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Mississippi Bar v. Johnson

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

May 9, 2019

THE MISSISSIPPI BAR
v.
MERRY CAITLIN JOHNSON

          COURT 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

          ISHEE, JUSTICE

         ¶1. 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.

         FACTS

         ¶2. 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.

         ¶3. 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 hearing.

         ¶4. 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 Mississippi Bar.

         ¶5. 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.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶6. "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. 2003)).

         STATEMENT OF THE ISSUES

         ¶7. Two issues are presented:

         I. Did Johnson violate MRPC 8.1?

         II. Did the Complaint Tribunal impose ...


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