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In re Voelkel

Supreme Court of Louisiana

May 20, 2019



          PER CURIAM.

         This disciplinary matter arises from formal charges filed by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel ("ODC") against respondent, Christine Y. Voelkel, an attorney licensed to practice law in Louisiana, but currently on interim suspension for threat of harm to the public. In re: Voelkel, 19-0344 (La. 3/8/19), ___ So.3d ____.[1]


         The ODC filed two sets of formal charges against respondent under disciplinary board docket numbers 15-DB-031 and 16-DB-099. Respondent failed to answer the formal charges in 15-DB-031 but did file an answer in 16-DB-099. The matters were then considered by separate hearing committees.

         Upon respondent's failure to answer the charges in 15-DB-031, the factual allegations contained therein were deemed admitted and proven by clear and convincing evidence pursuant to Supreme Court Rule XIX, § 11(E)(3). No formal hearing was held, but the parties were given an opportunity to file with the hearing committee written arguments and documentary evidence on the issue of sanctions. Respondent filed nothing for the hearing committee's consideration. With respect to the charges in 16-DB-099, although respondent filed an answer, she failed to appear for the formal hearing.

         In May 2018, the two sets of formal charges were consolidated by order of the disciplinary board. The board then filed in this court a single recommendation of discipline encompassing both sets of formal charges.


         On March 10, 2014, respondent incurred an overdraft in her client trust account in the amount of $1, 325. By letter dated March 21, 2014, the ODC requested that respondent provide an explanation for the overdraft, along with six months of bank statements for the period prior to the overdraft and supporting documentation for the activity therein. Respondent received the correspondence on March 28, 2014. Nevertheless, she failed to respond. By letter dated August 14, 2014, the ODC made a second request for the information.

         On August 18, 2014, the ODC received a response from respondent, in which she indicated that she was delayed in responding and unable to get the requested materials because of financial and emotional difficulties. Specifically, respondent indicated that she recently moved from her home and her office due to her separation from her spouse. Respondent also indicated that she had recently suffered a miscarriage. Regarding the overdraft, respondent explained that it was caused by the bank placing a hold on a deposit. She further stated that the account had a sufficient balance at the time the check was presented.

         The ODC attempted to serve respondent with a subpoena to appear for a sworn statement and to produce the requested documents. However, the ODC's investigator was not able to locate her. Thereafter, respondent called the ODC, indicating she would waive service because she was homeless and would appear for the sworn statement on October 29, 2014. Thereafter, respondent failed to communicate or cooperate with the ODC.

         The ODC alleged that respondent's conduct violated the following provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct: Rules 1.15 (safekeeping property of clients or third persons) and 8.1(c) (failure to cooperate with the ODC in its investigation).

         Hearing Committee Report

         After considering the ODC's deemed admitted submission in 15-DB-031, the hearing committee made factual findings consistent with the factual allegations in the formal charges that were deemed admitted and proven by clear and convincing evidence. Based on these findings, the committee determined that respondent violated Rules 1.15 and 8.1(c) of the Rules of Professional Conduct as alleged in the formal charges. The committee also determined that respondent violated Rules 8.1(b) (knowing failure to respond to a lawful demand for information from a disciplinary authority) and 8.4(a) (violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct) even though the ODC did not charge her with same.

         The committee determined that the overdraft of respondent's trust account was the result of an oversight and negligence and that there was no evidence of actual harm. The committee also determined that respondent knowingly and intentionally violated her duty to cooperate with the ODC's investigation.

         The committee then noted that respondent indicated she was abandoned by her spouse, evicted from her home, homeless, and suffered a miscarriage. However, the committee found no evidence that these factors related to or caused the trust account overdraft or respondent's failure to cooperate. Nevertheless, the committee found respondent's separation from her spouse, homelessness, miscarriage, and the related emotional consequences to be mitigating factors. However, these mitigating factors may be interpreted as very good reasons why respondent is unfit to continue to practice law without some type of intervention, mentoring, or monitoring. In aggravation, the committee referenced respondent's bad faith obstruction of the disciplinary proceeding by intentionally failing to comply with the rules or orders of the disciplinary agency.

         After also considering this court's prior jurisprudence addressing similar misconduct, the committee recommended respondent be suspended from the practice of law for one year, fully deferred, subject to a two-year period of probation with the following conditions:

1. Respondent shall submit to the ODC quarterly audits of her trust account performed by ...

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