D.C. disciplinary board urges more flexibility on lawyer disbarment

A person walks in front of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

  • Board recommends suspensions for D.C. lawyers who admitted to reckless misappropriation
  • Says D.C. Court of Appeals should revisit 30-year-old precedent

(Reuters) – In a pair of cases that could shape future attorney disciplinary matters in the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia Board on Professional Responsibility this week asked the D.C. Court of Appeals to reconsider near-automatic disbarment as a sanction for reckless misappropriation of funds.

The court in 1990 reaffirmed disbarment as “the usual sanction” for both intentional and reckless misappropriation by D.C. lawyers. But in two recent cases, the court showed willingness to revisit its precedent in matters involving negotiated discipline – a process only introduced in the district in 2008 – seeking the board’s recommendation on whether to order a three-year suspension instead.

The cases involve D.C. solos Paul (Tony) Mensah and Charles Agwumezie, who separately admitted to various instances of mishandling client settlement funds, bungling financial accounts and poor record-keeping. In each case, a hearing committee recommended the court adopt three-year suspensions negotiated by disciplinary counsel.

Asked by the Court of Appeals to weigh in, the Board on Professional Responsibility urged the court Monday to accept the negotiated sanctions for both men.

A three-year suspension “is not unduly lenient and it satisfies the purpose of imposing a disciplinary sanction: ‘to protect the public and the courts, safeguard the integrity of the profession, and deter respondent and other attorneys from engaging in similar misconduct,'” the board wrote in the Mensah case.

In Agwumezie’s case, the board noted that while a three-year suspension obviously falls short of disbarment, a suspended lawyer is still barred from practicing law for at least the duration of their suspension and must still apply for reinstatement.

“The only lenity in the agreed-upon sanction is that Respondent will be eligible to make his case for reinstatement two years sooner than would have been the case if he were disbarred following a contested proceeding,” the board said.

Agwumezie declined to comment on his case. Mensah was not immediately available to comment.

The matters are now again before the Court of Appeals to determine whether to accept or reject the board’s recommendation.

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Reporting by Chinekwu Osakwe

Chinekwu Osakwe

Chinekwu Osakwe covers legal industry news with a focus on midsize law firms. Reach her at Chinekwu.osakwe@thomsonreuters.com.

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