Minnesota lawyers set a record in 2015, but it’s nothing to boast about.
Sixty-five lawyers were publicly disciplined last year, breaking the previous record of 55 set in 1990, the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board said in its annual report Friday.
Among other disciplinary actions, the Minnesota Supreme Court suspended 47 lawyers in 2015, smashing the previous record of 27, set in 1990 and matched in 1995 and 1996.
“I wish that we knew why there was a record year, but we don’t,” said Susan M. Humiston, who took over as director of the lawyers board office in March. “It really does appear to be the fact that more people were engaged in more serious conduct.”
The office has a backlog of complaints to investigate, although it has made progress in reducing that number.
Six attorneys were disbarred in 2015:
• Jeremy Thomas Kramer of Owatonna lost his license for misappropriating client money, neglecting their cases, failing to communicate with them, failing to deposit all of their money into trust accounts, keeping money they gave him for filing fees, and failing to return their property.
• Robert David Boedigheimer was found guilty of conspiring with his brother-in-law, a marijuana dealer based in southern Minnesota, to launder proceeds from drug sales through his St. Paul law firm.
• John Tedman Heim of Rochester was found guilty of forging a client’s signature on a check and depositing the proceeds into his own business account for his own personal benefit.
• David A. Overboe was found by clear and convincing evidence “to have had unwelcome sexual contact with multiple clients, including groping and exposing himself to them, and had offered to reduce his legal fees in exchange for sexual favors.” The alleged misconduct took place over 14 years. He also was found to have practiced law in North Dakota while his license was suspended.
• Douglas A. Ruhland of Eden Valley lost his license as a result of his seventh disciplinary action since 1989. He represented a client with whom he had a conflict of interest without providing written disclosures and obtaining written consent; he misappropriated client funds, he failed to keep trust account records and books and he failed to cooperate with the lawyers board investigators.
• Robert Andrew Huff lost his license in Minnesota after he was disbarred in Illinois, an action resulting from a 2009 conviction for conspiring to distribute a large cache of marijuana.
So far, 2016 is shaping up as another busy year for lawyers in trouble.
On Friday, Minneapolis attorney Paul Hansmeier dropped his opposition to pending disciplinary proceedings arising out of hundreds of so-called porn trolling lawsuits he and some colleagues filed nationwide. Hansmeier was accused of committing a fraud on the courts, and of making substantial misrepresentations in his pending bankruptcy petition. He and the board stipulated to a recommended four-year suspension of his law license.
As of June 14, the board reported 25 public disciplinary actions in 2016, including two disbarments, a dozen suspensions, nine reprimands that resulted in probation and two other reprimands.
The lawyers board investigates allegations of wrongdoing and takes positions on the cases, but the Minnesota Supreme Court makes all disciplinary decisions, said Humiston, who previously was with the Minneapolis law firm of Stinson Leonard Street.
“Misappropriation of client funds always leads to disbarment,” Humiston said. Sanctions for other kinds of serious misconduct are less predictable.
For instance, Todd Allen Duckson, who admitted to playing a key role in a scheme that defrauded hundreds of investors in a real estate investment fund, was suspended from the practice of law in 2015 for five years — after which he can apply for reinstatement.
Five other lawyers were suspended in 2015 for three years after they were convicted of felonies involving lying to federal officials, criminal sexual misconduct, online solicitation of a minor, and participation in a trust account scam.
Humiston declined to comment on why some felonies lead to disbarment while others result in suspensions.
“Those are decisions by the court,” she said.
Suspended lawyers seeking reinstatement must go through a rigorous process to prove they underwent a moral change and are fit to practice law, Humiston said, “and it can be difficult to show moral change.”
Humiston said the Supreme Court has indicated that it wants to clear the backlog of complaints, and the board has made progress in doing so, reducing the annual backlog from 650 at the start of 2015 to 528 by the end of the year. Between 70 and 80 percent of complaints are dismissed each year, with just under half dismissed without any investigation.
It can take a couple of years for a complaint to lead to a final order of discipline.
“It’s a concern,” Humiston said.
It can take about a year for the board to investigate serious complaints, and if the lawyer fights any resulting discipline, it can take about another year to get to a final decision by the Supreme Court.