The Louisiana Supreme Court will decide whether New Orleans City Councilman James Gray neglected clients in his private legal practice, potentially setting back their cases, or if he was simply a disorganized lawyer who ran into disputes with some of the people he represented.
Attorneys sparred over those issues Wednesday in a disciplinary case that could see Gray’s law license suspended for violations of rules dealing with communicating with clients, charging unreasonable fees and failing to cooperate with investigators looking into his conduct.
A series of four cases that occurred during the past decade show a pattern of neglect that harmed Gray’s clients, said Yolanda Cezar, deputy counsel for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
“He failed to complete the matters he took up and failed to adequately communicate with his clients,” Cezar said.
But Ernest Jones, the attorney for Gray, urged the court to look to Gray’s “moral character” and argued the cases did not represent a “pattern of neglect.”
The court did not issue a decision in the case Wednesday.
The allegations against Gray surfaced during his first campaign for the City Council, when he successfully ran to replace Jon Johnson, who resigned in 2012 after admitting to federal corruption charges.
The Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board took up the case, and its members found that Gray had mishandled the four cases and violated a dozen ethical rules.
Though it initially recommended Gray be permanently disbarred or else suspended from practicing law for three years, the board’s official recommendation called only for suspending his law license for two years, the penalty the state Supreme Court was considering Wednesday.
Jones initially said Gray had stopped practicing law when he was elected to the council, though under questioning from the justices he said he meant only that Gray had stopped taking on new clients.
Gray and his attorney have both stressed that the allegations do not involve charges that he stole money or committed any other crime and have nothing to do with his service on the council.
“None of this had to do with James Gray the public servant,” Jones said. “All of this had to do with James Gray the private attorney.”
In one case highlighted Wednesday, Gray represented Peggy Burns in a succession issue involving a motel. After paying $3,900 of the $5,000 she had agreed to pay for Gray’s help, Burns stopped paying him and fired him before asking for her case file. She then alleged some documents were missing from the file, Cezar said.
Cezar said she dismissed the allegations in the Burns case after Gray said he would follow up with his client and finish the case. When he hadn’t done so after several weeks, she reopened the case, though Burns herself never took up the complaint again.
Gray said he never made that agreement and that he left the Burns case with his client in the position she wanted, in control of the property.
Another case involved an inmate who had been convicted of murder and whose father paid Gray $25,000 to help with his appeals. Gray met with the client, Fredrick Reed, twice in prison in north Louisiana but never registered as the attorney on the case.
The appeal, which Reed had filed himself before hiring Gray, was dismissed by a judge without a hearing before Gray did much work on the case. Gray said he offered to return the $18,750 he had been paid, but Reed’s father told him to keep $4,000 because of the work he had already done. Reed and his father filed their complaint with the state after learning that Gray had not even enrolled as the attorney on the case.
Gray said the outcome of that case would have been the same whether he enrolled or not, given that the judge’s decision came without a hearing.
During the earlier disciplinary hearings, Jones did not bring up any mitigating factors in an effort to reduce Gray’s punishment, such as testimony about his character or civic involvement. He told the court Wednesday that had been a mistake.
The disciplinary board did consider it to be a mitigating factor that no one was harmed by Gray’s actions, Cezar said.
Some of the justices wondered about the reasons behind Gray’s actions in the cases.
“The allegations of alleged misconduct seem to follow a pattern,” Justice Greg Guidry said during the hearing. “Was Mr. Gray overly busy, or was there some other factor?” Jones said Gray had struggled, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to adapt from being a member of a legal practice to being a sole practitioner with two offices and records stored in a location that could be accessed only by walking up 21 flights of stairs.
Jones also acknowledged there were issues with how the practice was run.
“There was bad communication and bad management of his practice,” he said. But, he argued, that did not harm Gray’s clients or constitute neglect.