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Committee on Professional Ethics and Grievances of Virgin Islands Bar Association v. Johnson

decided: August 2, 1971.

COMMITTEE ON PROFESSIONAL ETHICS AND GRIEVANCES OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS BAR ASSOCIATION
v.
RUSSELL B. JOHNSON, APPELLANT



Ganey, Seitz and Van Dusen, Circuit Judges.

Author: Van Dusen

Opinion OF THE COURT

VAN DUSEN, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from a judgment and order of the District Court of the Virgin Islands suspending respondent Johnson from the practice of law for twelve months. Only the basic facts leading to the disbarment proceedings need be recited. On March 9, 1968, Laura Cutchin requested and empowered respondent, her lawyer, to solicit offers for approximately 42 acres of land on St. Croix, United States Virgin Islands, which she wanted to sell. Heeding respondent's advice, his law clerk, Neil Ward, along with several partners other than respondent, made an offer of $3,000 per acre which respondent communicated to Mrs. Cutchin on April 24, 1968. A few days earlier respondent had been approached by Richardson and Santana, who were also interested in the land. On their behalf, respondent submitted an offer of $2,800 per acre to Mrs. Cutchin on April 25, 1968. Absent from this offer was any provision to set aside an acre for the owner's brother, as Mrs. Cutchin had previously stipulated was a necessary condition of sale. Respondent did not disclose Ward's offer to Richardson and Santana. On May 3, 1968, Mrs. Cutchin cashed the earnest money deposit submitted by Ward. Subsequently, respondent notified Richardson and Santana that Mrs. Cutchin had rejected their offer. After this rejection, Richardson told respondent to give Mrs. Cutchin whatever she wanted but was unable for several weeks thereafter to ascertain from respondent the status of the transaction. In late May or early June 1968, respondent disclosed to Richardson that the property had been sold to another party, but did not reveal the identity of the buyers. On or before May 14, 1968, respondent asked Ward if he could become a part owner of the property. On May 23, 1968, Ward executed a document in which he stated that he was holding title to the property in question as "* * * a trustee for the use of Russell B. Johnson as to a one-half interest in said parcel described hereinabove and that I hold title to the remaining one-half interest for the use and benefit of my wife, Nora P. Ward."

Santana filed a complaint with the Committee on Professional Ethics and Grievances of the Virgin Islands Bar Association pursuant to Rule 57(b) of the Rules of the District Court of the Virgin Islands, which provides that "complaints of improper or unethical conduct on the part of a member of the Virgin Islands Bar made by any * * * person, shall be referred to the Committee on Professional Ethics and Grievances of the Virgin Islands Bar, and shall be investigated by the said Committee * * *", 5 V.I.Code Ann. 334 (App. V 1966). In accordance with other provisions of the rules,*fn1 a formal hearing was held on June 6, 1969, before the Committee, which subsequently released a report making the following conclusions of law:

1. An attorney-client relationship existed on or about April 24, 1968, between Russell B. Johnson and H. J. Richardson and Cruz Santana.

2. Russell B. Johnson breached the Canons of Professional Ethics adopted by the American Bar Association, to wit: Canon Six (6), by his failure to disclose to his clients (H. J. Richardson and Cruz Santana) that on the same day, April 24, 1968, he had solicited an offer from his law clerk for the purchase of the real property on St. Croix and on April 24, 1968 had forwarded to Mrs. Cutchin the offer to purchase, supported by a check as earnest money, and a contract to purchase signed by Neil J. Ward.

The Committee recommended that formal charges be filed with the Judge of the district court against respondent for "improper and unethical professional conduct." Subsequently, a complaint was filed by the Committee with the district court*fn2 charging that:

3. Respondent, while acting in the capacity of an attorney-at-law and as an officer of all the Courts of this Territory by virtue of the authority conferred upon him by law, and while being in duty bound under the laws of this Territory and his oath of office, to demean himself honestly in the practice of law and to discharge his duty to his clients to the best of his ability, has been guilty of unethical and dishonorable conduct as an attorney by unethically misrepresenting essential facts and failing to disclose essential facts in a real estate transaction to his clients, H. J. Richardson and Cruz Santana, concerning the purchase of land in St. Croix.

4. The actions and conduct of the respondent, as set forth in paragraph 3 supra, constitute unethical and dishonorable conduct on the part of respondent, in violation of the Canons of Professional Ethics adopted by the American Bar Association, by reason of which his license to practice law in the Territory of the Virgin Islands should be revoked and cancelled.*fn3

After trial, the district court filed a Memorandum Opinion on June 9, 1970, and entered final judgment against respondent on June 12, 1970.

The district court based its decision on at least two and possibly three grounds. The court clearly held that (1) respondent violated the duties he owed his client, Mrs. Cutchin, as her attorney, and that (2) even if respondent did not represent Richardson-Santana as their attorney, he nevertheless violated duties he owed them as parties. Appellee contends that the court also found that since Johnson intentionally misled Richardson-Santana into believing he was their attorney, Johnson had a duty to deal with them candidly and held him accountable as if they were his clients.

The common weakness of all of these grounds is that respondent was not given proper notice that these charges would form the basis of the court's decision to disbar him. This failure constituted a violation of respondent's right to due process guaranteed by the fifth amendment.

For example, the assertion that respondent violated duties owed to his client, Mrs. Cutchin, as set forth in Canon 6 of the Canons of Ethics of the American Bar Association*fn4 was nowhere mentioned in the complaint. The only indication the court gave that it was concerned about this ...


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