Lawyer's license annulled

February 15, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - The license of Martinsburg attorney Keith Wheaton was annulled last month after the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled he had committed 31 violations of the state's Rules of Professional Conduct, including using clients' money for his own use, failing to refund unearned retainers and lying to clients about filing cases.

A press release was sent out Monday from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel regarding the annulment of Wheaton's license. A formal order annulling his license was filed on Jan. 20.

Wheaton also failed to establish a trust fund for clients' funds, did not keep clients apprised of the status of their cases, failed to advise clients of settlement offers, did not distribute funds to third parties and lied in the past to members of the disciplinary counsel when questioned under oath, records state.


Wheaton did not dispute the allegations, records state.

Wheaton could not be reached for comment. His home number is unlisted and his office number had been disconnected. A message left at the Charleston, W.Va., office of his attorney, Katherine Dooley, was not returned.

According to the court's 30-page opinion, Wheaton was admitted to the practice of law on May 1, 1995, and opened his law office in Martinsburg in May 1996.

Justices' dissent

Justice Larry Starcher, who filed a dissenting opinion, wrote that Wheaton was encouraged to open a law practice in Martinsburg to help meet the needs of under-served African-Americans. Wheaton is black.

"Mr. Wheaton, inexperienced and on his own in a new area, got in way over his head, and made some serious errors of judgment," wrote Starcher, who supported a three-year suspension rather than annulment.

Former Justice Warren McGraw, who was not re-elected last fall, also opposed revoking Wheaton's license.

Justices Joseph Albright, Robin Jean Davis and Elliott Maynard supported the decision.

Detailing Wheaton's actions, the opinion states that Wheaton told several prospective clients that he had filed civil lawsuits on their behalf, when he had not.

Also, Wheaton was charged twice with felony counts of writing worthless checks, including a $10,000 check that he was supposed to write for a client whom he had successfully represented. Wheaton instead used the money to pay for closing costs of his home, records allege.

Both of the criminal charges eventually were dismissed.

Supreme Court justices heard arguments in Wheaton's case on Sept. 8 and Sept. 9, 2003, after which they recommended annulment. Wheaton continued to practice but was "winding down" his practice in anticipation of his license being suspended, the court's opinion states.

According to the court's ruling, Wheaton argued that his license should be suspended rather than revoked, saying that he had no prior disciplinary record, was inexperienced in the practice of law and because he fully and freely disclosed information to the disciplinary board. He also said he was remorseful, records state.

In response, the justices wrote that while Wheaton had no prior record of misconduct, the infractions spanned from 1997 to 2002. They also acknowledged that he was inexperienced, but that that did not justify his "dishonest behavior."

The justices also responded to his claims of remorse.

"Finally, Mr. Wheaton states that he is remorseful and did not realize the impact of his actions on his clients until he heard them testify at the disciplinary hearings. He apologized to his clients and expressed regret and remorse for his actions and inactions, and it was specifically found by the Board that Mr. Wheaton expressed genuine remorse for his actions," according to the court's opinion. "While Mr. Wheaton's remorse is a mitigating factor, the impact of Mr. Wheaton's actions on his clients far outweighs any mitigation. Three clients lost their causes of action forever because the statute of limitations ran on their claims."

Some black clients hired Wheaton specifically because of his race, the opinion said.

"These clients ... feel doubly betrayed by his actions," the opinion states.

'Effective deterrent'

When making a decision, the Supreme Court justices had to impose a penalty that would not only punish the attorney but would "serve as an effective deterrent to other members of the Bar and at the same time restore public confidence in the ethical standards of the legal profession," the opinion states.

They wrote of Wheaton's case: "Based on the severity of Mr. Wheaton's misconduct and the duration of time involved, as well as the financial and emotional impact his actions had on his clients, the only adequate discipline that would serve the public policy interests is annulment of Mr. Wheaton's law license."

A footnote in the opinion states that Wheaton can seek reinstatement after a five-year period. If he does so, the court will require Wheaton to repay a total of $1,250 to three different clients, demonstrate that he has an understanding of the Rules of Professional Conduct, undertake 18 hours of ethics and office management continuing legal education and submit to having his practice supervised for at least two years.

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