Holy Cross development proposal again postponed at City Council _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans City Council District E Councilman James Gray is sworn into office at City Hall in this December 2012 Advocate File photo.

New Orleans City Councilman James Gray should be suspended from practicing law for two years over a series of cases he botched or collected fees on without doing much work, the state Attorney Disciplinary Board said in a formal recommendation to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

In a 26-page opinion, the board cited four separate cases in which it said Gray violated a laundry list of ethical rules.

None of the cases involves his work on the City Council.

The board found a “pattern of behavior” by Gray in which “he failed to provide competent representation, failed to communicate with his clients, failed to return client files” and obstructed the Office of Disciplinary Counsel in its investigation.

Gray’s files “evidence a lack of adequate record keeping, a lack of diligence, and reflect the lack of any legal work having been performed on these matters,” with one exception among the four former clients who lodged complaints against him, the board found.

Gray “engaged in a pattern of neglect that has caused actual and potential harm to his clients” and “knowingly violated duties owed to his clients and the profession,” the board said.

The decision is the latest step in a yearslong process that began with formal charges against Gray in August 2012, on the eve of his run to replace disgraced Councilman Jon Johnson in a special election to represent District E, comprising most of New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward.

Gray won his first full term on the council in February, beating out former longtime Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis and political neophyte Andre Kelly. During the campaign, Gray downplayed the allegations that hovered over him.

“There’s no charge of any illegality, not even any allegation of doing anything illegal,” Gray said, adding that he had wound down his law practice since taking office.

Through a spokeswoman, Gray declined to comment on Monday. His attorney, Ernest L. Jones, did not return a message.

The disciplinary board’s Oct. 7 ruling came seven months after a panel of the board proposed an even harsher penalty for Gray, recommending that he either be disbarred or have his law license suspended for at least three years.

Gray has 20 days to file any objections. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court will decide on Gray’s punishment following oral arguments that have not yet been scheduled.

The four complaints against Gray involve cases that go back as far as 2003.

In the oldest case, Barbara Ann Roberts alleged that she hired Gray to pursue a wrongful-death claim. She claimed she met with him in 2008 and he said he was still pursuing the case, but that he failed to do so. In 2010, the case was dismissed “due to abandonment.” Gray failed to alert her of the case’s dismissal, Roberts said.

The board found that Gray violated eight separate professional-conduct rules in the Roberts case, including failing to keep a client “reasonably informed” and failing to cooperate with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

Gray disputed those assertions, saying Roberts was one of many co-plaintiffs in that case, all of them siblings of the person who died.

“I had numerous conversations and consultations with them,” he said last year. “There were at least six or seven (siblings). I talked to them individually and, on a number of occasions, as a group.”

The second case dates to 2004. Gloria Frith alleges that she hired Gray for a medical malpractice case but later switched lawyers after Gray failed to take any action. She complained that he did not forward a copy of her file upon request.

Gray was found to have violated a half-dozen rules of professional conduct in that case, such as failing to keep a client informed and failing to promptly comply with “reasonable requests for information.”

Gray again disputed those allegations. He said the case simply didn’t go anywhere because of a lack of evidence.

In the third case, Gray was hired to represent Frederick Reed, who was convicted of murder, in his post-conviction appeals. He received $18,750 in advance payments on a total fee of $25,000, the board’s brief says. After Gray twice visited Reed, Reed opted to switch lawyers, and Gray returned $14,000 of the fee. Reed complained that the entire amount should have been refunded, and the brief charges that Gray violated rules prohibiting unreasonable fees, among others.

Gray said Reed’s father told him how much of the fee to keep for his trouble.

Reed “killed his wife and pled guilty to it,” Gray said last year. “They paid me; I performed some services. Then they decided they wanted another lawyer. His daddy said to me, ‘You’ve made an all-day trip to (a prison in) north Louisiana. You spent another day at (Elayn) Hunt (Correctional Facility).’ He said ‘I owe you’ the amount I ended up keeping.”

Among numerous violations the board found were that Gray failed to cooperate with the investigation into the case.

The fourth case also involves a fee dispute. Peggy Small Burns complained that she hired Gray to handle a succession matter for a fee of $5,000, with Burns making $500 monthly payments toward that amount. After she had paid $3,900, she stopped paying and tried to terminate Gray. She asked for her file and her money back; when Gray produced the file, she said some documents were missing.

The board found Gray violated professional conduct rules by failing to provide competent representation and by charging an unreasonable fee, among other failures.

Gray said it’s Burns who is unreasonable. Burns, he said, was a lawyer-shopper who was never happy with her counsel.

“She never paid the fee promised,” he said last year. “The service I promised to render was an administration of estate. I performed those services despite not being paid the entire fee.”

“I’m about the fifth attorney she’s had, and she has filed complaints against each of them,” he said. “They were all unfounded, as I think mine will be. I did nothing wrong in that case.”

The board disagreed. Along with recommending a two-year suspension with no deferral, the board also recommended an arbitration process to decide how much Gray should return to Reed and Burns. It also recommended that Gray pay the costs of the investigation.

Statewide, 50 attorneys were suspended last year, while five were disbarred, according to disciplinary board figures. More often, attorneys receive probation, an admonition or a reprimand.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.