FROM WHICH APPEALED: COMPLAINT TRIBUNAL TRIAL JUDGE: HON.
JANNIE M. LEWIS-BLACKMON
ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: JAMES RUSSELL CLARK ADAM BRADLEY
KILGORE MELISSA SELMAN SCOTT
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: CHARLES J. MIKHAIL
This matter is before the Court on direct appeal of the
Mississippi Bar from a final order of the Complaint Tribunal.
This Bar-discipline case concerns two issues. We must
determine first whether Merry C. Johnson had a duty to
self-report her conduct under Mississippi Rule of
Professional Conduct 8.1. Second, if a duty to self-report
did exist, we must determine if the Complaint Tribunal's
sanction of a private reprimand was adequate. Finding that
Johnson breached her duty to self-report and that the
Complaint Tribunal's sanction was inadequate, we suspend
Johnson from the practice of law for three years and require
her to apply for reinstatement.
Johnson took the Mississippi Bar Examination in July 2016.
While awaiting her results, Johnson was employed as a
paralegal at Stephen L. McDavid's law firm. McDavid asked
Johnson to review a local rule of court referenced in an
order issued by Magistrate Judge Jane Virden of the United
States District Court for the Northern District of
Mississippi. Johnson misinterpreted the rule, and McDavid
relied on the incorrect interpretation. Later, Johnson
realized she had wrongly interpreted the rule. She did not
inform McDavid of her mistake; rather, she created an email
purporting to be an amended text order clarifying the
original order. The forged order had all the indicia of a
real order, including a reference that Judge Virden had
signed it. Johnson sent the email containing the forged order
to McDavid, who forwarded it to opposing counsel, Mark A.
Dreher. Dreher then informed Judge Virden's law clerk of
the email containing the forged order.
On August 26, 2016, Judge Virden entered a show-cause order
and set a hearing for three days later to determine the
circumstances surrounding the fake order. When Johnson
received the show-cause order, she confessed and apologized
to McDavid and to the court. The hearing was conducted by
phone with Johnson, McDavid, Dreher, and an associate of
Dreher's, Josh Hill. At the hearing, Judge Virden advised
all present, including Johnson, to thoroughly review their
respective obligations to report the misconduct to the Bar
and stated that the court would do the same. On September 9,
2016, the court entered an order imposing sanctions against
McDavid's firm, ordering the firm to pay opposing
counsel's fees and expenses connected to the show-cause
Johnson claims she spent three to four hours after the
hearing reviewing the Mississippi Rules of Professional
Conduct, the Rules Governing Admission to the Mississippi
Bar, and the applications she had submitted to the
Mississippi Board of Bar Admissions. Johnson claims she had
no duty to report her misconduct; therefore she did not
report the incident either to the Bar or to the Board of Bar
Admissions. Without knowledge of her misconduct, the Board of
Bar Admissions certified Johnson's Bar examination
results, and Johnson was sworn in as a member of the
Dreher reported Johnson's misconduct by letter dated
October 14, 2016, to the general counsel of the Bar. The
Bar's general counsel filed an informal complaint based
on Dreher's report. After consideration, the Committee on
Professional Responsibility directed the filing of a formal
complaint. The Bar filed the complaint, which requested
Johnson's suspension. Johnson filed a pro se answer on
January 28, 2017, and an answer amended by counsel on
February 15, 2017. On June 28, 2017, the Complaint Tribunal
entered a judgment in which Johnson was issued a private
reprimand for violation of Mississippi Rule of Professional
Conduct 8.1(b). The Bar appealed.
"This Court has exclusive and inherent
jurisdiction" over attorney-discipline matters.
Miss. Bar v. Jones, 226 So.3d 89, 91 (Miss. 2015)
(quoting Miss. Bar v. Drungole, 913 So.2d 963, 966
(Miss. 2005)). This Court conducts a de novo review in such
cases. Id. (citing Drungole, 913 So.2d at
966). While "no substantial evidence or manifest error
rule shields the [Complaint] Tribunal from scrutiny,"
this Court may defer to the Complaint Tribunal's
findings. Miss. Bar v. Ogletree, 226 So.3d 79, 82
(Miss. 2015) (alteration in original) (quoting Foote v.
Miss. Bar Ass'n, 517 So.2d 561, 564 (Miss. 1987)).
The Bar has the burden to demonstrate "by clear and
convincing evidence that [Johnson's] actions constitute
professional misconduct." Id. (quoting
Miss. Bar v. Shelton, 855 So.2d 444, 445 (Miss.
OF THE ISSUES
Two issues are presented:
Johnson violate MRPC 8.1?
the Complaint Tribunal impose ...