Disciplinary Actions Rise Against Lawyers Who Commit Acts of Domestic Violence: Know The Warning Signs

Michael E. McCabe, Jr.Attorney Domestic Violence, Discipline, Moral turpitide0 Comments

The statistics of reported cases of domestic violence are stunning.  According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), 1 in 3 adult women and 1 in 4 adult men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner.  Moreover, 1 in 4 women have been victims of “severe physical violence by an intimate partner” in their lifetime.

The NCADV reports that:

The overarching strategy used by abusers is referred to as coercive control. Coercive control includes a combination of abusive tactics such as isolation, degradation, micromanagement, manipulation, stalking, physical abuse, sexual coercion, threats and punishment.ii An abuser may use some of these tactics or vary when they use them, but combined and used over time, they are effective in establishing dominance over their victim.

Domestic Violence By Attorneys

An article published by the ABA Journal addresses the prevalence of domestic violence incidents by members of the legal profession.  Usually, these matters come to the attention of Bar Counsel as a result of a lawyer’s criminal conviction arising from a domestic violence incident.  In many jurisdictions, attorneys are required to self-report convictions to Bar Counsel.  USPTO practitioners, for example, are must report  all misdemeanor and felony convictions–including no contest pleas, deferred adjudications, and Alford pleas–to the OED Director.  See 37 C.F.R. Section 11.25.

We have previously reported on the intersection of domestic violence, legal ethics, and attorney discipline.  See What Can Johnny Manziel Teach Lawyers About Ethics? Plenty (July 12, 2016) (here); How Disciplinary Authorities Treat Attorneys Convicted of Domestic Violence (Oct. 1, 2015) (here); Domestic Violence Conviction Nets Attorney USPTO Reprimand (Sept. 17, 2014) (here).

A recent disciplinary case arising from a domestic violence incident is illustrative.  See State ex rel. Oklahoma Bar Assoc. v. Hastings, Case No. SCBD-6261 (Ok. May 16, 2017) (here).  Mr. Hastings was an Oklahoma lawyer.  On December 30, 2014, police were called to his residence after he pointed a gun at his ex-wife and threatened her life.  During the lawyer’s 27-year marriage, there were “years of prolonged domestic violence by the ex-wife against Respondent.  The ex-wife made an attempt on his life with butcher knife in addition to other forms of abuse that included plots to end his life.”  On the night in question, Mr. Hastings had been on a drinking binge and was “agitated and hostile by the time his ex-wife was inside his home.”  While the record is unclear regarding how the matter escalated, at some point Mr. Hastings pointed a gun at his ex-wife and made threatening statements.  He was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of pointing a firearm, entered a no contest plea, and received a 2-year deferred sentence.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court found that based on Mr. Hastings’ conduct, he violated Rule 8.4(b), which states that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.  The Court suspended the attorney for two years.

Interestingly (or sadly) the Court’s opinion is replete with examples of other attorney disciplinary cases involving or arising from incidents of domestic violence.  In one of the cited cases, State ex rel. Okla. Bar Ass’n v. Zannotti, 2014 OK 25 (2014) (copy here), the Court imposed a two-year suspension from an attorney’s conviction of domestic assault and battery on his girlfriend and malicious injury to her property.  The Court warned:

As incidents of domestic and intimate partner abuse rise and become the focus of legislation . . . and public attention, it becomes more incumbent on this Court to protect the public by sending a message to other lawyers that this misconduct is considered a serious breach of a lawyer’s ethical duty and will not be tolerated.

The ABA article also cites to the increase in cases of domestic violence committed by attorneys due to greater public awareness.  The ABA article states that as the number of criminal or civil incidents are reported against attorneys, so to has there been “an upward trend” in attorney disciplinary cases arising from domestic violence.

The Warning Signs

The NCADV identifies some of the more prevalent abusive tactics used to establish dominance and control over a partner by an abuser.  An abuser, for example, may:

• Be extremely jealous and/or possessive
• Try to convince others they are the true victim in the relationship
• Blame the victim for causing them to abuse them
• Be extremely controlling
• Be rigid in their beliefs about roles of women and men in relationships
• Be particularly interested in guns or weapons
• Be forceful with sex or disrespectful of their partner’s wishes around sex
• Be vigilant about their partner’s every move
• Blame their partner for anything bad that happens
• Have a bad temper or are easily angered
• Come from a violent household
• Sabotage or obstruct their partner’s ability to work or attend school
• Control all the finances in the relationship

Looking to the Future

Jane Sandwood, a former domestic violence counselor who works for a substance abuse campaign site, says her group is “determined to help victims and prevent new ones.”  Her organization, On the Wagon, provides information and resources for women, children, and families on the warning signs to look for, types of abuse, and resources for victims of domestic violence.  In an email to IPethics & INsights, Ms. Sandwood writes:

Domestic violence is a crime that causes more deaths and injuries than rape, mugging, and traffic accidents combined, according to data from the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice.

According to Ms. Sandwood, “increased awareness of just how serious an issue domestic violence can be has led to a growing demand for legal intervention to put a stop to it.  This hefty responsibility falls to the judiciary in cooperation with the police, yet advocates and solicitors also have an important role in bringing the perpetrators to justice.”

We applaud organizations like On the Wagon and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence for their continuing efforts at educating the public and preventing this ever-increasing problem, both in our society generally and in the legal profession specifically.

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