NASHVILLE -- A harsh economic environment is being cited as the reason for a rise in the number of Tennessee lawyers disciplined for stealing or misusing client funds. And some attorneys are taking money from clients and then closing shop without performing the legal services they were paid to do.
"Some lawyers are just abandoning their practices because they can't make their business model work, and they're not telling their clients and they're not telling the judges," said Nancy S. Jones, chief disciplinary counsel for the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility. The panel disciplines lawyers for ethical violations.
"Clients have been calling our office saying, 'I can't find my lawyer,"' Jones said. "It's been a nightmare for everyone involved."
Some don't even bother to show up for disciplinary hearings, she said. "They're just nowhere to be found. They just walked out one day and never came back."
That's what 75-year-old Aaron Lehman said happened to him after he paid $1,500 to an Atoka, Tenn., lawyer to help him get his alimony payments reduced.
Lehman, who lives in Atoka, hired Jewel Guy Boozer thinking he was getting first-rate legal assistance. Instead, he said, the lawyer kept dodging his phone calls until one day he discovered that Boozer had just closed his office, leaving him and several other clients in the lurch.
Lehman said he thought lawyers were supposed to treat people better.
"I never would have believed that he would have begun to do something like this," said Lehman, who works three days a week for J.C. Penny's.
Boozer has since been disbarred after Lehman and numerous other people filed complaints against him with the TBPR. Boozer could not be reached for comment.
Lehman says he never got his $1,500 back.
"I'm 75 years old," Lehman said. "I should be sitting on a recliner or sitting on a bank fishing and I'm still working, and that little bit of money would sure help."
Jones said some lawyers, many of them sole practitioners who work on criminal or divorce cases, are having a hard time staying afloat because they aren't getting enough business. Many of them are dipping into their trust accounts -- which contain monies such as court costs, expert witness fees and settlement disbursements -- just to pay toward their business expenses and they are getting into trouble.
"I think that lawyers are not making enough money to pay their personal expenses, and they think 'I'll get the money, I'll put the money back, nobody will know about it and it will be fine,' and they just keep on doing it until they get in an overdraft situation and then we find out about it," Jones said. She compared it to a Ponzi scheme that eventually comes crashing down.
The board met in December to discuss how to address the rising number of lawyers being disciplined for having overdrafts in their trust accounts. Figures show that within the last five years, the board has nearly doubled the amount of disciplinary actions it has taken against lawyers for having overdrafts in trust accounts, up from 64 in fiscal year 2007-2008 to 127 violations last fiscal year.
Disbarments have also risen. The Tennessee Supreme Court disbarred 13 lawyers last year, up from nine the previous year. The TBPR also has 73 petitions for discipline pending. And there were approximately 565 open investigative files in December, according to the TBPR.
It's not clear whether this is a problem with lawyers outside the boundaries of Tennessee.
"We just don't track that kind of data on a national level," said Sara Rittman, president of the National Organization of Bar Counsel.
The public can go to the TBPR web site to see if an attorney has been disciplined in the past or if there are any pending disciplinary actions against a lawyer.
Clients who have lost money due to an unscrupulous lawyer can apply for assistance through the Tennessee Lawyer's Fund for Client Protection. But there's only so much money in the fund, and not all clients can recover their lost legal fees.
Kimberly Carter of Jonesborough was out $2,325 after giving Bristol attorney Kristen Morrell the money to represent her in a divorce.
"I cannot afford another attorney," Carter said in a letter she wrote to the TBPR. "She took my money, provided no service, and I have no way to contact her."
The TBPR suspended Morrell in April for four years from the practice of law and ordered her to pay restitution to four clients.
Attempts to reach Morrell were unsuccessful.
Tina Osteen said she hasn't recovered the $500 she paid to former Wilson County attorney Samuel Mingledorff to get an uncontested divorce. The Nashville woman said she reported Mingledorff to the board because he hadn't filed the divorce paperwork eight months after she gave him the money in 2008 and he wouldn't return her calls or answer his door.
"I realized that he pretty much took my money and did not do what he was supposed to do," Osteen said.
Mingledorff, who has since been disbarred, declined to be interviewed.
Worse than losing the $500, Osteen said Mingledorff's long delay gave her husband time to change his mind about wanting an uncontested divorce. After nearly four years, she says she is still fighting to get a divorce.
"If it would have been done correctly by Mr. Mingledorff, I would have been divorced by that time, but he didn't do anything," she said.
Osteen said she at least has the satisfaction of knowing Mingledorff has been disbarred and can't harm anyone else. But she said the experience caused her a lot of heartache and it changed the way she views attorneys.
"It made me really leery of lawyers."