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Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board v. Suarez-Quilty

Supreme Court of Montana

May 18, 2018


          On appeal from the report of the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission.

         An attorney appeals a report of the grievance commission recommending we revoke her license to practice law in this state.

          Elizabeth E. Quinlan, Des Moines, for complainant.

          David L. Brown of Hanson, McClintock & Riley, Des Moines, for respondent.

          ZAGER, JUSTICE.

         The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board (Board) brought a complaint against an attorney that alleged multiple violations of the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct, including the misappropriation of funds in her representation of two clients. The Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission (commission) found numerous violations of our ethical rules and recommended a revocation of her license to practice law in this state. After our de novo review of the record, we agree with the recommendation of the commission and revoke the attorney's license to practice law in the State of Iowa.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         Attorney Sandra Suarez-Quilty has been licensed to practice law in the State of Iowa since 2000. During the period of the conduct giving rise to this disciplinary action, Suarez-Quilty was a solo practitioner in Des Moines, Iowa, where she provided legal services primarily in the areas of immigration law, family law, and criminal law. Suarez-Quilty stipulated to all facts contained in the Board's final complaint, which are described as follows.

         A. McElroy Matter.

         Suarez-Quilty represented Darlena McElroy in a guardianship case involving McElroy's elderly father, Percy McElroy (Percy). After McElroy was enjoined from acting on Percy's behalf, Suarez-Quilty and McElroy met with Percy on January 29, 2013, without the knowledge or consent of his attorney, Jessica Chandler, or his guardian ad litem, Sarah Dewein. While she was meeting with Percy, Suarez-Quilty left Chandler a voicemail proclaiming, "I am sitting with your client . . . and we have some things we would like to discuss with you." Chandler returned the call immediately to ask why Suarez-Quilty was meeting with Percy, to which Suarez-Quilty responded, "I represent him now."

         In a second phone call that day, Suarez-Quilty informed Chandler that McElroy was going to remove Percy from his location. Dewein and a social worker immediately responded to Percy's location to find Suarez-Quilty there with Percy. When Dewein confronted Suarez-Quilty with a copy of the injunction enjoining McElroy from acting as Percy's guardian, Suarez-Quilty continued to insist that McElroy would act as Percy's guardian. Despite these facts, at a hearing in this case conducted on February 8, Suarez-Quilty told the judge, "I did not visit with Mr. McElroy [on January 29] with regard to anything as it relates to this specific matter."

         B. Unauthorized Practice of Law.

         Suarez-Quilty was convicted of operating while under the influence of alcohol (OWI), second offense on February 11, 2013. Her license to practice law in Iowa was subsequently suspended due to disability from February 15 until June 4. On April 18, during her suspension, Suarez-Quilty contacted attorney Christine Branstad in the course of representing a client in a child visitation matter. Through the exchange of numerous emails, Suarez-Quilty negotiated visitation for her client. About a week later, Suarez-Quilty emailed Branstad again on behalf of her client stating, "Until official reinstatement (any day), service will be accepted by [another attorney]." It was at this point that Branstad learned that Suarez-Quilty's license was suspended. When Branstad informed Suarez-Quilty that she was acting improperly, Suarez-Quilty disagreed and told Branstad that she was "in compliance and acting in conformity therewith . . . . feel free to ask . . . about anything you wish prior to making such hefty allegations as it has been a hard enough road."

         C. Trust Account Issues.

         Following an audit that was initiated on March 27, 2013, the auditor's report showed Suarez-Quilty had the following deficiencies: "Failure to properly deposit client receipts into the trust account" on several occasions; "[f]ailure to maintain a receipt and disbursements journal;" "[f]ailure to maintain ledger records;" "[f]ailure to maintain accountings to clients;" "[f]ailure to maintain copies of bills;" "[f]ailure to maintain a checkbook register;" "[f]ailure to maintain records of all electronic transfers from client trust accounts;" "[f]ailure to prepare written monthly reconciliations of the client trust account bank statements to the check register, monthly reconciliations of check register to client account totals, and a monthly trial balance of open client account balances;" "[f]ailure to deposit advance fee and expense payments;" and "[f]ailure to provide notification upon withdrawal of fee or expense." Another audit report dated July 3, 2014, revealed many of the same deficiencies with the exception of failure to maintain accounting to clients, failure to maintain copies of client billing statements, and failure to provide clients with timely notifications upon her withdrawal of fees or expenses. Suarez-Quilty also failed to provide the auditor with all records requested between December 2013 and April 2014.

         D. Ferazz Matter.

         Stephen Ferazz retained Suarez-Quilty to represent him in a custody modification matter on May 8, 2014. He gave Suarez-Quilty a $1500 retainer, but they did not enter into a written fee agreement. On May 30, Suarez-Quilty withdrew this $1500 from her trust account, yet did not provide Ferazz with a contemporaneous billing statement. She did not communicate with Ferazz between June 18 and July 22.

         It is unclear when the opposing party sent Suarez-Quilty the draft of a modification agreement, but the opposing party contacted Suarez-Quilty on July 7 asking for clarification. On July 22, Suarez-Quilty emailed Ferazz informing him that she spent fifteen hours on his case and she needed him to pay the balance. Ferazz requested an itemization of his $1500 fee payment. On July 24, in the presence of another attorney, Ferazz telephonically severed his attorney-client relationship with Suarez-Quilty. Suarez-Quilty subsequently emailed him ...

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