Reporting Unethical Conduct
Opinion rules that a lawyer who acquires knowledge of apparent misconduct must report this matter to the State Bar.
Attorney A conducted a title search on a tract of property for a client, the vendee. Attorney A discovered an outstanding lien of $5000 on the land in question. The client's payments to the vendor covered most of the lien. However, the attorney still needed $1000 from the vendor to clear up the title. The vendor asked if he could bring the remaining $1000 to Attorney A within a week. The vendor had been a good client of Attorney A in other matters, and Attorney A agreed to the vendor's request. In the meantime, Attorney A closed the deal, writing up a general warranty deed, with the $1000 outstanding. In addition, because the vendee purchased the land through a bank loan and used the land as security on that loan, the vendee had to sign an affidavit stating that there were no prior encumbrances. This he did presumably relying on his lawyer's advice.
If Lawyer L becomes aware of the situation described above, is he under any duty to report Attorney A's conduct to the North Carolina State Bar? Does it affect the response if Attorney A agrees to put the $1000 into an interest-bearing escrow account in the vendee's name?
On the basis of the facts stated, there appears to be reason to believe that Attorney A may have violated Rule 1.2(b), Rule 7.1(a)(3) and possibly Rule 5.1. If Lawyer L has knowledge that Attorney A has committed these violations, Lawyer L must report the apparent misconduct to the State Bar under Rule 1.3(a). Whether Attorney A agrees to deposit the $1000 into an escrow account in the vendee's name does not affect whether the violation has occurred and whether Lawyer L has knowledge that it occurred, but would be more relevant to any legal claims the vendee would have against Attorney A and possibly in consideration as to actual discipline to be imposed by the State Bar if it found the facts as believed by Lawyer L and found them to establish unethical conduct by Attorney A.
The same vendor, as in the circumstances above, has been accused of working privately in partnership with a loan officer at the bank involved in the transaction described above and of obtaining a large loan from that bank for the stated purpose of construction work on the property. According to third parties, the vendor, who is the construction company president, drew on the loans when there was no construction actually going on.
Additionally, the vendor allowed additional liens to build up on the property to pay for construction work which did actually occur. Although the company is contractually obligated to clear up the subsequent liens, the company in fact no longer exists. The former owner-president has indicated that he will not honor the contract and pay off the liens. He has also refused to pay liquidated damages for which the contract provides even though he was over a year late finishing up the project.
At the time the vendor sold the property and signed the construction contract, his company had been officially suspended by the Secretary of State of North Carolina for failure to pay license fees. The loan officer mentioned above has left the bank and cannot be located.
At what point, if any, must the investigating attorney, Lawyer L, report the activities of the vendor to the State Attorney General? What degree of certainty regarding the truth of the allegations is necessary before any steps are taken to report this case to the Attorney General?
The Rules of Professional Conduct do not speak to whether an attorney must report possible illegal conduct to law enforcement officers and public officials. These matters are left to the judgment of the attorney in question with due regard to any laws which may be relevant and to his professional judgment and conscience.