June 22, 2009

The Indiana Supreme Court fined an attorney for being in contempt of court for work he performed for clients while he was suspended. The justices noted that while they haven't attempted to provide a comprehensive definition of what constitutes the practice of law, they found some of the activities the attorney admitted to performing to constitute the practice of law.

Douglas Patterson was suspended in June 2008 for engaging in attorney misconduct for conversion of client funds, deceit in concealing his misconduct, and dishonesty with the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission. The Supreme Court suspended him for a period of no less than three years beginning July 31, 2008

In the April 30 order posted online June 19, In the Matter of Douglas W. Patterson, No. 82S00-0402-DI-90, the Supreme Court decided Patterson's review of a proposal to unsecured creditors of his client was not a routine transaction. Patterson worked with a couple who owned two corporations on Chapter 11 bankruptcy petitions in 2008. Even though a new attorney entered an appearance for the corporations after Patterson's suspension, he continued to perform some work on the bankruptcy. He admitted to proofreading the proposal with regards to the couple's exemption rights, making sure the proposal's description of the bankruptcy process was accurate, and advising the couple the proposal offered unsecured creditors with more than they would receive if they filed for personal bankruptcy.

The Supreme Court found those actions to constitute the practice of law under the circumstances of this case. And although the high court hasn't provided a comprehensive definition of what constitutes the practice of law, Patterson's actions in this case caused him to be in contempt of court. Citing previous caselaw and disciplinary actions, the justices explained the core element of practicing law is giving legal advice to a client. The practice of law also includes making it one's business to act for others in legal formalities, negotiations, or proceedings. Non-attorneys also may not give advice or opinions as to the legal effects of the instruments they prepare or the legal rights of the parties.

Because Patterson's violation of his suspension appeared to be limited to this transaction, the justices concluded a $500 fine was the appropriate discipline. They also noted they will take this incident into consideration if Patterson seeks reinstatement to the practice of law.

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