Lawyer suspended after paying clients from own funds for phony case outcomes

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A lawyer has been suspended after falsely telling four clients that he had resolved their cases and then paying them amounts ranging from $10,000 to $424,000 from his personal funds.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court suspended lawyer Keith Michael McWhirk in a July 31 order. McWhirk agreed to the four-year suspension, which is retroactive to Feb. 25, 2016, the date that he was temporarily suspended from law practice.

Law360 has coverage.

McWhirk was a name partner at Mandracchia & McWhirk in December 2015 when he lost consciousness and collapsed at a work-related event. He was hospitalized for five days and required surgery for injuries that included facial fractures.

Associates trying to cover McWhirk’s files “began to discover mounting evidence of serious ethical misconduct,” according to the joint petition in support of discipline. McWhirk was terminated by the firm, and the associates reported the misconduct that they had found.

McWhirk self-reported his misconduct in February 2016, detailing 11 client matters in which he misrepresented the status of cases to clients. In seven additional cases, McWhirk advised clients that he had filed complaints, motions and responsive pleadings when he had not, the joint petition says.

In four cases, McWhirk used his personal funds to pay clients after telling them that he had received money from settlements, awards and legal claims. The amounts he paid were $10,000, $31,000, $69,500 and $424,000.

The client that received $424,000 was a commercial bank seeking to foreclose on a mortgage. McWhirk misrepresented that he had filed a foreclosure action and then misrepresented that a sheriff’s sale had taken place.

Other clients receiving personal funds from McWhirk were two other mortgage foreclosure clients and a plaintiff who sued an auto restoration company.

The joint petition for discipline noted mitigating circumstances. McWhirk “self-reported his misconduct and was forthright and specific,” the petition said. He completely cooperated with the Pennsylvania Office of Disciplinary Counsel, making admissions that wouldn’t have been discovered without his assistance. He also “exhibited deep remorse for his misconduct.”

Before his temporary suspension, McWhirk had practiced law for more than 16 years with no record of discipline. He has been diagnosed with anxiety and depressed mood, and he is receiving treatment. McWhirk maintains that the disorder was a causal factor in several elements of his misconduct. Also contributing was a pattern of avoidance, learned during childhood, according to McWhirk.

McWhirk “did not mishandle or misuse funds entrusted to him by any client or from the firm but instead utilized his own funds for the ultimate benefit of clients,” the joint petition says. “Importantly, no misrepresentations were made to any tribunal.”

McWhirk did fabricate a court order and a sheriff’s distribution sheet to support his misrepresentations, but they were provided only to clients and not used to McWhirk’s advantage, the court said.

McWhirk did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent to an email address found online.

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