The newly-branded Turkey of the Month (f/k/a Jackass of the Month) Award goes to David J. Steele. An attorney since 2003, Mr. Steele was disbarred by the Indiana Supreme Court, which charged him with eight counts of misconduct involving among other things “theft of client funds, retaliatory disclosures of clients’ confidential information, pervasive dishonesty, and a pattern of conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.” See In re David J. Steele, 49S00-1509-DI-527 (Dec. 1, 2015).
The verified complaint and Mr. Steele’s affidavit of consent to discipline confirmed Steele’s “typical practice” of instructing his office staff to overbill clients. One illustrative example was the following email from Steele to his office manager regarding a particular client:
I simply cannot tell you how tired [I] am of these people. How tired [I] am of hearing about the stupid f***ing transcripts she ordered on her own and [ ] expects me to split with her. . . . You added a line to her January bill right? A line that said, ‘emails and phone calls to and from client, prepare for hearing,’ right? How much time did we put down for that? I think [I] only told you like 4.5 hours right? Well f*** that. If she wants me to split the cost of those f***ing transcripts [I] told her not to get, add another 1.5 hours to that line ok?
When the office manager questioned his unethical conduct, Steele reminded his employee that he had fired the prior office manager when that person had questioned his unethical conduct. In one email, Steele wrote the office manager:
I very sincerely love that you get it – there is no giving back money unless we really trashy [sic] have to. And even then, [I] make them ask[.] I don’t write checks to my clients[,] other way around. . . . Would you believe that [the prior office manager] used to f***ing argue with me about it. Argue that we should give these people their money back, ALL their money. The money [I] used to pay their salaries. It was wildly difficult. One of the many reasons [I] fired my boy.
Steele fired the office manager after two months, and the office manager reported him to the Indiana bar. Thereafter, Steele sent numerous threatening emails and text messages to intimidate the office manager and dissuade the person’s cooperation with the disciplinary investigation.
The Indiana Supreme Court held that Steele’s conduct warranted the ultimate sanction of disbarment, findingthat “the seriousness, scope, and sheer brazenness of [his] misconduct is outrageous.” Indeed, the Indiana court concluded as follows:
He stole approximately $150,000 from his clients, threatened and intimidated his staff, disparaged and mocked virtually everyone around him, lied to all comers, and obstructed the Commission’s investigation. Perhaps most disturbingly, Respondent repeatedly and fundamentally breached the duty of confidentiality that lies at the heart of the attorney-client relationship. Respondent recorded privileged communications and shared those recordings with others for his own amusement, he solicited his office staff to do the same, and he posted client confidences and falsehoods on a legal marketing website in order to “punish” certain clients and inflate Respondent’s own website ranking.
Steele’s misconduct, which the Indiana Supreme Court held amounted to a “pattern of systemic and wide-ranging misconduct,” left no doubt that disbarment was the only appropriate sanction.
The complaint should be mandatory reading for any law school professional responsibility class.
Congratulations, Mr. Steele!