IN RE: PHYLLIS A. SOUTHALL
For Applicant: Charles Bennett Plattsmier, Gregory Lynn Tweed, OFFICE OF DISCIPLINARY COUNSEL.
For Respondent: Kim Segura Landry, Phyllis Southall.
[2014-2441 La. 1] ATTORNEY DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDING
This disciplinary matter arises from formal charges filed by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (" ODC" ) against respondent, Phyllis A. Southall, an attorney licensed to practice law in Louisiana but currently on interim suspension pursuant to a joint motion of the parties filed in January 2014. In re Southall, 14-0062 (La. 1/15/14), 131 So.3d 841.
PRIOR DISCIPLINARY HISTORY
Before we address the current charges, we find it helpful to review respondent's prior disciplinary history. Respondent was admitted to the practice of law in Louisiana in 1988. In 1998, we considered a disciplinary proceeding in which respondent had agreed to represent clients in a legal matter, but thereafter she failed to conduct settlement negotiations, timely file a suit on the clients' behalf, or keep them informed of the status of the matter, despite their requests for information. For this misconduct, we suspended respondent for one year and one day, with six months deferred, followed by a one-year period of supervised probation with conditions. In re Southall, 97-3221 (La. 5/8/98), 710 So.2d 245 (" Southall I " ).
In 2000, while respondent was still on probation in Southall I, the ODC received new complaints from two of respondent's clients. In the first matter, [2014-2441 La. 2] respondent failed to address the issue of alimony in her client's divorce case and failed to adequately supervise her office staff. In the second matter, respondent failed to communicate with her client and failed to complete the client's legal matter in a timely fashion. Prior to the filing of formal charges, respondent filed a petition for consent discipline proposing that the period of probation ordered in Southall I be extended for six months, subject to various conditions, including the requirement that she attend the Louisiana State Bar Association's (" LSBA" ) Ethics School program and obtain the assistance of the LSBA's Practice Assistance Counsel in creating an appropriate law office management program. The ODC concurred in the petition, and the disciplinary board recommended that the proposed consent discipline be accepted. We agreed, and on June 16, 2000, we ordered that respondent's probation be extended for an additional six months, subject to the conditions set forth in the petition for consent discipline. In re: Southall, 00-1282 (La. 6/16/00), 761 So.2d 1286 (" Southall II " ).
Against this backdrop, we now turn to a consideration of the misconduct at issue in the present proceeding.
Count I -- The Pierre Matter
Colette Pierre retained respondent in April 2005 to handle her divorce. Ms. Pierre paid respondent $2,030 to begin the representation, and in May 2005, respondent filed a petition for divorce on Ms. Pierre's behalf. In June 2005, Ms. Pierre's husband accepted service and waived citation. In December 2005, respondent requested and received an additional $150 from Ms. Pierre for the costs [2014-2441 La. 3] associated with finalizing the divorce. However, when Ms. Pierre contacted respondent's office in March 2006, the divorce still had not been completed. Respondent did not provide Ms. Pierre with an explanation for the delay and repeatedly failed to respond to Ms. Pierre's requests for information concerning the status of the matter. Ms. Pierre had to obtain alternate counsel to complete her divorce.
In September 2006, Ms. Pierre filed a disciplinary complaint against respondent. During an October 18, 2006 sworn statement, respondent testified that the delay in Ms. Pierre's divorce case was a result of Ms. Pierre's failure to pay her costs. Respondent claimed to have no record of the additional cost payment made by Ms. Pierre in December 2005.
The ODC alleged that respondent's conduct violated the following provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct: Rules 1.3 (failure to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client), 1.4(a)(3) (failure to keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter), and 3.2 (failure to make reasonable efforts to expedite litigation).
Count II -- The Barr Matter
In July 2005, respondent filed a petition for divorce on behalf of her client, David Barr. The petition included a request that the defendant, Elizabeth Barr, who had moved to Mississippi, be served via the long-arm statute. However, respondent was not aware that she had to forward the petition to Mrs. Barr pursuant to the statute; rather, she thought the clerk's office handled this task. As a result of respondent's error, Mrs. Barr was not served with the petition for divorce. Mrs. Barr did appear at a status conference in the matter in September 2005.
Without explaining the reason for the delay to Mr. Barr, respondent did not file the rule for divorce until June 2006. Once again, respondent requested that [2014-2441 La. 4] Mrs. Barr be served pursuant to the long-arm statute. In the rule to show cause, respondent falsely alleged that Mrs. Barr was served with the initial petition in August 2005. Still not understanding the procedure for long-arm service, respondent did not forward the pleadings to Mrs. Barr so as to obtain service of the rule. Respondent did not obtain a waiver of service from Mrs. Barr until February 2007, after which she was finally able to obtain a judgment of divorce for Mr. Barr. The ODC alleges that the validity of the divorce judgment is suspect due to the fact that Mrs. Barr was never served with the original petition for divorce.
Respondent did not notify the court that the rule to show cause contained false information concerning the service upon Mrs. Barr of the petition for divorce. Respondent also failed to notify Mr. Barr of
her potential malpractice and of the potential invalidity of his judgment of divorce.
The ODC alleged that respondent's conduct violated the following provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct: Rules 1.1 (competence), 1.3, 1.4 (failure to communicate with a client), 1.8(b) (a lawyer shall not use information relating to the representation of a client to the disadvantage of the client unless the client gives informed consent), 3.1 (meritorious claims and contentions), 3.2, and 3.3 (candor toward a tribunal).
Count III -- The Parker Matter
In October 2005, John Parker and his siblings retained respondent to complete the Successions of Ernest and Albertha Taylor. Mr. Parker signed a retainer agreement with respondent and paid her a retainer fee in the amount of $3,900. In December 2005, Mr. Parker discharged respondent as attorney for the successions. Although a clear dispute had arisen between Mr. Parker and his sister Rhenae Keyes concerning the handling of the successions, respondent continued to represent Ms. Keyes. Specifically, respondent began to file substantive pleadings [2014-2441 La. 5] on behalf of Ms. Keyes and the other heirs, contrary to the expressed wishes of Mr. Parker. Mr. Parker did not give informed consent, confirmed in writing, waiving any conflict of interest based on respondent's prior representation.
The ODC alleged that respondent's conduct violated the following provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct: Rules 1.1 and 1.9 (duties to former clients).
Count IV -- The Francis Matter
In January 2007, Tanesha Cayette (now Francis) retained respondent to handle a divorce and custody matter. The attorney-client contract provided that respondent did not represent clients on a fixed-fee basis. Ms. Cayette gave respondent a check in the amount of $2,035, a portion of which was to be allocated toward attorney's fees, with the remainder to be applied to costs. Respondent did not deposit these advanced funds into her client trust account.
Respondent filed the petition for divorce on Ms. Cayette's behalf on January 25, 2007. In July 2008, respondent terminated Ms. Cayette's representation. Respondent did not provide the subsequent attorney, Joni Buquoi, with a complete copy of Ms. Cayette's file until ...