What now seems like an eternity ago, because it was written in the before-times, I wrote about Tennessee’s change to its disciplinary procedural rules resulting in implementation of permanent disbarment. I questioned exactly why the change was needed and what it would mean given that it was being paired with changes to extend the maximum length of suspensions from 5 years to 10 years.
As with a lot of things I have written, it amounted to nothing more than screaming into the void as the changes went forward and became effective as disbarments entered on or after July 1, 2020. (Also, “Screaming into the Void” sounds like a very good high school yearbook theme for 2020-2021.)
Earlier this month, the first two permanent disbarments were entered in Tennessee under the new procedural rules. An attorney practicing in middle Tennessee was disbarred forever on September 10, 2020. The charges against him stemmed from having pled guilty in federal court in 2019 to wire fraud, identity theft, and tax fraud. The underlying conduct involved misappropriations of funds in trust belonging to a minor and misappropriating other funds in a probate case.
The second permanent disbarment order was entered a day later involving a Tennessee lawyer based in Alabama. Her case has few similarities to the first beyond the ultimate outcome. She essentially took on clients in immigration matters (6) and failed to provide services despite being paid, dumped the clients, and retained the fees. She apparently did this in the process of abandoning her practice. Once a disciplinary investigation began, she did not respond to the Board, was then temporarily suspended (did not comply with the requirements for providing clients notice after such a suspension), and then consented to the permanent disbarment ruling against her.
So, what we can learn from this with respect to how permanent disbarment might be used? Not much, I guess. Neither of these lawyers have very sympathetic stories, one of the two consented to being disbarred forever and the other is likely in federal prison for essentially stealing money. That doesn’t mean that neither might have been able to trod a path to redemption under the prior procedure, but neither presents the kind of case that would make anyone want to even online browse for, much less go to, any mattresses.
But there are two things still worth thinking about.
The first is the capriciousness of timing. As mentioned in my ancient posts, the rule change implementation was not one that was going to apply only to new cases arising after a certain date but to orders of disbarment entered after a certain date. To drive that point home, on June 26, 2020, a lawyer in Washington County, Tennessee consented to disbarment over conduct that is not publicly clarified in any respect other than with reference to rules (RPC 8.4(a)(b)(c)(d) and (e), which would imply the situation would have involved some sort of criminal conduct and some sort of dishonesty. But, because the order was entered before July 1, 2020, that lawyer has the glimmer of hope for redemption because they can apply for readmission to the bar on or after June 27, 2025.
The second is an administrative issue that probably does not matter in the two permanent disbarments so far but that might be worth some further scrutiny in the future. Both of the September 2020 permanent disbarment orders end with the statement that the former lawyers must also comply with the portions of the rules applying to disbarred attorneys with respect to notifying clients and others of the disbarment. Now that disbarments are permanent in Tennessee, that’s a pretty pointless requirement. There is no hammer to force compliance and now no longer any carrot to incentivize compliance. In the past, whether a lawyer complied with those notice requirements would play a role in any future efforts to be reinstated.
But now? If not a purely aspirational requirement to maintain, it is practically, entirely toothless.