Legal Ethics

Failure to pay child support warrants disbarment, state supreme court says

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A lawyer who pleaded guilty to failing to pay child support has been disbarred after he failed to respond to a bar complaint claiming the crime reflected adversely on his honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to practice law.

The Kentucky Supreme Court permanently disbarred Daniel Warren James in a Feb. 19 opinion (PDF) noted by the Legal Profession Blog.

James pleaded guilty to flagrant nonsupport in December 2012. The next month, he was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay restitution of $233,000 at the rate of $800 a month. James told the Kentucky Bar Association in August 2013 that he planned to respond to the disciplinary complaint, but never did so.

James was suspended from law practice for five years in a different ethics case in April 2013. His misconduct included failure to return unearned fees, failing to place client fees in an escrow account, charging unreasonable fees for copying case files, and misappropriating a client’s money, according to the Kentucky Supreme Court opinion. At that time, James said his conduct was because of his discontinuation of medication for a mental health condition and promised to seek treatment through the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program.

The Kentucky Supreme Court noted James’ disciplinary history and his failure to respond to the current ethics charges. The court also said failure to pay child support is a breach of attorney duties to follow a court order, to comply with a statutory obligation, and to conduct oneself in a way that is above reproach.

Disciplinary officials did not cite any cases involving attorney discipline for failure to pay child support, but the Kentucky Supreme Court said disbarment was nonetheless warranted.

“We believe that the duty of a parent to support his or her children is no less important than the duty of an attorney to act responsibly when handling client funds, and we have not hesitated to disbar attorneys for mishandling client funds,” the court said. “Furthermore, as officers of the court, attorneys have a duty to follow court orders, and we have disbarred attorneys for, in part, failing to do so.”

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