Lawyers keep licenses despite repeat offenses

  • Article by: LORA PABST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 19, 2010 - 9:55 PM

Clients can file multiple complaints about a lawyer, but few are disbarred because of it, experts say.

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When Jack Frestedt, shown with his wife, Jeannie, needed a lawyer to help with his child support case in January, he looked in the phone book and found William D. Paul. Frestedt later filed a complaint with a state board after a court date was missed.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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When Jack Frestedt of Duluth needed a lawyer to help with his child support case in January, he flipped through the phone book and found William D. Paul, who agreed to handle the matter for $1,500. Four months later, unhappy with his lawyer for missing a court date, Frestedt filed a complaint with the state board that oversees the profession.

If Frestedt had checked with the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board before hiring Paul, he would have found out that 11 other clients had filed complaints against the Duluth lawyer over the past two decades. Since 1991, Paul has been disciplined seven times. Several complaints are pending. In November, citing several instances of unprofessional conduct, the board moved to suspend Paul's license. The recommendation will be reviewed by the state Supreme Court, which oversees attorney conduct.

"I think he should lose his license," Frestedt said. "There was nobody there in court to represent me."

Paul and his attorney, Mark Gehan, declined to comment.

The state is not pursuing disbarment for Paul. Martin Cole, who heads the board's office, said the state Supreme Court rarely takes such action. In 2009, five lawyers were disbarred and nineteen were suspended in Minnesota.

"The ways you can get to disbarment are through major acts of dishonesty or criminal activity," Cole said. "There are very few instances where attorneys have been disbarred for being repeat offenders."

Paul isn't the only Minnesota lawyer who has kept his license after multiple disciplinary actions. Alan Albrecht, a Brooklyn Center lawyer, was suspended in March for two years after being disciplined 13 times for misconduct, including neglecting client matters, failing to comply with the terms of his probation and failing to properly handle client funds.

Discipline racked up over the years

Frestedt, a former Duluth city employee, needed help navigating a complicated child support case this year. He was supposed to go to court in February to explain his financial situation. On the morning of the hearing, Frestedt said, his lawyer told him that he could skip the proceeding.

Paul was scolded by the judge, who said in a court filing that the attorney's last-minute request to delay the hearing was "unreasonable and without good cause." Ultimately, the judge reduced Frestedt's child support payments, but he ended up paying for insurance that his daughter's mother used to cover.

Frestedt's complaint has been referred to arbitration.

Michelle Foucault also hired Paul for a family court case. She paid him $1,250 to help her terminate the parental rights of her son's father. Because both she and the boy's father agreed on the decision, she didn't think it would be a difficult process. But she said Paul didn't return phone calls and never told her the status of the case. A year later, the matter was resolved after her son's father hired another lawyer.

"For as many times as he's been in trouble before, I'd really like to see him lose his license," Foucault said.

In court records, Paul denied neglecting Foucault's case. His attorney said Paul "moved quickly to bring the matter to a resolution."

The Supreme Court publicly reprimanded Paul and put him on probation for two years in 2000 for professional misconduct involving two complaints, including neglecting client matters and failing to cooperate with the investigation. Four years later, he was placed on a two-year probation for neglecting a client matter that was not publicly disclosed by the board. He received two additional warnings in 2006. The current case isn't likely to be resolved until next spring, Cole said.

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  • What to expect from a lawyer

    To see if a lawyer has been disciplined, go to bit.ly/bx1iH2.

    Lawyers must abide by certain "Rules of Professional Conduct." View the rules at most libraries in the Court Rules volume of Minnesota Statutes, or read them online at bit.ly/9L5I0A.

    If you think a lawyer has acted unprofessionally, you can file a complaint with the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility. Call 651-296-3952, 1-800-657-3601 or go to bit.ly/bP636r.

    They can also help you if your lawyer caused you to lose money by acting dishonestly. To seek reimbursement from the Client Security Fund, go to mncourts.gov/csb.

    JANE FRIEDMANN
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