PATTERSON, HAWKINS AND ANDERSON
HAWKINS, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:
The Mississippi State Bar Association has appealed from a decision of a complaint tribunal relative to Roy B. Strickland, an attorney. We find that Strickland's misconduct merits suspension from the practice of law for a period of three years.
Archie A. Lott died testate December 3, 1969. Strickland was employed to represent Mrs. Leah Lundy Lott, widow, sole devisee and executrix of his estate. In the course of the administration of this estate, a suit was filed against L. S. Broadus, who was a business partner in the retail furniture business with Lott during his lifetime. This matter was in court a number of years. Mrs. Lott died January 4, 1976, and by holographic will left all her estate to Mrs. Mildred L. Ramond, her sister. Mrs. Ramond, as executrix of Mrs. Lott's estate, kept Strickland as the attorney. The Broadus suit was kept active.
In November, 1979, the Broadus action was concluded, having theretofore been appealed to this Court and the chancery court decree affirmed. Broadus delivered a check to Strickland's office dated November 30, 1979, in the amount of $39,380.50, payable to Strickland as attorney and to Mrs. Ramond. Both Strickland and Mrs. Ramond endorsed the check. It was deposited in Strickland's personal account. Neither of the Lott estates nor Mrs. Ramond ever received any of the proceeds of this check.
Unhappy that she had received none of the check proceeds and had heard nothing from Strickland, in a few weeks Mrs. Ramond began to make inquiry as to fifty percent of this sum, which she thought she or the estate should receive. She was never able to talk with Strickland,
however, only his secretary. This situation continued until her accountant advised her to employ Joe Sam Owen, another attorney, to represent her.
Owen prepared a letter dated July 21, 1981, for Mrs. Ramond to mail to Strickland discharging him, asking for files and cash he had belonging to the estate. The letter also advised him that any claim he had for fees should be directed to the court.
On August 14, 1981, the chancery court of the First Judicial District of Harrison County entered an order in the cause that Owen would be substituted as counsel, and discharging Strickland. There was no response to Mrs. Lott's letter of July 21, and on August 26 Mrs. Lott filed a summary petition for discovery of assets under Miss. Code Ann. (1972) 91-7-103. No hearing was held on this petition. A consent "Final Decree and Judgment," signed by Strickland and Owen, was entered on November 12, 1981, allowing Strickland a fee of $15,380.50 for services rendered, and judgment against him for $24,000. The decree allowed him sixty days within which to satisfy the decree and judgment.
Strickland did not pay the $24,000, and after repeated demand, on January 15, 1982, Mrs. Lott filed a summary motion pursuant to Miss. Code Ann. (1972) 11-49-3 to require Strickland to pay the money over to her. At the hearing held later that month Mrs. Ramond testified Strickland asked her to come to his office late on Friday afternoon. When she got there and learned about Broadus paying the judgment, Strickland told her that Mrs. Lott had agreed to pay him fifty percent of the fee. She asked if there was anything in writing on this agreement, and Strickland told here there was not. She was satisfied with this fee arrangement, and took Strickland's word that there was such an agreement.
She testified further that because it was late in the afternoon and she did not want to take cash home with her, ". . . so at that time he let his secretary go to the bank and cash the money and put it in his lock box." She thought with this payment, the estate would be soon settled. (Vol. I, p.46) She further testified about the difficulty she had in trying to learn something about the funds, and finally employing Owen.
Just prior to this hearing Strickland filed a "Motion to Dismiss and Reply" to the summary motion, alleging that the funds had been assigned to him by Mrs. Lott prior to her
death, and attached a copy of the purported agreement, as follows:
MEMORANDON [SIC] AGREEMENT
In addition to other fees for representing my husband's estate, the undersigned sole beneficiary of said estate hereby sets over and assigns to Roy B. Strickland, attorney, all and any amounts he may recover from L. S. Broadus as and for a reasonable fee due to the many frustrating hours and difficulty involved in trying to establish an interest in the furniture business - no other fee for this suit will be paid.
Witness our signatures on this ___, day of June 1975.
s/Leah Lundy Lott s/Roy B. Strickland
Strickland had printed the body of this instrument and signed it. It developed he had no recollection of Mrs. Lott ever signing it. Mrs. Ramond testified at the hearing that the signature was not that of Mrs. Lott's
At the hearing Strickland testified he had deposited the check in his personal account and spent the proceeds. He stated he had told Mrs. Ramond several times it was a legal fee, and that he was depositing it into his account. He also testified she had telephoned his office, and talked to his secretary about the status of the proceeds, but the first information he had received as to any problem was the July 21, 1981, letter from her terminating his services. Strickland testified he did not think he owed anything, and would not if Mrs. Lott were still living, but he had agreed to pay the $24,000, which he intended to do. He said that with the Lott agreement he had every reason to believe there would never by any question about the money. He testified that he realized he should have come to court to get any fee arrangement approved.
The chancellor found that Strickland had no excuse for failure to pay the $24,000, and entered an order dated February 4, 1981, awarding Mrs. Ramond $26,562.25, which included interest to date, and $5.26 daily interest thereafter, and also suspended Strickland's license to practice law until he paid Mrs. Ramond the money owed her.
On February 8, 1982, with Strickland's permission, his secretary wrote a letter on the firm letterhead and signed his name to it. The letter, addressed to Jon C. Carr, stated Strickland represented Dwight Taylor, and requested Carr contact his insurance company pertaining to an accident.
On February 4, 1983, Strickland paid Mrs. Ramond $24,000 by compromise settlement of all he owed, and on February 11, 1983, the order suspending his license to practice law was vacated.
The Mississippi State Bar filed a complaint against Strickland on March 31, 1983. Strickland answered and filed an affirmative defense to the complaint, asserting an insidious alcoholism, which finally resulted in his being hospitalized. Hearing was conducted before a three-member tribunal August 3, 1983.
Amplifying what she had stated in the chancery court hearing, Mrs. Ramond testified Strickland suggested they cash the check, which was all right with her, but it would also mean she would have to take home a considerable amount of money, as she would not get home in time to bank it. Strickland then told her he would put the money in his lockbox and keep it for her, and that in six to eight weeks "we would be through with the whole thing," and that Strickland's secretary took the check to the bank, so far as she knew.
She said she initially did not become concerned because Strickland had told her the estate would be closed in about two months.
Being unable to talk to him, she finally employed Owen. She again testified that she did not recognize the signature at the bottom of the "agreement," that it was not Mrs. Lott's. A copy of Mrs. Lott's holographic will was exhibited for comparison of the handwriting.
Strickland testified in his own defense as to the difficulty and protractedness of the Broadus suit. He said Mrs. Lott was worried that the Broadus suit would ...