In re Rankin: A Case Study in Disbarment
The Kansas Supreme Court recently disbarred a lawyer. It wasn’t the first disbarment of the year, and it likely won’t be the last.[i] The case of In re Rankin, however, may be the most head shaking. It’s a case study of a lawyer who apparently did not believe that the rules applied to him. A case study in how to let personal interest overcome professional obligation. A case study in how to be disbarred.
The lawyer was admitted to practice law in Kansas in 1999. He was, according to many sources, an active and productive member of the bar of Fredonia, Kansas. He was a family man who enjoyed the respect of his peers and generally possessed a good reputation. Letters to the disciplinary board from other members of the bar, former clients, and members of the public praised the attorney for his “outstanding, uncompromising character” and his “adherence to personal and community values beyond reproach.”
It’s no wonder his victim trusted him so much. And it’s no wonder he was able to cause great damage before his misconduct was discovered.
In 2006, the lawyer served as the closing agent in a real estate transaction for a 73-year-old widow. He and the widow (who had ample financial resources) quickly became friends and business associates. The lawyer and his family went on vacations with the widow, and he testified that he cared more for the widow than for his own mother. The lawyer began an ongoing attorney-client relationship with the widow in 2007 when he began representing her in various business matters. He did not send her a client engagement letter. Nor did he communicate the rate of his attorney fees to her.
In 2008, the widow executed a limited power of attorney in favor of the lawyer. This POA granted the lawyer extensive authority to act for the widow in business and personal matters. In 2009, the widow wrote a letter stating that she had chosen to enter into a business relationship with her friend, the lawyer, and that she trusted him fully and completely. She stated that the lawyer was authorized to transfer large sums of money on her behalf and that she would be contributing more capital to their business ventures than the lawyer would. She said in the letter that she believed this arrangement to be fair and beneficial because the lawyer would be contributing to the venture by providing management and oversight for their business operations.
And that’s where the downward spiral began.
Without going into too much gory detail, the lawyer (at the widow’s request) formed an LLC of which he and the widow were each half owners. He then transferred large amounts of the widow’s property and money into the LLC. He made numerous transfers from the LLC to himself. He also made the LLC the beneficiary of the widow’s IRA, received and paid the widow’s bills, and was added as a user on two of the widow’s personal credit cards. At the widow’s request, the lawyer engaged another lawyer to help the widow change her will to make the lawyer her sole beneficiary.
Between April 2009 and December 2009, the lawyer transferred $498,820.57 from the LLC into his trust account or to himself personally for legal fees, expenses associated with the operations of the LLC, a personal loan, and for other undocumented reasons. Records also showed that the lawyer charged the LLC at least $60,000 for legal services in 2010, even though he claimed that he had stopped representing her by that time.
After the lawyer and his family enjoyed a December 2011 Christmas cruise with the widow, the relationship soured. The widow revoked his POA and engaged an accountant to assist her with the clean-up. The widow reported the lawyer’s conduct to the Kansas Office of the Disciplinary Administrator, and the Disciplinary Administrator recommended disbarment. The Kansas Board for the Discipline of Attorneys held a hearing in the fall of 2014. The panel determined that the lawyer had violated the following ethical rules in the following ways:
- KRPC 1.5(a) Failed to charge a reasonable fee
- KRPC 1.5(b) Failed to communicate the basis for his fee
- KRPC 1.7(a)(2) Harmed his client by engaging in a concurrent conflict of interest
- KRPC 1.8 Entered into a business relationship with a client
- KRPC 1.15 Failed to safeguard his client’s property
- KRPC 8.4 Engaged in dishonesty, fraud or deceit that adversely reflected on his fitness to practice law
The Board, however, recommended an indefinite suspension, based upon the mitigating circumstance that the lawyer had never been disciplined before. The lawyer, for his part, characterized his misconduct as “atrocious recordkeeping.” He asked for a finite two-year suspension.
The Kansas Supreme Court did not grant his request. The Court found that the hearing panel evidence had shown clearly and convincingly that the lawyer had violated the laundry list of ethical rules set forth above. The majority of the Court then agreed with the Disciplinary Administrator that disbarment was the only proper sanction. The Court stated that the lawyer’s conduct constituted a “flagrant pattern of misrepresentation, conflict of interest, and exploitation of a vulnerable client over a number of years, all of which resulted in a substantial loss of the client’s property.”
This lawyer won’t be practicing in Fredonia anymore, but the damage to the legal profession will linger. Even though he continued to deny his wrongdoing, this lawyer must finally realize that the rules actually did apply to him.
[i] The Court generally disbars only a handful of attorneys each year.
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