VIRGINIA:



BEFORE THE VIRGINIA STATE BAR DISCIPLINARY BOARD





IN THE MATTER OF VSB Docket Nos. 98-022-1131, 98-022-

BRUCE ALTON SANDERS 2514 and 99-022-0435





ORDER

 

These matters came on March 21, 2001, to be heard on the Agreed Disposition of the Virginia State Bar and the respondent Bruce Alton Sanders, based upon the Certification of the Second District Committee, Section II. The Agreed Disposition was considered by a duly convened panel of the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board consisting of D. Stan Barnhill, Michael A. Glasser, Karen A. Gould, Deborah A. Wilson and Henry P. Custis, Jr., presiding.

The Virginia State Bar, by Bar Counsel Barbara Ann Williams, presented an Agreed Disposition endorsed by the respondent Bruce Alton Sanders.

Having considered the Certification and the Agreed Disposition, it is this board's decision to accept the Agreed Disposition, and the board finds by clear and convincing evidence as follows:

1. From May 17, 1979, until August 6, 1998, Mr. Sanders was an attorney licensed

and in good standing to practice law in the Commonwealth of Virginia.



2. On August 6, 1998, Mr. Sanders changed his bar membership to associate

status.



II. VSB Docket No. 98-022-1131





1. In January 1997, Theresa A. Gay retained Mr. Sanders to file a divorce action.



2. Ms. Gay paid Mr. Sanders a $200 retainer by check number 1248, payable to Mr.

Sanders and dated January 15, 1997.



3. On January 16, 1997, Mr. Sanders deposited Ms. Gay's check into Central

Fidelity Bank account number 0900032673, his law firm's general account.



4. On or about January 17, 1997, Mr. Sanders initiated the divorce action, which

proceeded by order of publication because Ms. Gay did not know her husband's whereabouts.



5. The publication order required Mr. Gay to appear on or before May 13, 1997; Mr.

Gay did not file an answer or enter an appearance.



6. A commissioner's hearing was conducted on June 9, 1997.



7. Mr. Sanders advised Ms. Gay that the divorce would be final within three to four

weeks after the commissioner's hearing.

 

Sanders and learned that he had moved to Baltimore, Maryland, without notifying her.



9. When Ms. Gay finally reached Mr. Sanders by telephone in Baltimore in the

middle of August 1997, Mr. Sanders assured Ms. Gay that he would rush to finalize her divorce.



10. Despite his assurances to Ms. Gay, Mr. Sanders did not act expeditiously.



11. On or about September 25, 1997, Ms. Gay filed a bar complaint against Mr.

Sanders.



12. Mr. Sanders subsequently acknowledged in a letter to bar counsel dated December

31, 1997, that the delay in completing Ms. Gay's divorce after the commissioner's hearing in July 1997, was his fault, noting that between June and December 1997, he moved from Virginia Beach to Baltimore, closed his law practice, took a non-law related job, managed a major non-work related project and got married.



13. The Final Decree was entered in Ms. Gay's divorce action on December 31, 1997.



B. Findings of Miscondcut

The above facts establish violations of the following provisions of the Code of Professional Responsibility:

DR 6-101. Competence and Promptness.

* * *

(B) A lawyer shall attend promptly to matters undertaken for a client until completed or until the lawyer has properly and completely withdrawn from representing the client.



(C) A lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about matters in which the lawyer's services are being rendered.



DR 9-102. Preserving Identity of Funds and Property of a Client.



(A) All funds received or held by a lawyer or law firm on behalf of a client, estate or a ward, residing in this State or from a transaction arising in this State, other than reimbursement of advances for costs and expenses, shall be deposited in one or more identifiable trust accounts and, as to client funds, maintained at a financial institution in a state in which the lawyer maintains a law office, and no funds belonging to the lawyer or law firm shall be deposited therein except as follows:



(1) Funds reasonably sufficient to pay service or other charges or fees imposed by the financial institution may be deposited therein.



(2) Funds belonging in part to a client and in part presently or potentially to the lawyer or law firm must be deposited therein, and the portion belonging to the lawyer or law firm must be withdrawn promptly after they are due unless the right of the lawyer or law firm to receive it is disputed by the client, in which event the disputed portion shall not be withdrawn until the dispute is finally resolved.



III. VSB Docket No. 98-022-2514

A. Findings of Fact

1. On April 30, 1996, Onni Harjou died in Chesapeake, Virginia, without leaving a

will.

2. On May 30, 1996, Bernice F. Allen qualified as administratrix of Mr. Harjou's

estate, which had an estimated value of $83,625.



3. Ms. Allen was Mr. Harjou's long-time companion; when she qualified as adminis-

tratrix, Ms. Allen was 75 years old.



4. Because she felt that she did not have the necessary expertise to administer Mr.

Harjou's estate, Ms. Allen retained Mr. Sanders to assist her.



5. Ms. Allen sold Mr. Harjou's car and donated his clothes to the Salvation Army;

the only remaining assets in Mr. Harjou's estate were investments.



6. Ms. Allen gave Mr. Sanders the estate checkbook and all the other estate records,

and forwarded all estate bills that she received to Mr. Sanders.



7. The first check written on First Virginia Bank of Tidewater account number

1145102-1080 for the Estate of Onni Harjou was for $225, dated October 23, 1996, and made payable to Mr. Sanders.



8. On or about December 2, 1996, John W. Brown, Commissioner of Accounts

issued a notice of delinquency, advising Ms. Allen that the inventory for Mr. Harjou's estate was due on September 30, 1996, and had not been filed.



9. As a result of the delinquency, Ms. Allen was fined $15 and warned that failure to

comply with the Commissioner's Notice of Delinquency would result in further proceedings against her.



10. On December 6, 1996, the inventory was filed with the circuit court.



11. On December 26, 1996, a check in the amount of $4,750 made payable to Mr.

Sanders was written from Mr. Harjou's estate account.



12. In January 1997, a partial disbursement was made from the estate account to pay

undertakers' fees.



13. Mr. Sanders subsequently advised Ms. Allen that they had to wait one year to

close out the estate and disburse the remaining assets in case unexpected bills or contestants appeared.



14. As of the statement closing date of April 21, 1997, a balance of $16,821.95

remained in the estate account; a deposit of $52,602.08, from the final sale of Mr. Harjou's stocks, was made into the estate account on May 8, 1997.



15. Ms. Allen contacted Mr. Sanders in July 1997 about closing the estate, but he

again advised her that they needed to wait awhile longer before closing out the estate.



16. Mr. Sanders also informed Ms. Allen that he was moving to Baltimore to manage

a friend's political campaign but assured her that he would continue to work on the estate matter from Maryland.



17. Ms. Allen was hospitalized in September and October 1997, and recuperated in

New York until January 1998.



18. While she was recuperating, Ms. Allen unsuccessfully attempted to reach Mr.

Sanders.



19. When Ms. Allen returned to Virginia and finally reached Mr. Sanders in January

1998, he assured her that in ten days she would receive a final check to be presented to Mr. Harjou's daughter, the sole beneficiary of the estate.



unable to reach Mr. Sanders.



21. On February 12, 1998, the Commissioner issued a notice of delinquency against

Ms. Allen.



22. The notice advised that Ms. Allen had failed to file the first accounting of all

assets of Mr. Harjou's estate within sixteen months of her appointment as administrator, as required by law.



23. The Commissioner assessed a $25 fine against Ms. Allen for failure to file the

accounting in a timely manner.



24. On or about February 24, 1998, Kimberly P. Holt, an attorney retained by Mr.

Harjou's daughter and sole beneficiary of his estate, wrote Mr. Sanders at his Virginia Beach address, inquiring whether he still represented Ms. Allen.



25. On or about February 26, 1998, Ms. Holt forwarded a copy of her February 24th

letter to Mr. Sanders at an address in Baltimore, Maryland.



 

27. By letter dated March 19, 1998, Mr. Sanders advised Ms. Holt that he was

preparing the accounting and would express mail it to the Commissioner the next day, and that he would mail the first distribution from the estate to Mr. Harjou's daughter.



28. By letter dated March 19, 1998, Mr. Sanders advised the Commissioner that he

was preparing the accounting for Mr. Harjou's estate and that he would express mail it to the Commissioner the next day for filing, along with a personal check for the $25 late fee assessed against Ms. Allen.



29. Mr. Sanders did not mail a check for Mr. Harjou's daughter, submit the

accounting or mail a check for the late fee.

 

30. After Mr. Sanders failed to submit the accounting and the check for the late fee to

the Commissioner, Mr. Brown wrote him on April 14, 1998, advising that if the accounting were not filed immediately he would issue a summons to Ms. Allen for non-compliance.



31. On May 4, 1998, the Commissioner issued a summons requiring Ms. Allen to file

a settlement of accounts within thirty days of service.



32. A show cause order was subsequently issued requiring Ms. Allen to appear in

circuit court on August 19, 1998, to explain why no accountings were filed.



33. On January 29, 1999, with no objection, Ms. Allen was removed as administratrix

of Mr. Harjou's estate, and Ms. Holt was substituted as administratrix.



34. Ms. Holt discovered that the estate funds had been deposited in a non-interest

bearing account, and she had to pay the bank about $100 for copies of statements necessary to file the accounting, since Ms. Allen had given or forwarded all of the estate records to Mr. Sanders.



35. A Distribution Order was entered on April 12, 1999, and Ms. Holt filed the first and final accounting on May 12, 1999.



B. Findings of Misconduct

The above facts establish violations of the following provisions of the Code of Professional Responsibility:

DR 6-101. Competence and Promptness.



* * *



(B) A lawyer shall attend promptly to matters undertaken for a client until completed or until the lawyer has properly and completely withdrawn from representing the client.



(C) A lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about matters in which the lawyer's services are being rendered.



DR 7-101. Representing a Client Zealously.



(A) A lawyer shall not intentionally:



* * *



(2) Fail to carry out a contract of employment entered into with a client for professional services, but he may withdraw as permitted under DR 2-108, DR 5-102, and DR 5-105.



(3) Prejudice or damage his client during the course of the professional relationship, except as required under DR 4-101(D).



IV. VSB Docket No. 99-022-0435



A. Findings of Fact

1. In August 1996, Earl Whitehurst retained Mr. Sanders to file a divorce action.



2. On or about August 30, 1996, Mr. Whitehurst paid Mr. Sanders $354 via check

number 775, drawn upon the Navy P.W.C. Norva Federal Credit Union.



Central Fidelity Bank account number 0900032745, a trust account maintained by Mr. Sanders.



Whitehurst's behalf.



order number 036512 drawn upon the Navy P.W.C. Norva Credit Union.



6. Mr. Sanders deposited the money order into Central Fidelity Bank account

number 0900032673, his law firm's general account, on January 16, 1997.



7. On or about March 17, 1997, the Honorable Russell Townsend entered a Decree

of Reference, referring the matter to James M. Walton, Commissioner in Chancery.



8. On June 18, 1997, the Commissioner in Chancery filed his report.



9. Mr. Whitehurst understood that Mr. Sanders was going to set a court date for the

final decree to be entered in December 1997.



10. Mr. Sanders has not contacted Mr. Whitehurst since June 1997, and Mr.

Whitehurst has not been able to contact Mr. Sanders.



11. On July 11, 1998, Mr. Whitehurst filed a bar complaint against Mr. Sanders.



12. Mr. Sanders finally hired attorney George Minor and paid him $150 to finalize the

divorce.



13. The divorce decree was entered on August 18, 1999.



B. Findings of Misconduct



The above facts establish violations of the following provisions of the Code of Professional Responsibility:



DR 6-101. Competence and Promptness.



* * *



(B) A lawyer shall attend promptly to matters undertaken for a client until completed or until the lawyer has properly and completely withdrawn from representing the client.

 

(C) A lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about matters in which the lawyer's services are being rendered.



DR 7-101. Representing a Client Zealously.



(A) A lawyer shall not intentionally:



* * *



(2) Fail to carry out a contract of employment entered into with a client for professional services, but he may withdraw as permitted under DR 2-108, DR 5-102, and DR 5-105.



(3) Prejudice or damage his client during the course of the professional relationship, except as required under DR 4-101(D).



DR 9-102. Preserving Identity of Funds and Property of a Client.



(A) All funds received or held by a lawyer or law firm on behalf of a client, estate or a ward, residing in this State or from a transaction arising in this State, other than reimbursement of advances for costs and expenses, shall be deposited in one or more identifiable trust accounts and, as to client funds, maintained at a financial institution in a state in which the lawyer maintains a law office, and no funds belonging to the lawyer or law firm shall be deposited therein except as follows:



(1) Funds reasonably sufficient to pay service or other charges or fees imposed by the financial institution may be deposited therein.



(2) Funds belonging in part to a client and in part presently or potentially to the lawyer or law firm must be deposited therein, and the portion belonging to the lawyer or law firm must be withdrawn promptly after they are due unless the right of the lawyer or law firm to receive it is disputed by the client, in which event the disputed portion shall not be withdrawn until the dispute is finally resolved.



Upon consideration whereof, it is ORDERED that the respondent shall receive effective

March 21, 2001, a Two Year Suspension with Terms. It is hereby ORDERED that as a

condition of reinstatement the respondent shall comply with the following terms:

1. The respondent shall comply with the requirements of Part Six, Section IV, Paragraph 13.J.(2) of the Rules of the Virginia Supreme Court governing reinstatement after suspension for more than one year.



2. No later than March 20, 2002, the respondent shall reimburse Karen Keating, the sole beneficiary under Oni Harju's will, the sum of $4,916.00, including $4,750.00 that was paid to Mr. Sanders from estate funds for his services and $166.00 for fees the estate incurred for researching and copying bank statements required because Mr. Sanders did not return the original bank records that Bernice F. Allen entrusted to him.



 

Upon satisfactory proof that the respondent has met all the terms and conditions of the

Agreed Disposition, and successfully completed the two year suspension, this matter shall be

closed. The respondent's failure to comply with any one or more of the agreed terms and conditions will result in the imposition of the alternative sanction of a five year suspension.

If the Virginia State Bar discovers that the respondent has failed to comply with any of the agreed terms or conditions, the Virginia State Bar shall issue and serve upon Mr. Sanders a Notice of Hearing to Show Cause why the alternative sanction should not be imposed. The sole factual issue will be whether the respondent has violated one or more of the terms and conditions of the Agreed Disposition without legal justification or excuse. The imposition of the alternative sanction shall not require any hearing on the underlying misconduct charges.

It is ORDERED, pursuant to the provisions or Part Six, IV, 13(K)(1) of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia, that the respondent shall forthwith give notice by certified mail, return receipt requested, of his suspension of his license to practice law in the Commonwealth of Virginia, to all clients for whom he is currently handling matters and to all opposing attorneys and presiding judges in pending litigation. The respondent shall also make appropriate arrangements for the disposition of matters then in his care in conformity with the wishes of his client. The respondent shall give such notice within fourteen (14) days of the effective date of the suspension order, and make such arrangements as are required herein within forty-five (45) days of the effective date of the suspension order. The respondent shall furnish proof to the bar within sixty (60) days of the effective date of the suspension order that such notices have been timely given and such arrangement for the disposition of matters made. Issues concerning the adequacy of the notice and arrangements required herein shall be determined by the Disciplinary Board, which may impose a sanction of suspension for failure to comply with the requirements of this subparagraph.

It is further ORDERED that the respondent shall furnish true copies of all of the notice letters sent to all persons notified of the suspension, with the original return receipts for the notice letters, to the Clerk of the Disciplinary System, on or before May 21, 2001.

Pursuant to Part Six, IV, 13.K.(10) of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia, the Clerk of the Disciplinary System shall assess costs.

Leslie Etheredge with Inge Snead & Associates, Ltd., 4444 Arrowhead Road, Richmond, Virginia 23235, (804) 272-7054, having been duly sworn by the presiding Chair, reported the hearing on the Agreed Disposition.

It is ORDERED that a copy teste of this Order shall be mailed by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the respondent at his last address of record with the Virginia State Bar, Post Office Box 6534, Woodbridge, Virginia 22195, and hand delivered to Barbara Ann Williams, Bar Counsel, Virginia State Bar, 707 East Main Street, Suite 1500, Richmond, Virginia 23219.

Enter this Order this ______ day of ___________ 2001.



VIRGINIA STATE BAR DISCIPLINARY BOARD



By: _______________________________________

Henry P. Custis, Jr., Chair