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NO. PR-99-04

IN RE: THOMAS E. LAWTON JR

Last known office address:
10 Bridge St.
Lowell, MA 01852

ORDER OF PUBLIC REPRIMAND

This matter came before the Board on a Petition for Discipline and a Stipulation of the Parties waiving hearing and requesting that the matter be resolved by the imposition of a public reprimand. On May 10, 1999, the Board voted to accept the stipulation of the parties and their joint recommendation to administer a public reprimand to Mr. Lawton without further proceedings before a hearing Committee. A summary of the charges giving rise to the reprimand is attached to this order.

Whereupon, pursuant to Supreme Judicial Court Rule 4:01, Sect. 8(2), and the Rules of the Board of Bar Overseers, Sect. 3.57, it is ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that THOMAS E. LAWTON, Jr, Esq. be and hereby is PUBLICLY REPRIMANDED.

Administered: June 10, 1999

By: Robert V. Costello

Board of Bar Overseers

Summary1

In January 1995, a client retained the respondent and paid him a $5,000 retainer to institute post-divorce contempt proceedings against her ex-husband for failure to pay child support and other obligations. After reviewing the files and pleadings from the client's divorce case, the respondent filed a contempt complaint on her behalf in April 1995. A hearing on the contempt was set for May 1995, but the respondent failed to effect timely service on the ex-husband. Consequently, a new summons had to be issued, and the hearing was put over until October 1995. The respondent took no further action until September 1995, when he had the contempt complaint and the new summons served on the ex-husband.

In early October 1995, shortly before the contempt hearing, the ex-husband informed the respondent that he would be on vacation on the date of the hearing and that he intended to seek a postponement. The respondent told the ex-husband that he would oppose any continuance. The respondent attended the hearing as scheduled. The ex-husband had not sought a continuance and did not appear. Because the respondent had not given his client the correct location and address of the courthouse, she also missed the hearing. The respondent was unable to seek issuance of a capias or entry of a default against the ex-husband, and the matter was continued for another four weeks. The client then contacted her ex-husband directly, obtained a payment on the arrearages, discharged the respondent, and asked the respondent to discontinue the contempt proceeding. After another court appearance by the respondent, the action was continued generally in November 1995.

In March 1996, the respondent sent the client billing statements reflecting costs of $75 and total charges of $4,575 for his services in the case. He returned to her $350 as the balance of her retainer. The fees claimed by the respondent and set forth in his billing statements were substantially inflated, unwarranted or unearned and were clearly excessive under the circumstances. In April 1996, the client demanded a refund of her entire retainer. The respondent failed to make any refund until the spring of 1999, when he remitted $4,000 as the remaining payment due the client.

The respondent's conduct violated Canon Two, DR 2-106(A) and (B) [charging or collecting a clearly excessive fee] and DR 2-110(A)(3) [failing to make prompt refund of unearned fee paid in advance], Canon Six, DR 6-101(A)(2) and (3) [handling a legal matter without adequate preparation; neglecting a legal matter], Canon Seven, DR 7-101(A)(1) and (2) [failing to represent a client zealously], and Canon Nine, DR 9-102(B)(4) [failing promptly to pay over funds to which client is entitled.

In addition, between about January 1994 and December 1996, the respondent maintained IOLTA and personal bank accounts into which he deposited both business or personal funds and advance fee payments received from clients. The respondent made disbursements from both accounts to pay business or personal expenses, but he failed to make or maintain adequate records of his deposits and disbursements and failed to assure the accuracy of his withdrawals from the accounts for fees as he earned them. As a result, from time to time, the respondent negligently used client funds from the accounts to pay his own obligations without causing deprivation to the clients. The respondent's failure to maintain segregated IOLTA or other fiduciary accounts, his commingling and negligent misuse of client funds, and his failure to keep required records for those funds violated Canon Nine, DR 9-102(A), (B)(3), and (C).

In May 1999, this matter came before the Board of Bar Overseers on an agreed recommendation for discipline by public reprimand based on a stipulation of facts and disciplinary violations. In aggravation, the parties stipulated that the respondent had substantial experience in domestic relations practice at the time of his misconduct. The parties also stipulated that the following factors could be considered in mitigation: the respondent subsequently attended a course on law office management; he refunded the balance of the unearned fee payments in the contempt matter; and he was under stress during the relevant period due to serious, ongoing family illnesses and other personal problems. The parties further stipulated that the respondent had no history of discipline.

When the matter was submitted to the Board, the respondent was closing his law office in preparation for a move to another state, where he intended to seek non-legal employment. The respondent then expected to cease the practice of law by June 30, 1999. He agreed that if he continued to practice after that date or later resumed practice in Massachusetts, he would comply with probationary conditions requiring him to acquire legal malpractice insurance, establish and maintain proper trust accounts and records, have the records audited by an accountant, and furnish periodic certifications by the accountant to Bar Counsel.

The Board adopted the parties' recommendation. On June 10, 1999, the Board imposed a public reprimand subject to the stated conditions.

1 Compiled by the Board of Bar Overseers based on the record of proceedings.



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