Tuesday, April 17, 2007, 7:04 PM

COA Affirms Trial Court's Criminal Contempt And License Suspension Against Lawyer Who Abandoned Client

In a pair of companion appeals (see here and here), the Court of Appeals affirmed judgments by Wake County Judge Donald Stephens holding a lawyer in criminal contempt and suspending him from practicing in the courts of Wake County for one year.

When his client failed to pay an extra $200 fee, the lawyer, Key, abandoned his client outside the courtroom before a hearing on her alleged probation violation, and without telling her. When Key left the Wake County Courthouse, the judge instructed the courtroom clerk to call him and request his presence. Upon receiving the clerk's call, Key told the clerk, "I don't see where the Judge has the authority to tell me to be there whenever I haven't been paid or retained in this case." Key then asked the clerk what the judge would do if he didn't show up. The clerk advised that the judge would probably issue a show cause order or an arrest order, and Key responded, "Well, he doesn't have the authority, and I don't give a s---- what he does."

Unfortunately for Key, Judge Stephens concluded he had the authority. He found Key in criminal contempt, sentencing him to 30 days in jail, suspended pending an 18-month probation. Judge Stephens also invoked the court's inherent authority to issue a disciplinary sanction--suspending Key's right to practice law in Wake County courts for one year--based on a violation of Rule 1.16 of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct, which regulates how and when a lawyer may withdraw from representing a client. In affirming the disciplinary sanction, the Court of Appeals cited, among other facts, the fact that Key "behaved rudely towards the courtroom clerk" during the phone conversation and "stated that he didn't 'give a s--- what [the judge] does.'"

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