A Fort Wayne attorney suspended more than two years ago over a scheme involving deceptive marketing practices failed in his bid for reinstatement as justices of the Indiana Supreme Court split 2-2 over his readmission to the practice of law. The fifth justice recused himself in the matter because he had served as the hearing officer in the attorney’s discipline case prior to his appointment to the high court.
Justices rejected a hearing officer’s recommendation for reinstatement of Robert John Wray in a Friday order. “(T)he four participating members of this Court are evenly divided on whether Petitioner should be reinstated,” the court noted. Because Wray’s burden is persuading a majority of the court that he should be reinstated, his petition is deemed denied.
Chief Justice Loretta Rush’s order noted that Justice Christopher Goff didn’t participate in the matter. The Supreme Court in November 2015 appointed Goff, who was a Wabash Superior Court judge at the time, to serve as the hearing officer in Wray’s case.
Acting on Goff’s recommendations in February 2018, the court suspended Wray for nine months without automatic reinstatement for a client recruitment scheme involving owners of allegedly defective modular or manufactured homes. Goff was on the high court by the time discipline was imposed on Wray, but he likewise did not participate in deciding Wray’s discipline.
The court’s order denying reinstatement did not indicate which justices voted for or against readmitting Wray to the practice of law.
Wray was suspended after he was found to have violated multiple rules regarding client communication, fees, use of nonlawyer assistants and others.
As an attorney representing owners of allegedly defective modular or manufactured homes, Wray was hired to represent Douglas Stephan, owner of Stephan Consulting Inc. The two men developed a relationship whereby Stephan would solicit other owners to become plaintiffs in his claims against manufacturer Joseph Callaghan.
Stephan, through his business, would offer to perform home inspections for the owners but would ask them to sign investor agreements that falsely stated the owners had already entered into fee agreements with Wray, who drafted and approved the agreements without directly communicating with the owners. The agreements also falsely stated Stephan would advance litigation costs in exchange for 50% of the net recovery, though he rarely followed through on the promise to advance payments. Stephan also asked the potential clients to sign attorney agreements giving Wray a contingent fee somewhere between 33% and 55% and a $1,000 nonrefundable retainer.
Goff and the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission ultimately accused Wray of 16 violations of Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct and Admission and Discipline Rules, which also included charges of failing to keep adequate records of his trust accounts, among others.
In rejecting Wray’s petition for reinstatement, the court also rejected the recommendation of the hearing officer presiding over Wray’s reinstatement petition, Morgan County Senior Judge Christopher Burnham. The hearing officer concluded that Wray was remorseful, had shown a good-faith desire for reinstatement and had fully complied with the terms of his discipline, and that his conduct had been exemplary and beyond reproach since he was suspended.
The disciplinary commission disputed several of the hearing officer’s conclusions, and the court noted that while a hearing officer’s findings “receive emphasis,” they are not binding on the court.
Wray also is ordered to pay any costs owing in his discipline case, In the Matter of: Robert John Wray, 02S00-1511-DI-648.