All North Carolina lawyers must follow a code of ethics called the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct. The North Carolina State Bar’s job is to investigate and, when appropriate, prosecute lawyers for violating those rules. The purposes of the State Bar’s disciplinary process are to protect the public from harm that could result from unethical conduct of lawyers, and to protect the integrity of the justice system. The process begins when allegations of possible professional misconduct come to the State Bar’s attention.
If you think a lawyer has done something dishonest or unethical, you may file a complaint about the lawyer with the State Bar. Once filed with the State Bar, a complaint is referred to as a “grievance.” The State Bar will review your grievance and, if the misconduct is proven, the lawyer may be disciplined. Click here to see examples of the kinds of conduct that the State Bar can and cannot investigate.
Initiation of Grievances
Grievances come to the State Bar from many sources: clients of the lawyer who is the subject of the grievance, other parties to a controversy, lawyers, judges, or members of the public. The Office of Counsel (the State Bar’s legal department) also initiates grievances based upon information available from the press or other sources.
Each year the State Bar investigates hundreds of grievances. All grievances are carefully reviewed by lawyers in the Office of Counsel.
Time Limit for Filing a Grievance
Grievances must be initiated within six years after the last act giving rise to the grievance. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0111. However, there is no time limitation for initiation of any grievance based upon a plea of guilty to a felony or upon conviction of a felony; any grievance based upon allegations of conduct that constitutes a felony, without regard to whether the lawyer is charged, prosecuted, or convicted of a crime for the conduct; or any grievance based upon conduct that violates the Rules of Professional Conduct and has been found by a court to be intentional conduct by the lawyer.
Confidentiality of Grievances
The existence and substance of a grievance are confidential unless and until one of several things happens, most commonly that the Grievance Committee imposes public discipline or the State Bar files a complaint in the Disciplinary Hearing Commission. 27 NCAC 1B .0129 and N.C.G.S. 84-32.1. clarifies that documents in the State Bar’s possession relating to grievances are not public records. As a result, Grievance Committee members and State Bar employees cannot discuss pending or completed grievances with members of the public or with anyone who is not a member of the Grievance Committee or an employee in the State Bar’s Office of Counsel.
The Grievance Committee
The Bar’s Grievance Committee acts much like a grand jury, considering complaints in private and deciding whether there is probable cause to refer a case to the Disciplinary Hearing Commission (DHC), an independent tribunal, for public trial and possible sanctions.
The State Bar's Grievance Committee acts upon alleged violations of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct. All members of the Grievance Committee are appointed to serve on the committee by the president of the State Bar. All but three of the members must be members of the State Bar’s governing body, called the State Bar Council. Three of the councilor members of the committee are nonlawyers appointed by state officials. The remainder are lawyers elected by their peers from local judicial district bars. The Grievance Committee also includes advisory members, both lawyers and nonlawyers, who are not members of the State Bar Council. The Grievance Committee is divided into three subcommittees. Each subcommittee has direct responsibility for reviewing the Reports of Counsel (see below) and supporting documents in approximately 1/3 of the total grievances and recommending appropriate resolutions to the full Grievance Committee. The full committee votes upon the subcommittees' recommended resolutions. The State Bar's legal department, the Office of Counsel, serves as counsel to the Grievance Committee.
The Grievance Process and Disposition of Grievances
Grievances are investigated by one of the lawyers in the State Bar’s Office of Counsel assisted by one or more of its investigators. Investigations are summarized in a “Report of Counsel” that is prepared in each grievance file.
Generally, grievance proceedings are confidential unless the Grievance Committee imposes and the lawyer accepts public discipline, or unless a formal disciplinary complaint is filed in the DHC against the lawyer. Additional exceptions to the confidentiality rule apply infrequently.
When the allegations of a grievance, even if proven, would fail to constitute a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct or if available evidence conclusively disproves the allegations, the Office of Counsel submits a report to the chair of the Grievance Committee recommending dismissal with no further action. If the chair agrees with that recommendation, the grievance is dismissed. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0105(a)(19). In such cases, the respondent lawyer is not asked to respond and may not even be aware that the grievance was filed.
If the allegations of the grievance would constitute a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the respondent lawyer is required to respond to the allegations (see Letter of Notice below). If, after reviewing all of the available evidence, the Office of Counsel concludes that the evidence does not support the allegations, the Office of Counsel recommends that the grievance be dismissed without further action. If the chair of the Grievance Committee and the chair of the subcommittee assigned the case agree, the grievance is dismissed. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0105(a)(20).
Letter of Notice
When the allegations, if proven, would constitute a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct and available evidence does not conclusively disprove the allegations, the Office of Counsel sends the respondent lawyer a Letter of Notice and accompanying Substance of Grievance detailing the allegations of misconduct. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0107(2).
The respondent must submit a written response within 15 days from receipt of the Letter of Notice, although extensions of time to respond are regularly granted. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0112(c).
After the Office of Counsel receives the written response and conducts any necessary investigation, a lawyer in the Office of Counsel prepares a Report of Counsel to the Grievance Committee. The Report of Counsel contains summaries of the complaint and the response, analysis of the evidence, the respondent's disciplinary history, and a recommended resolution. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0107(4).
Case Moves to the Grievance Committee
If the Office of Counsel concludes there is probable cause to believe the respondent violated one or more of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the grievance will be considered by the Grievance Committee at its next quarterly meeting. The Grievance Committee also hears every grievance in which the evidence does not support a finding of probable cause that the respondent violated a Rule of Professional Conduct, but in which the respondent should be cautioned that his or her conduct was not in conformity with accepted standards of professional practice. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0106(4).
At the Grievance Committee's quarterly meeting, each grievance is considered on the written record, consisting of the complaint with any attachments, the response with any attachments, the results of any additional investigation conducted by the Office of Counsel, and the Report of Counsel. Live testimony is not received. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0113(e). Initially, each grievance is considered by one of three subcommittees of the Grievance Committee. The subcommittee makes a recommendation to the full Grievance Committee, which either adopts the subcommittee's recommendation or reaches a different resolution.
Grievances considered by the Grievance Committee at the quarterly meetings are resolved in one of the following ways:
- Dismissal, Letter of Caution, or Letter of Warning - Sometimes the Grievance Committee disagrees with the Office of Counsel's recommendation that committee action is warranted and dismisses the grievance. The committee can also dismiss a grievance with a Letter of Caution when no Rule violation occurred but the lawyer's conduct was inconsistent with accepted professional practice. It can also dismiss a grievance with a Letter of Warning when the respondent committed a technical or inadvertent Rule violation. Letters of Caution and Letters of Warning do not constitute professional discipline. 27 N.C.A.C. §§1B .0113(i) and (j)(1).
- Discipline Imposed (Admonition, Reprimand, or Censure) – When the Grievance Committee believes the appropriate discipline is less than suspension or disbarment, the committee can impose three levels of discipline—admonitions, reprimands, and censures, in ascending order of severity. 27 N.C.A.C. §§1B .0106(6), (7), and (8). See below for information on these types of discipline.
- Referral to the DHC - When it finds probable cause to believe that misconduct occurred warranting more discipline than a censure, the Grievance Committee can refer the grievance to the Disciplinary Hearing Commission for trial. 27 N.C.A.C. §§1B .0106(2), (6), (7), and (8). 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0113(h). The Grievance Committee does not have authority to impose suspension or disbarment. Cases involving misappropriation of client or fiduciary funds, criminal acts or other acts of dishonesty, sexual misconduct, and serial neglect of professional responsibilities, including failing to communicate with clients and failing to respond to inquiries from the State Bar, are the ones most frequently referred to the DHC for trial.
Rejection of the Grievance Committee’s Determination
A respondent may reject a letter of warning, an admonition, or a reprimand and may, by failing affirmatively to accept it, also effectively reject a censure. 27 N.C.A.C. §§1B .0113(k)(3) and .0113(l)(2) and (3). Even though the respondent has an opportunity to respond fully to the allegations in writing and by written exhibits, and in fact is required by Rule of Professional Conduct 8.1 to do so, the respondent does not have an opportunity before the Grievance Committee for a full evidentiary hearing with live witnesses. A respondent can obtain a full evidentiary hearing by rejecting the Grievance Committee's determination. If the respondent rejects a letter of warning, an admonition, or a reprimand or does not affirmatively accept a censure, the Office of Counsel will file a complaint in the Disciplinary Hearing Commission, thereby initiating a trial before the DHC. 27 N.C.A.C. §§1B .0113(k)(4) and .0113(l)(4).
Admonitions, Reprimands, and Censures
Admonitions are permanent, private discipline that do not appear on the judgment docket of the State Bar, although they may be considered in any later disciplinary proceedings against the respondent. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0123(a)(1).
Reprimands and censures are permanent discipline and are recorded in the State Bar’s judgment book and sent to the complainant. Censures are also sent to the clerk of superior court in the respondent’s home county and any county in which respondent maintains a law office and to the clerks of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the North Carolina Supreme Court, the United States District Courts in North Carolina, the Federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0123(a)(3). Notices of both reprimands and censures appear in the State Bar’s quarterly magazine, the Journal, and on the State Bar's website.
The Disciplinary Hearing Commission (DHC) is an independent court that hears all contested disciplinary cases. The DHC is composed of 12 lawyers appointed by the State Bar Council and eight nonlawyers appointed by the governor and the General Assembly. The DHC sits in panels of three; two lawyers and one nonlawyer. In addition to disciplinary cases, the DHC hears cases involving contested allegations that a lawyer is disabled, and hears petitions from disbarred and suspended lawyers seeking reinstatement.
The DHC sits as the judge and jury in disciplinary cases. The DHC conducts the trial, finds the facts, applies the law, and alone decides which disciplinary sanctions, if any, are appropriate.
The State Bar is the plaintiff in proceedings before the DHC. The Office of Counsel represents the State Bar.
The defendant is the lawyer against whom the DHC case is brought. Defendants in DHC cases are entitled to be represented by counsel.
DHC trials are open to the public and are conducted according to the North Carolina Rules of Evidence and the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure. The State Bar's complaint and a summons issued by the clerk of the DHC are served on the defendant according to the requirements of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure. The complaint must “allege the charges with sufficient precision to clearly apprise the defendant of the conduct which is the subject of the complaint.” 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0114(c). The defendant must file an answer within 20 days of service of the complaint. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0114(e). Discovery procedures are available to both parties. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0114(g). Both parties have the right to compel the production of documents and the attendance of witnesses by subpoena. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0114(s).
Hearings are divided into two phases. In the first phase, the hearing panel determines whether the lawyer committed any violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct. If the hearing panel finds that a lawyer violated one or more of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the hearing panel decides in the second phase what discipline to impose.
The DHC can dismiss the charges or can admonish, reprimand, censure, suspend (for up to five years), or disbar a defendant. The DHC can stay all or part of a suspension upon compliance with stated conditions. It can also impose conditions precedent to reinstatement of a suspended or disbarred lawyer. A disbarred lawyer is eligible to apply for reinstatement five years after the effective date of disbarment.
Either party can appeal an order of discipline issued by the DHC to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Disbarments and suspensions exceeding 18 months are stayed on appeal only upon writ of supersedeas. All other discipline imposed by the DHC is automatically stayed on appeal. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 84-28(h).