VINCENT JAMES VENTURAVSB Docket # 02-060-1239
(PUBLIC DISMISSAL WITH TERMS)
On November 8, 2002, a meeting in this matter was held before a duly convened Sixth District Subcommittee consisting of Mark A. Butterworth, Lay Member; Gilbert A. Bartlett, Esq.; and William L. Lewis, Esq., chair, presiding.
Pursuant to Part 6, §IV, ¶13.G.1.c. of the Rules of the Supreme Court, the Sixth District Subcommittee of the Virginia State Bar hereby serves upon the Respondent the following Public Dismissal with Terms:
2. On or about February 8, 2000, Complainant Edith S. Miller [Miller] met and retained Ventura to obtain a divorce and completed a Domestic Relations Information Sheet which also contained retainer agreement provisions. At the meeting Miller provided to Ventura a draft property settlement agreement that her husband's attorney, O'Conor Ashby [Ashby], had submitted to her. At the meeting Miller also paid to Ventura a retainer fee of $2,000.00. Miller had separated from her husband in or about 1994. At the time Miller was receiving child support for two teenagers in the amount of $1,200.00 per month from her husband on a voluntary basis. If called to testify in any hearing of this bar complaint, Ventura would state that the child support funds were non-taxable funds; that at the initial meeting Miller indicated that she wished to resolve all issues through amicable negotiations with her husband and his attorney without the necessity of any court appearances or hearings if possible; that Ventura discussed filing a suit for divorce and seeking pendente lite relief with Miller, and she did not want to follow this course unless it became absolutely necessary.
3. After the initial meeting, Ventura's next action in the case was a March 27, 2000, telephone call to Miller to discuss her tax questions. If called to testify in any hearing of this bar complaint, Ventura would state that after March 27, 2000, Ventura spoke informally with Ashby to inform him that he was representing Miller, and Ashby and Miller agreed that the best approach would be to set up a meeting to discuss all issues.
4. Ashby wrote a letter to Ventura dated May 10, 2000, indicating that since Ventura had informed him of his representation of Miller, Ashby had heard nothing further from Ventura and he asked how the case could be moved along.
5. Due to a jury trial running into the scheduled meeting time, Ventura was unable to meet with Ashby on June 1, 2000. Instead, Ashby and Ventura met to discuss the case for the first time on July 10, 2000. If called to testify in any hearing of this bar complaint, Ventura would state that on July 10, 2000, Miller called Ventura and Ventura returned her telephone call that day, talked with her, provided her with some factual updates and discussed with her the issues he had discussed with Ashby in their meeting of the same date.
6. By his letter dated July 20, 2000, Ashby provided Ventura with his client's position on issues resulting from their meeting, indicating that he looked forward to hearing from Ventura.
7. By his letter dated July 21, 2000, Ventura forwarded Ashby's letter to Miller asking her to set up an appointment to discuss the matter.
8. On August 3, 2000, Ventura and Miller met to discuss the case. During the meeting Ventura called Ashby.
9. On August 4, 2000, Ventura wrote Ashby giving Miller's response to Ashby's July 20, 2000, letter.
10. Ashby responded to Ventura with his letter dated September 15, 2000, stating that, "I trust we can now move forward with a final Property Settlement Agreement. I look forward to your response."
11. Ventura sent Ashby's September 15, 2000, letter to Miller on October 11, 2000, and Ventura and Miller met to discuss the case on October 30, 2000. During that meeting Ventura again telephoned Ashby. Ventura believes he was to then put together a formal property settlement agreement proposal. If called to testify in any hearing of this bar complaint, Ventura would state that in September and October, the parties were still negotiating many issues, including retirement benefits, spousal support, disposition by Miller's husband of certain funds in bank account(s) and documents related to the disbursement and location of these funds that Miller's husband had removed from the bank account(s); that as of October 30, 2000, Miller's husband was earning about four times the income of Miller; that the parties did not agree on the issue of support which created an impasse between the parties; that Ventura was to draft a proposed property settlement agreement containing compromise terms to present to Ashby for his client's review and consideration.
12. Ventura never drafted a proposed property settlement agreement in response to Ashby's September 15, 2000 letter. After October 30, 2000, Ventura took no further action in his representation of Miller. If called to testify in any hearing of this bar complaint, Ventura would state that beginning on November 2, 2000, Ventura's regular domestic relations legal secretary was out of work most of the time until January 8, 2001 with sickness and personal family matters and that during this period of time, the other regular and temporary secretaries in Ventura's office did not have sufficient domestic relations experience and background to assist Ventura with Miller's case.
13. Miller called Ventura's office on many occasions in attempts to determine what was going on in her case. Miller would testify that messages left were rarely returned. On December 22, 2000, Miller sent Ventura a facsimile indicating that his office will not return her calls and asking how she can close her account with Ventura's firm and receive a refund of unearned fees. On January 6, 2001, Miller went to Ventura's office and indicated if Ventura did not answer Ashby's September 15, 2000, letter she wanted her money back. If called to testify in any hearing of this bar complaint, Ventura would state that Miller rarely left any messages for Ventura; and that on December 19 or 20, 2000, and on December 21, 2000, other secretaries for Ventura spoke with Miller and explained the office situation to Miller.
14. On January 19, 2001, Miller called Ventura's office and told the staff person she talked with that she had had enough and wanted her money back. If called to testify in any hearing of this bar complaint, Ventura would state that during the Christmas holiday period, Ventura had dictated a proposed property settlement agreement but it had not been transcribed when Miller came to his office on January 6, 2001, or on January 19, 2001.
15. On January 19, 2001, Ventura sent Miller a letter enclosing a refund check in the amount of $1,156.00 representing unearned fees and apologizing for delays in the representation.
16. Ventura's January 19, 2001 letter to Miller was the next activity which she saw in the case since October 30, 2001. If called to testify in any hearing of this bar complaint, Mr. Ventura would state that he dictated a proposed property settlement agreement during the Christmas holiday time period of 2000.
17. By letter dated January 30, 2001, subsequent counsel for Miller indicated his representation and asked Ventura to forward Miller's complete file "promptly."
18. On February 16, 2001, since Miller's file had not been forwarded to her new counsel, Miller went to Ventura's office and obtained her file.
19. According to Ventura he was not aware of any urgency existing in the representation of Miller .
Such conduct constitutes violations of the following provisions of the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct:
RULE 1.3 Diligence
RULE 1.4 Communication
(a) A lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.
Accordingly, it is the decision of the subcommittee to offer the Respondent an opportunity to comply with certain terms and conditions, compliance with which will be a predicate for closure of this complaint. The terms and conditions shall be met by May 30, 2003:
1. Respondent shall, at his own expense, retain Janean S. Johnston, J.D., a risk management consultant, to conduct a law office management audit of his individual practice and put into place those changes which Ms. Johnston determines are appropriate for the effective management of his individual practice.
3. Respondent shall implement those changes deemed appropriate by Ms. Johnston for the effective management of his practice.
4. Respondent shall provide to the bar written confirmation from Ms. Johnston that the Respondent has put into place those changes deemed appropriate by Ms. Johnston for the effective management of Respondent's practice.
Upon satisfactory proof that such terms and conditions have been met, this matter shall be closed. If, however, the terms and conditions are not met by May 30, 2003, the Sixth District Committee shall impose the alternate sanction of a Public Reprimand.
The Clerk of the Disciplinary System shall assess an administrative cost of $200.00 to the Respondent in this case.
SIXTH DISTRICT SUBCOMMITTEE
OF THE VIRGINIA STATE BAR
By William L. Lewis