An attorney who “politely dared” the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission to question his character has been suspended from the practice of law in Indiana for 30 days with automatic reinstatement.
Indiana Supreme Court justices in a Friday per curiam order found Michael C. Steele committed attorney misconduct by making an improper demand that disciplinary grievances filed against him be withdrawn as a condition for settlement in a civil matter. A disciplinary complaint was filed against Steele in 2019, and he has since relocated to California.
The order suspending Steele stems back to his 2018 breakup with a former girlfriend, who had obtained a protective order against him before Steele sued her for defamation and other counts. Steele was subsequently charged with felony stalking and misdemeanor intimidation and harassment counts, which were dismissed in Hamilton Superior Court in April 2019.
Steele’s ex-girlfriend and her sister also filed disciplinary grievances against him, which were also eventually dismissed.
Prior to the dismissals, “In December 2018, Respondent sent an email to opposing counsel in the defamation case. Respondent’s email demanded, among other things, that the disciplinary grievances filed against him be withdrawn as a condition precedent to settlement discussions,” the high court’s Aug. 6 order reads.
“… During its investigation … the Commission learned of the email Respondent had sent to opposing counsel in the defamation case, and in July 2019 the Commission filed a disciplinary complaint alleging that Respondent’s demand in that email violated Professional Conduct Rule 8.4(d).”
In its order on that complaint, the justices posed an “essential legal question”: Can an attorney’s demand that disciplinary grievances filed by an opposing party in a civil matter be withdrawn as a condition of settlement be “prejudicial to the administration of justice” within the meaning of Rule 8.4(d) when those grievances were meritless?
“Our disciplinary precedent firmly establishes that a coercive threat to file a grievance with the Commission, or (as here) a quid pro quo demand that a grievance be withdrawn, violates Rule 8.4(d),” the high concluded, citing Matter of Ramirez, 853 N.E.2d 121 (Ind. 2006).
While Steele’s demand was not actually prejudicial to the outcome of the underlying litigation, and while “having to deal with meritless disciplinary grievances certainly is understandable,” the high court concluded that any attempt to interfere with the investigatory process required by Rule 23 or use the disciplinary process to leverage more favorable settlement terms is “forbidden.”
It thus found Steele violated Rule 8.4(d) as charged and suspended him from the practice of law in Indiana for 30 days, beginning Sept. 17.
In determining his sanction, the high court declined to “turn a blind eye” to Steele’s “abusive conduct” during the proceedings against the commission’s staff, the hearing officer, the judge in his defamation case and members of the Supreme Court.
“Although we do not adopt the Commission’s request that Respondent be required to undergo the reinstatement process at the conclusion of his suspension, the Commission’s observations about Respondent’s intemperate behavior are well-taken, and we strongly caution Respondent to conduct himself more appropriately going forward,” the high court warned. “A failure to do so likely will cause any future findings of misconduct to be met with stiffer sanction.”
Steele is prohibited from undertaking any new legal matters between service of the opinion and the effective date of the suspension, and he must fulfill the duties of a suspended attorney under Admission and Discipline Rule 23(26).
At the end of his suspension, Steele will be automatically reinstated to the practice of law, so long as there aren’t any other suspensions in effect.
The costs of the proceeding are assessed against him in the case of In the Matter of Michael C. Steele, 19S-DI-427.