John M. Sharp, who was a managing partner in the law firm of Sharp, Henry, Cerniglia,Colvin, Weaver and Hymel in Alexandria, faces being disbarred if the Louisiana Supreme Court accepts the recommendation of the the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board, which considered Sharp’s case on Jan. 29.
Sharp, one of three attorneys who could receive payment from the city’s litigation against Cleco, is accused of keeping “funds owed to his firm” instead of tyrning over money he received when he settled the claims of Kenneth and Shelly Brady in September 2004, according to the Disciplinary Board’s ruling.
“Mr. Sharp in fact settled the claims of Mr. and Mrs. Brady in September, 2004, but did so ‘off the books’ of the firm for $150,000. ODC further alleges that Mr. Sharp kept the firm’s contingency fee of $50,000 for himself,” the ruling states. Sharp told his partners the case had settled, but that he had waived the fee as a gesture of goodwill for “an old friend.”
Not believing Sharp, according to the ruling, the partners sought an investigator to ask the Mr. Brady whether Sharp had charged and fee. Brady confirmed Sharp charged a fee.
When questioned, Sharp admitted that he did not deposit the settlement funds into his law firm’s trust account, and that he allowed the Bradys to take all of the settlement funds without him taking the firm’s fees and expenses. He, however, denied he intended to permanently deprive his law firm of the fees and expenses owed to it. Instead, Sharp claimed that his intentions was “only to assist the Bradys in overcoming their financial difficulties.”
During the investigation, Sharp claimed that his “failure to properly account for the funds and turn them over to the law firm was his lack of focus and attention brought upon by his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”
On Jan. 29, 2009, the Disciplinary Board determined:
Bernstein and Kelly decisions, the Court confirmed that disbarment is the baseline sanction for converting funds owed to a lawyer’s firm. In the present case, Mr. Sharp has committed other misconduct in addition to converting funds owed to his firm. Mr. Sharp failed to separate firm property from client property. He also failed to safeguard client property because he did not properly apply Mr. Brady’s cash payment to the debt owed to the law firm. Mr. Sharp’s misconduct is marked by aggravating factors which well outweigh mitigating factors. A downward departure from the baseline is therefore unwarranted. Mr. Sharp should therefore be disbarred from the practice of law. Mr. Sharp should also be assessed with all costs and expenses of these proceedings.
THE FORMAL CHARGES
The formal charges in this matter read, in pertinent part, as follows:
The respondent was retained by Kenneth & Shelley Brady to represent
their interests and the interests of their two minor daughters in connection with a
personal injury matter arising out of an automobile accident. On or around
December 1, 2003, the respondent received settlement checks on behalf the
Brady’s two minor daughters totaling $4,500.00 and deferred reimbursing any out
of pocket expenses or attorney’s fees until such time as the parents’ personal
injury claims were resolved. Thereafter, on or around September 3, 2004, the
respondent successfully settled the claim of Kenneth Brady for $100,000.00 and
Shelley Brady for $50,000.00. During the time of settlement, the respondent
directed the adjuster for Amica Insurance Company to forward the funds directly
to him using his own taxpayer identification number rather than that of the law
firm with which he was affiliated and under whose contingency fee contract the
clients were originally signed.
The respondent failed to deposit the settlement drafts into the law firm’s
trust account thus depriving the firm of both its fees and expenses.
The respondent’s conduct and conversion of funds was discovered when
the law firm with whom he was previously associated conducted a routine audit.
An independent investigation into the respondent’s representation of the Bradys
was launched and it was at that time that the firm discovered that the monies from
the Kenneth & Shelley Brady claims had not been properly deposited into the law
firm’s trust account. The firm discovered that, as regards Shelley Brady’s
settlement funds, the respondent requested that the adjuster change the tax
identification number on her check from the law firm’s to his personal tax
identification number. Upon being confronted by his partners, the respondent
represented to them that Kenneth Brady was “an old friend” and he had therefore
not charged the Bradys a fee for his services. In truth and in fact, Kenneth &
Shelley Brady had not met the respondent prior to the commencement of his
representation. In truth and in fact the respondent did charge both a fee and