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Disciplinary Case Summaries

September 18, 2021


No. 21PDJ044. People v. Abrams. 7/16/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ conditional admission of misconduct and publicly censured Robert E. Abrams (attorney registration number 37950). The public censure took effect July 16, 2021.

Beginning in June 2019, Abrams represented a client in her dissolution of marriage case. By August 2019, Abrams’s client could no longer pay him. He agreed not to withdraw if his client signed an attorney’s lien against her equity in the marital home. A lawyer at Abrams’s firm drafted an agreement purporting to be an attorney’s lien that secured all future fees, costs, interests, and late charges against the title to the home. The client signed the agreement. Abrams did not obtain his client’s written and informed consent to his role in the transaction or advise her to seek independent legal counsel before entering the agreement. After filing a notice of attorney’s lien with the court, Abrams recorded the agreement as an attorney’s lien with the county clerk and recorder’s office.

In October 2019, the court issued permanent orders in the case and divided the responsibility for Abrams’s fees between his client and the other party. Under the order, the other party was to submit payment for Abrams’s fees to his client rather than to him directly. Soon after, Abrams moved to withdraw except as to fee collection, notifying the court that he had recorded the attorney’s lien. In February 2020, he asked the court to amend the permanent orders to allow him to collect his fees directly from the other party and to reduce the order to judgment. The court denied the motion and noted that Abrams’s firm had an attorney’s lien that it could enforce.

In July 2020, Abrams sought an order to reduce the attorney’s lien to a judgment, asking for an amount that exceeded the fees addressed in the court’s permanent orders. Abrams’s client and opposing counsel objected, and the court set the matter for a hearing in October 2020. But two weeks before the hearing, Abrams’s client and her ex-husband sold the marital home. The title company contacted Abrams about the recorded lien and paid his firm, even though the court had not yet ruled on his motion to reduce the lien to a judgment. Although the money paid on the lien was in dispute, Abrams did not deposit the funds from the title company into his trust account pending the court’s ruling. At the hearing, Abrams’s counsel told the court that the matter was resolved because the marital home had been sold and Abrams’s firm had been paid in full. Relying on those representations, the court stated that the matter was concluded, in essence granting Abrams’s motion without actually entering a judgment in his favor.

Through this conduct, Abrams violated Colo. RPC 1.8(a) (a lawyer shall not enter into a business transaction with a client unless the client is advised to seek independent legal counsel and the client gives written informed consent to the transaction); Colo. RPC 1.15A(a) (a lawyer shall hold client property separate from the lawyer’s own property); Colo. RPC 1.15A(c) (a lawyer shall keep separate any property in which two or more persons claim an interest until there is a resolution of the claims); and Colo. RPC 8.4(d) (a lawyer shall not engage in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice).

 

No. 21PDJ043. People v. Alber. 6/29/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ conditional admission of misconduct and suspended Christopher W. Alber (attorney registration number 35505) for nine months, all to be stayed upon the successful completion of a two-year period of probation, with conditions. The probation took effect June 29, 2021.

In September 2020, while under stress from personal and family health issues, Alber submitted billing to his firm that included entries for 88.7 hours of work that he had not actually completed. The entries were “prebills” that were not sent to the firm’s clients, and no clients were charged for work he had not done. The firm fired Alber after discovering the billing entries. Upon leaving the firm, he self-reported his conduct to disciplinary authorities.

Through this conduct, Alber violated Colo. RPC 8.4(c) (a lawyer shall not engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation).

 

No. 20PDJ048. People v. Allen. 6/21/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ conditional admission of misconduct and suspended George M. Allen (attorney registration number 02080) for two years. The suspension was effective on August 2, 2021. To be reinstated, Allen must prove by clear and convincing evidence that he has been rehabilitated, has complied with disciplinary orders and rules, and is fit to practice law.

Beginning in 2017, Allen represented members of a family and their closely held corporation in litigation brought by another shareholder of the corporation. He did not provide his clients with a written fee agreement when he started the representation. During the litigation, Allen’s clients developed conflicting interests, but he did not obtain their written informed consent to continue the representation. He also failed to correct a statement of material fact included in a court filing after that statement was no longer true.

Allen represented another client in multiple legal proceedings despite having a close personal relationship with her, which created a conflict of interest. Allen also provided the client financial assistance while her cases were ongoing. In one of the proceedings, the court dismissed the case and sanctioned Allen after finding that the claims he had asserted were frivolous and vexatious. A court in another proceeding disqualified Allen from representing his client because he was likely to be a necessary witness. In a third case for the client—a criminal matter—he failed to exercise reasonable diligence and promptness.

Through this conduct, Allen violated Colo. RPC 1.3 (a lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness when representing a client); Colo. RPC 1.5(b) (a lawyer shall inform a client in writing about the lawyer’s fees and expenses within a reasonable time after being retained, if the lawyer has not regularly represented the client); Colo. RPC 1.7(a)(1) (a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation will be directly adverse to another client); Colo. RPC 1.7(a)(2) (a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest); Colo. RPC 1.8(e) (a lawyer shall not provide financial assistance to a client in connection with a pending or contemplated litigation); Colo. RPC 3.1 (a lawyer shall not assert frivolous claims); Colo. RPC 3.3(a)(1) (a lawyer shall not fail to correct a false statement of material fact previously made to a tribunal by the lawyer); and Colo. RPC 3.7 (a lawyer shall not act as advocate at a trial in which the lawyer is likely to be a necessary witness).

 

No. 21PDJ041. People v. Bluestein. 6/28/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ conditional admission of misconduct and suspended Philip M. Bluestein (attorney registration number 31439), effective June 28, 2021.

Bluestein engaged in misconduct in several client matters. In one matter, the client submitted an initial retainer twice by mistake. Bluestein was not aware of the mistake due to bookkeeping deficiencies, and both retainer payments were deposited directly into his trust account. The balance in Bluestein’s trust account thereafter dropped below the amount of funds he should have been safeguarding for the client. A few weeks after the client retained Bluestein, she began contacting him, concerned that her work had not been completed. She terminated the representation and requested a refund and an accounting. Bluestein was delayed in returning the remaining funds due to family health issues. When he compiled the final accounting, he discovered the client had twice paid the retainer. He returned all the client’s funds to her, even the funds he had earned.

In another matter, Bluestein provided the client general advice and completed some work on the matter, but he neither completed the work nor sent it to the client. The client eventually demanded he provide the completed work or a full refund. Bluestein did not timely respond, and the client terminated the representation.

In a third matter, a client provided Bluestein an advance retainer, which Bluestein deposited into his operating account at the outset of the representation. But Bluestein’s work on the matter was delayed, and the client was unhappy about his lack of progress. Bluestein eventually completed the work to the client’s satisfaction.

Through this conduct, Bluestein violated Colo. RPC 1.3 (a lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness when representing a client); Colo. RPC 1.4(a)(3) (a lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of the matter); Colo. RPC 1.4(a)(4) (a lawyer shall promptly comply with reasonable requests for information); Colo. RPC 1.15A(a) (a lawyer shall hold client property separate from the lawyer’s own property); Colo. RPC 1.15D (a lawyer shall maintain trust account records); and Colo. RPC 1.16(d) (a lawyer shall protect a client’s interests upon termination of the representation, including by giving reasonable notice to the client and returning unearned property to which the client is entitled).

 

No. 20PDJ053. People v. Frazier. 6/16/2021.

On June 16, 2021, the Presiding Disciplinary Judge issued an order revoking James Frazier’s (attorney registration number 48979) two-year period of probation, vacating the stay on an eight-month period of suspension, and suspending him for eight months. The suspension took effect June 30, 2021.

In 2019, Frazier was suspended from the practice of law for one year, with four months to be served and eight months to be stayed upon the successful completion of a two-year period of probation. Frazier was reinstated, subject to probation, on June 3, 2020. The terms of his probation included a requirement that he work with a practice monitor.

After a hearing held under CRCP 251.7(e), the Presiding Disciplinary Judge determined that Frazier violated the terms of his probation when he failed to satisfy his practice monitoring condition.

 

No. 21PDJ048. People v. Gordon. 7/15/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ stipulation to discipline and suspended Paul Gordon (attorney registration number 21860) for six months, all stayed upon successful completion of a two-year period of probation, with conditions. The probation took effect August 19, 2021.

Gordon agreed to defend a married couple in litigation with their former lawyer related to disputes about attorney fees and billing. Gordon’s flat fee agreement covered the defense but did not include a counterclaim the couple wished to bring for legal malpractice. Gordon then offered to handle the counterclaim for an additional sum and the couple’s agreement to pay costs of an expert witness. He explained to them the need for an expert witness. Later on, Gordon decided not to obtain an expert to support either the defense theory or the counterclaim, but he did not explain to the clients his new strategy. Gordon did not prepare a confidential mediation statement in advance of mediation. Further, he did not adequately communicate with his clients about their discovery responses, nor did he follow through with them about deficiencies in those responses. When the opposing party moved to compel discovery, Gordon counseled his clients not to attend a hearing on the motion. Gordon also did not adequately advise his clients of the waiver effect that filing a malpractice action would have on their attorney-client privilege with the lawyer subject to that action.

In a separate action for the same clients, Gordon negotiated a settlement offer. The clients had not responded to the offer on the eve of a pretrial conference. Gordon did not appear for the conference, and the court noted that the clients had failed to appear. Thereafter, Gordon stopped tracking the case because he believed that one of the clients, who is a lawyer, was handling the matter. Opposing counsel filed a proposed order for final judgment, but Gordon assured his clients that they did not need to take any action. The court then entered judgment against the clients.

Through this conduct, Gordon violated Colo. RPC 1.3 (a lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness when representing a client); Colo. RPC 1.4(a)(2) (a lawyer shall reasonably consult with a client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished); Colo. RPC 1.4(a)(3) (a lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of the matter); Colo. RPC 1.4(b) (a lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions about the representation); and Colo. RPC 8.4(d) (it is professional misconduct to engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice).

 

No. 20PDJ065. People v. Greife. 7/26/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ revised conditional admission of misconduct and suspended Matthew J. Greife (attorney registration number 43487) for three years, effective August 30, 2021. To be reinstated to the practice of law, Greife must prove by clear and convincing evidence that he has been rehabilitated, has complied with disciplinary orders and rules, and is fit to practice law.

In 2016, Greife joined a law firm. He purchased the firm later that year and was the sole owner and lawyer at the firm as of late 2016. Between early 2015 and mid-2017, a client made three payments to the firm for representation in a bankruptcy matter, with a small balance outstanding. She never heard from the firm, which did not prepare or file a bankruptcy for her. She later learned that the firm had closed, and she was unable to communicate with the firm via texts and US mail. Neither Greife nor the firm retained any of the files or personal documents the client provided the firm. The firm’s records show that a payment the client made in April 2017 was never deposited in the firm’s trust account and that Greife reimbursed himself from the trust account for work he performed for other clients in late 2018. The records also show other withdrawals from the trust account, including garnishment payments that Greife did not authorize. Greife offered but has not yet refunded any portion of the client’s payments.

In another matter, the firm agreed to prepare and file bankruptcy for a couple. The couple signed a fee agreement providing for a nonrefundable setup fee and stating that if the couple decided not to file for bankruptcy all legal fees paid to that point were nonrefundable. The couple made all necessary payments by March 2017. Over the next two years, the couple and Greife corresponded; as of January 2019, the couple gave Greife almost all necessary documentation except for updated pay stubs. Though the couple then called Greife and stopped by his office several times over the following year, he never responded. Nor did he file a bankruptcy petition for them. Greife told the couple that he might refund some of their money, but he never did so.

Through this conduct, Greife violated Colo. RPC 1.3 (a lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence when representing a client); Colo. RPC 1.4(a)(2) (a lawyer shall reasonably consult with a client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished); Colo. RPC 1.4(a)(3) (a lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of the matter); Colo. RPC 1.4(a)(4) (a lawyer shall promptly comply with reasonable requests for information); Colo. RPC 1.5(f) (a lawyer does not earn fees until a benefit is conferred on the client or the lawyer performs a legal service); Colo. RPC 1.5(g) (a lawyer shall not charge nonrefundable fees or retainers); Colo. RPC 1.15A(a) (a lawyer shall hold client property separate from the lawyer’s own property); Colo. RPC 1.15D (a lawyer shall maintain trust account records); and Colo. RPC 8.4(c) (providing that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation).

 

No. 21PDJ047. People v. Hicks. 7/15/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ conditional admission of misconduct and publicly censured Ian Trevor Hicks (attorney registration number 39332) with the condition that Hicks attend a one-day ethics school. The public censure took effect July 15, 2021.

In April 2019, Hicks began representing a client with whom he had recently been sexually involved. Hicks and his client entered into a fee agreement, after which they no longer had a physical relationship. The client paid Hicks a retainer, but Hicks never completed any work for his client. In 2020, the client fired Hicks, and he ultimately refunded all her fees.

In another matter, a client hired Hicks in November 2019 to pursue an action against a car dealership. They signed a fee agreement, and the client paid Hicks a retainer. Hicks did not communicate with his client until January 2020, when his client asked about the status of the case. Hicks told his client that he would file a complaint that month, but he failed to do so. The client wanted to end the representation, but Hicks offered him a discount and assured him that the complaint would be filed the next week. However, Hicks never filed the complaint, and he did not communicate with his client until June 2020, at which time his client fired him. Hicks refunded the client’s money.

Through this conduct, Hicks violated Colo. RPC 1.3 (a lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness when representing a client); Colo. RPC 1.4(b) (a lawyer shall explain a matter so as to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation); and Colo. RPC 1.7(a)(2) (a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict with the lawyer’s personal interest).

 

No. 21PDJ051. People v. Howieson. 7/21/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ stipulation to discipline and suspended Richard A. Howieson (attorney registration number 50108) for 18 months, effective July 21, 2021. To be reinstated to the practice of law in Colorado, Howieson must prove by clear and convincing evidence that he has been rehabilitated, has complied with all applicable disciplinary orders and rules, and is fit to practice law.

In January 2021, Howieson pleaded guilty in Jefferson County District Court to a class 6 felony of obscenity—promotion to a minor. His conviction stemmed from his exchange of messages with a Jefferson County detective posing as a 14-year-old girl via cell phone and the messaging apps Kik and Whisper. During those exchanges, Howieson sent a nude photo of himself and agreed to meet his interlocutor the same day. Howieson drove to the meeting place, where he was arrested by Jefferson County Sheriff’s officers and charged with internet sexual exploitation of a child. That count was dismissed when Howieson pleaded guilty to obscenity—promotion to minor.

On March 23, 2021, Howieson was sentenced to four years of probation with conditions, including successful completion of offense-specific treatment, completion of a substance abuse evaluation and treatment, total abstinence from illegal substances, adult sex offender conditions, compliance with Colorado Computer Use Agreement, maintenance of full-time verifiable employment, payment of restitution, maintenance of a stable residence, and registration as a sex offender.

Through this conduct, Howieson violated Colo RPC 8.4(b) (it is professional misconduct to engage in conduct that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects).

 

No. 21PDJ045. People v. Jansen. 7/ 2/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ conditional admission of misconduct and suspended Molly Falk Jansen (attorney registration number 34528) for six months. The suspension was effective September 1, 2021.

In March 2019, Jansen signed a written flat fee agreement with the parents of a client charged in two separate criminal cases. Under the agreement, Jansen would earn 25% of the fee at four progressive stages of the representation. Jansen required immediate payment to begin representation in the two cases, so the day after entering the fee agreement, the client’s parents paid Jansen $30,000 in two transactions of $15,000. Jansen treated all the money as earned before meeting any of the benchmarks of the fee agreement, though she did eventually meet them.

In a separate matter, the father of one of Jansen’s former clients posted a negative review of her services on her website. She responded to the posting with statements—including references to confidential communications with her client and information learned from the representation—that contained identifying details about her client.

Through this conduct, Jansen violated Colo. RPC 1.5(a) (a lawyer shall not charge an unreasonable fee or an unreasonable amount for expenses); Colo. RPC 1.5(f) (a lawyer does not earn fees until a benefit is conferred on the client or the lawyer performs a legal service); Colo. RPC 1.6(a) (a lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent); and Colo. RPC 1.15A(a) (a lawyer shall hold client property separate from the lawyer’s own property).

 

No. 21PDJ020. People v. Lukehart. 7/6/2021.

Following an appearance by the parties under CRCP 251.29(j), the Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ stipulation and reinstated Mark Gregory Lukehart (attorney registration number 27387) to the practice of law, effective July 6, 2021.

The parties agreed that Lukehart has been rehabilitated, has complied with disciplinary orders and rules, and is fit to practice law. No opinion was issued.

 

No. 21PDJ037. People v. Murphy. 6/22/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ conditional admission of misconduct in this reciprocal discipline matter and disbarred Tim Murphy (attorney registration number 30733). The disbarment took effect June 22, 2021.

On November 4, 2020, the Court of Appeals of Maryland approved a stipulation and entered an order disbarring Murphy from the practice of law. The sanction was premised on Murphy’s violation of the Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct that address competence, diligence, communication, fees, safekeeping property, declining or terminating representation, cooperation in bar admission and disciplinary matters, and professional misconduct.

Through this conduct, Murphy engaged in conduct constituting grounds for reciprocal discipline under CRCP 251.21, which calls for imposition of the same discipline as that imposed in Maryland.

 

No. 21PDJ028. People v. Titone. 7/8/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ conditional admission of misconduct and suspended Elysia Hassebroek Titone (attorney registration number 40502) for 180 days. The suspension took effect July 8, 2021.

In September 2018, Titone began representing a client in a discrimination case that the client had filed with the Colorado Civil Rights Division (CCRD). Titone worked on the case over the next few months, but her client began having difficulty contacting her in March and April 2019. During that time, her client expected her to provide CCRD with evidence to support the client’s theory of the case. Meanwhile, Titone was waiting for her client to send her evidence, and she filed nothing further with CCRD. In June 2019, CCRD found no probable cause to support the discrimination claim. Titone emailed her client the finding and offered to meet and discuss the case. The meeting did not occur, however, and her client again was unable to reach her.

Shortly after Titone began working on the discrimination case, she helped her client pursue an insurance claim for stolen camera equipment. She warned the insurer by email and an attached letter that she would take legal action if the insurer closed the claim. Titone did not follow up on the matter with her client after sending the email and letter.

After disciplinary authorities began investigating Titone, she asserted that she had not improperly abandoned the representation. In support of that assertion, she produced a termination letter that she claimed she had sent to her client. Titone later admitted to fabricating the termination letter that she had supplied to the disciplinary authorities.

Through this conduct, Titone violated Colo. RPC 1.3 (a lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness when representing a client); Colo. RPC 1.4(a)(2) (a lawyer shall reasonably consult with a client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished); Colo. RPC 1.4(a)(3) (a lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of the matter); and Colo. RPC 8.1(a) (a lawyer shall not knowingly make a false statement of material fact in connection with a disciplinary matter).

 

No. 21PDJ038. People v. Veto. 7/23/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ conditional admission of misconduct and publicly censured Anthony Henry Veto (attorney registration number 00459), effective June 23, 2021.

Veto operates a solo practice. For the past four years, he has employed a paralegal who graduated from an online law school that is not accredited by the American Bar Association. The paralegal handles a variety of matters in Veto’s office. Veto believed that the paralegal was authorized to practice law under Colorado’s Student Practice Act (Act).

In a domestic relations case, Veto and the paralegal appeared at a hearing. When Veto attempted to offer letters into evidence and the judge questioned the letters’ admissibility, Veto had the paralegal explain to the court why the letters were not hearsay. The paralegal identified himself as a Texas student attorney and argued that he was permitted under the Act to argue before the court. In fact, the paralegal was not authorized to represent anyone under the Act or any other body of Colorado law. In another hearing, Veto and the paralegal appeared, and the paralegal made a number of legal arguments.

Later, after entering an appearance, opposing counsel filed a notice arguing that the paralegal was practicing law without a license. Veto responded in writing, arguing that the paralegal was under his supervision, was a registered student attorney in Texas and New Mexico, and was in good standing in both jurisdictions. The underlying matter concluded before the judge addressed the unauthorized practice of law issue.

Through this conduct, Veto violated Colo. RPC 5.3(a) (a partner or lawyer with comparable managerial authority shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that a firm implements measures to reasonably assure that nonlawyer employees’ conduct is compatible with the lawyer’s professional obligations) and Colo. RPC 5.5(a)(3) (a lawyer shall not assist a person who is not authorized to practice law to perform any activity that constitutes the unauthorized practice of law).

 

No. 21PDJ053. People v. Whitsitt. 7/26/2021.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ stipulation to discipline and suspended Travis Daniel Whitsitt (attorney registration number 46770) for one year and one day, with six months to be served and the remainder to be stayed pending his completion of a two-year period of probation requiring him to comply with the conditions of probation in his criminal case. His suspension was effective August 30, 2021.

In December 2019, Whitsitt and his ex-wife had an argument that turned physical. Whitsitt’s ex-wife attempted to leave the room, but he blocked the door. After she hit him in the stomach, he struck her face with the back of his hand, breaking her nose. Whitsitt pleaded guilty in Larimer County to third-degree assault as an act of domestic violence and was sentenced to two years of supervised probation. The probation requires that Whitsitt abstain from alcohol and drugs, attend domestic violence counseling, refrain from contacting his ex-wife, and perform 100 hours of community service. Whitsitt is currently in compliance with his criminal probation.

Through this conduct, Whitsitt violated Colo RPC 8.4(b) (a lawyer shall not commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects).