New Orleans City Councilman James Gray will be barred from practicing law for two years after neglecting several clients’ cases, ignoring their attempts to speak with him and, in some cases, failing to return documents they would need to continue their cases with another attorney, according to a state Supreme Court opinion issued Tuesday.
Gray also will have to enter arbitration to settle fee disputes with two clients, the court ruled.
“We find that (Gray) knowingly violated duties owed to his clients and the legal profession,” the justices’ opinion said. “He caused actual harm to his clients, and his failure to cooperate in the disciplinary investigations harmed the legal profession by forcing the (Office of Disciplinary Counsel) to unnecessarily expend its limited resources trying to sufficiently investigate these matters.”
Gray said he was disappointed by the ruling and stressed that the cases involved solely his private law practice and had nothing to do with his elected position.
“None of this had anything to do with my role as a city councilman,” he said. “Even the allegations didn’t question my honesty, or my ability for that matter. The allegations were about my attentiveness to clients.”
The case against Gray was filed at the end of his first, unsuccessful City Council campaign in 2012. He was seeking then to replace Councilman Jon Johnson, who had resigned after admitting to federal corruption charges.
The court’s decision is in line with recommendations by the state Attorney Disciplinary Board, which found that Gray “engaged in a pattern of neglect” with regard to clients. That recommendation came after another committee concluded that he was a “threat to the public” and called for him to be disbarred or to lose his law license for at least three years.
The case is based on four complaints that date back as far as 2003.
The first, a wrongful-death case, was dismissed in 2010 “due to abandonment,” but Gray never notified his client that it had been dismissed. The Office of Disciplinary Council found he had violated eight rules of professional conduct in that case.
In the next case, from 2004, a client said she hired Gray to pursue a medical malpractice claim but then changed attorneys because he had not taken any action. The client said Gray did not provide her with a copy of her file after she left, and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel found he had violated six rules of professional conduct in that case.
The third case involved fees collected by Gray, who had been hired to handle the appeal of a man convicted of murder. Gray was paid $18,750 by the man’s family and returned $14,000 of that after the man switched attorneys. The man said the entire amount should have been returned, but Gray said the man’s father had refused a full refund.
The final case, from 2009, involved a woman who paid Gray $3,900 to represent her in a succession matter but then was unable to get in touch with him. The woman also claimed Gray lost some of her documents.
In arguments before the Supreme Court, Ernest Jones, Gray’s attorney, said Gray was disorganized but that his actions did not represent a pattern or harm his clients.
“The court has decided James has not followed our profession’s rules, and the court has decided the appropriate sanctions for those errors,” Jones said in a statement Tuesday. “However, in a distinguished 40-year career, James Gray has offered good and loyal service to innumerable clients, and these sanctions don’t diminish that service.”
Gray said he hasn’t taken on any new clients since he joined the City Council last year, though he has been finishing up work for existing clients.
“I’ve been a full-time councilman since I started,” he said. “It doesn’t change my day-to-day activities.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.