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In re Register

Supreme Court of Louisiana

October 21, 2019

IN RE: HAROLD D. REGISTER, JR.

          ATTORNEY DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDING

          PER CURIAM [*]

         This disciplinary matter arises from formal charges filed by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel ("ODC") against respondent, Harold D. Register, Jr., a disbarred attorney.

         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 1985. In 2003, respondent was publicly reprimanded by the disciplinary board and placed on supervised probation for eighteen months, with conditions, for failing to promptly disburse settlement funds, mishandling his client trust account, and neglecting legal matters. In April 2017, respondent and the ODC filed a joint petition for interim suspension, which we granted. In re: Register, 17-0691 (La. 4/27/17), 218 So.3d 94 (Genovese, J., recused). On February 14, 2018, we disbarred respondent, retroactive to the date of his interim suspension, for misconduct involving his failure to provide competent representation to a client, neglect of a legal matter, and conversion of client and third-party funds. In re: Register, 17-1547 (La. 2/14/18), ___So. 3d___ (Genovese, J., recused).

         Against this backdrop, we now turn to a consideration of the misconduct at issue in the instant proceeding.

         FORMAL CHARGES

         Count I

         In January 2016, Inez Victorian retained respondent to represent her in a civil matter before the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office ("DoD"). Ms. Victorian paid respondent $2, 500 in connection with the representation.

         Ms. Victorian advised respondent that it was very important to her that correspondence with the DoD be sent via certified mail so that delivery could be confirmed. On March 30, 2016, respondent sent the completed DoD complaint form on Ms. Victorian's behalf, addressed to "The Pentagon." Seeing the address on the correspondence, Ms. Victorian contacted respondent's office to verify that the letter was sent by certified mail. Ms. Victorian was assured that the letter was mailed as requested, but she was provided with no certified mail receipt or tracking information.

         Dissatisfied with respondent's representation, on May 6, 2016, by e-mail and in a telephone call, Ms. Victorian advised respondent that she was terminating the representation and that she wanted a refund of the unearned legal fee. On May 8, 2016, via certified mail to respondent's primary address registered with the Louisiana State Bar Association ("LSBA"), Ms. Victorian again notified respondent of the termination of the representation and again requested a refund of unearned fees. Respondent did not respond to Ms. Victorian's termination efforts, and none of the $2, 500 fee has been returned.[1] Ms. Victorian lacked the funds to hire counsel to complete her matter before the DoD, and her complaint was dismissed. Ms. Victorian's efforts to retrieve her client file were unsuccessful.

         In June 2016, Ms. Victorian filed a complaint against respondent with the ODC. Respondent did not submit a response to the complaint and has otherwise failed to cooperate with the ODC in its investigation.

         The ODC alleges that respondent's conduct violated the following provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct: Rules 1.5(f)(5) (when the client pays the lawyer a fixed fee, a minimum fee, or a fee drawn from an advanced deposit, and a fee dispute arises between the lawyer and the client, the lawyer shall immediately refund the unearned portion of such fee, if any), 1.16(d) (obligations upon termination of the representation), 8.1(b) (failure to respond to a lawful demand for information from a disciplinary authority), 8.1(c) (failure to cooperate with the ODC in its investigation), and 8.4(a) (violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct).

         Count II

         Respondent was hired to represent Nelson Chambers in the filing of an application for post-conviction relief. Consistent therewith, on November 17, 2014, respondent wrote to Mr. Chambers advising him of the representation. The agreed-to fee for the representation was $5, 000, which sum Mr. Chambers' mother paid on his behalf.

         The docket summary in the post-conviction matter reflects no activity of record by respondent after he sent the November 17, 2014 letter to Mr. Chambers. Unable to contact respondent, on June 8, 2015, Mr. Chambers filed with the court a request for an extension of time within which to file his application for post-conviction relief. This request was denied.

         Realizing that the time limitations for seeking relief were running, Mr. Chambers then sought the return of his client file. Unsuccessful on his own, Mr. Chambers enlisted the assistance of Rhonda Campbell. Ms. Campbell owns an investigative service and had worked with respondent in the past. Ms. Campbell called respondent on approximately ten occasions seeking Mr. Chambers' client file, but none of her calls were returned. On March 31, 2016, she sent a certified letter to respondent, which was received on April 4, 2016. Receiving no response, she sent a second certified letter to respondent, which was received on April 12, 2016. Again, respondent did not respond. With each letter, Ms. Campbell included March 27, 2016 correspondence from Mr. Chambers in which Mr. Chambers set forth that Ms. Campbell was assisting him in his efforts to retrieve his client file.

         In December 2016, Mr. Chambers submitted a pro se application for post-conviction relief, therein explaining that the delay in submission was due to the lack of efforts by counsel (respondent). The application for post-conviction relief was denied, and Mr. Chambers' application for writs to the court of appeal was likewise denied. State v. Chambers, 17-0069 (La.App. 3rd Cir. 6/15/17) (not designated for publication).

         In April 2016, Ms. Campbell filed a complaint against respondent with the ODC. After the complaint was filed, respondent did provide Mr. Chambers with six or seven pages of documents. Nevertheless, Mr. Chambers does not believe that this represents his entire client file. None of the fee paid by Mr. Chambers' mother has been refunded. Respondent did not submit a response to Ms. Campbell's complaint and has otherwise failed to cooperate with the ODC in its investigation.

         The ODC alleges that respondent's conduct violated the following provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct: Rules 1.3 (a lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client), 1.4 (failure to communicate with a client), 1.5(f)(5), 1.16(d), 8.1(b), 8.1(c), 8.4(a), and 8.4(c) (engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation).

         Count III

         In April 2013, Larry Butler retained respondent to represent his interests in two separate matters arising out of his alleged wrongful incarceration. Mr. Butler signed a written contingent fee agreement on September 10, 2013. In October 2015, Mr. Butler was released from incarceration, and he contacted respondent seeking information regarding the status of his litigation. Unable to contact respondent, on November 23, 2015, Mr. Butler wrote a letter, asking that respondent provide him with court information and docket numbers for his case.

         On December 2, 2015, respondent wrote to Mr. Butler. He forwarded a $600 check as a "loan," and indicated that full payment would be due from Mr. Butler upon "settlement" and "deducted from any settlement funds received." Respondent sent Mr. Butler an additional $600 on December 7, 2015. On April 10, 2016, respondent advised Mr. Butler that the defendants had been served and had filed a motion to dismiss Mr. Butler's suit. Respondent also advised Mr. Butler that he would be opposing the motion. On May 28, 2016, respondent telephoned Mr. Butler to advise that his suit had been dismissed. Mr. Butler again requested copies of the pleadings and the court's judgment, to no avail. Since this telephone conversation, Mr. Butler has been unable to reach respondent. On December 21, 2016, Mr. Butler wrote to respondent, but he did not receive a response.

         In July 2016, Mr. Butler filed a complaint against respondent with the ODC. Respondent did not submit a response to the complaint and has otherwise failed to cooperate with the ODC in its investigation.

         The ODC was able to locate two lawsuits in which respondent represented Mr. Butler, one pending in the 19th Judicial District Court for the Parish of East Baton Rouge and the other pending in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.[2] The docket summary in the 19th JDC litigation reflects that respondent filed a petition for judicial review on behalf of Mr. Butler on November 6, 2013, shortly after the signing of the written contingent fee agreement. The submitted pauper form was incorrect, and the issue regarding the request for pauper status was not resolved until September 2014. On December 17, 2015, a status conference set by the commissioner was passed without date in light of Mr. Butler's release from incarceration in October of that year. The docket summary reflects no further activity.

         The docket summary in the federal court litigation reflects that respondent filed a complaint on Mr. Butler's behalf on March 24, 2014. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss, and respondent submitted a memorandum in opposition. The motion to dismiss was granted on December 4, 2015, and the docket summary reflects no further activity. Thus, at the time respondent wrote to Mr. Butler transmitting a "loan" pending "settlement," Mr. Butler's federal suit had already been dismissed. In May 2016, when Mr. Butler learned of the dismissal of his suit, the suit had already been dismissed for six months. Mr. Butler has since attempted to obtain legal representation, but he has been advised by several attorneys that they cannot help him with his legal matters.

         After respondent was placed on interim suspension in April 2017, a curator was appointed to collect and disburse respondent's client files. The curator located Mr. Butler's file and returned it to him on November 30, 2017.

         The ODC alleges that respondent's conduct violated the following provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct: Rules 1.4, ...


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