Supreme Court disbars South Bend lawyer

The Indiana Supreme Court issued a disbarment decision Wednesday finding Elton Johnson  committed attorney misconduct in a number of ways. The per curiam decision lists incompetent representation, converting client funds and failing to cooperate with the disciplinary process as reasons for Johnson’s disbarment.

Another verified complaint was filed against Johnson and is currently pending before the same hearing officer stemming from Johnson’s conviction for battering his stepson. However, this decision obviates the need to do anything more in that case, the Supreme Court stated in a footnote.

Indiana Disciplinary Commission hearing officer Judith Hawley Conley listed six counts against Johnson. In the first Johnson supplied a memorandum recommending a three-part plan to stop a client from registering as a sex offender, but if the plan worked the client could have been retried and forced to serve additional prison time, which the client said he did not want to do.

Johnson charged the client more than $32,800, did no additional work and would not provide an accounting of time spent on the matter when the client hired another lawyer. The Supreme Court found he lied about the time spent on the matter, and insisted the plan was drafted by a lawyer when the person who did the work was either a law student or recent graduate. None of the money was refunded.

In another instance, a client paid Johnson to evaluate his options regarding a 50-year prison sentence, but Johnson did not file a habeas petition or even confer with his client about doing so. The deadline for filing the petition passed without Johnson filing a petition.

In the third count, clients hired Johnson to investigate suspected misconduct by the trustee of a trust created by a pour-over will. Johnson made withdrawals from his attorney trust account without approval and did not provide monthly billing statements. He was fired and refunded just $4,445 of more than $28,000 in fees advanced but did no work. “When Clients 3 protested, Johnson said, ‘What are you going to do, sue me?” … then laughed and ended the meeting,” the disbarment order says.

In the fourth count, Johnson did no work in a case where he was hired to defend a franchisee and three shareholders against a suit filed by Choice Hotels. Because of that summary judgment and an order of more than $430,000 in damages was entered against them. Johnson collected more than $4,500 in fees from these clients, none of which was refunded.

Johnson also did not maintain a contemporaneous individual accounting of whose money he was holding in his trust account, according to the fifth count, which says he made at least nine checks from the trust account payable to “cash” and transferred more than $9,000 in client funds to cover business expenses. He also fired a paralegal who refused to deposit client money directly into his business account, the order says.

The court also found Johnson failed to take delivery of mailings from the commission or timely respond to demands for information.

The Supreme Court found Johnson violated 13 Indiana Professional Conduct Rules and three Indiana Admission and Discipline rules including failure to provide competent representation, making an agreement for, charging, or collecting an unreasonable fee, and failure to deposit legal fees paid in advance into a client trust account.

“During his short-lived legal career Respondent has demonstrated a continuing pattern of serious misconduct, much of it predicated upon efforts to unjustly enrich himself at his clients’ expense,” the justices wrote. “Respondent’s neglect, incompetence, dishonesty, conversion of client funds, noncooperation with the Commission and failure to meaningfully participate in these proceedings all persuade us that disbarment is the appropriate sanction here as well.”

Johnson had been suspended since March 2014, and since being admitted to practice, he had been the subject of five formal disciplinary complaints. His disbarment case is In the matter of Elton D. Johnson, 71S00-1408-DI-544.


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