Legal Ethics

Court disbars lawyer who recorded and mocked clients for his amusement

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An Indianapolis lawyer was occasionally generous with $150,000 he misappropriated from his client trust account, according to the Indiana Supreme Court.

The lawyer, David Steele, put most of the unearned fees into his personal or operating account, but sometimes he peeled off a few hundred dollars to give his employees a “spot bonus,” the court said.

The court ordered disbarment for Steele in a Dec. 1 opinion (PDF), citing wrongdoing that included “disclosing client confidences for purposes of both retaliation and amusement, threatening and intimidating his office staff [and] lying pervasively to all comers,” the Indiana Lawyer reports.

“There can be no doubt in these circumstances that disbarment is warranted,” the court said. “The seriousness, scope, and sheer brazenness of respondent’s misconduct is outrageous.”

Steele was already under an emergency suspension in the case.

According to the opinion, Steele had taken virtually all of the funds in the client trust account, making it difficult to return unearned fees. When a client requested the money, Steele told his staff to inflate the client’s legal bills to deplete the retainer. Sometimes, Steele returned fees with retainers paid by new clients.

Steele also recorded conversations of clients and potential clients for his own personal amusement, and shared those recordings with staffers and relatives. He “openly mocked” the recorded individuals in conversations with others and in a meeting with the state disciplinary commission.

Steele also disclosed client confidences to punish clients who wrote bad reviews about him on Avvo, the court said. He encouraged good reviews with monetary incentives. Sometimes he made false statements when responding to the bad reviews.

His lies didn’t end there, according to the commission. Steele also frequently lied to clients, office staff and third parties, and instructed staffers to “lie to all comers” about his whereabouts. He once falsely told opposing counsel he was in a hospital room watching a loved one die of cancer, and falsely told a client he couldn’t attend a meeting because his dog had died.

Steele also lied about the reason for the firing of an employee who reported Steele to the state disciplinary commission, the court said. Steele falsely said the employee was fired after being caught having sex at the office, and posting derogatory comments about gays on the firm website.

Steele brandished a handgun when he fired the employee, then asked an associate to lie about it, the commission said.

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