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From the Summer 2019 Journal

NOTE: More than 29,000 people are eligible to practice law in North Carolina. Some share the same or similar names. All discipline reports may be checked on the State Bar’s website at ncbar.gov/dhcorders.

Disbarments

Mary March Exum of Asheville surrendered her law license and was disbarred by the Disciplinary Hearing Commission. In June 2017 the DHC suspended Exum for five years after concluding that she engaged in a variety of misconduct, including mishandling entrusted funds. While she was suspended, Exum held herself out to the public and to former clients as able to practice law through Exum Consultants. Exum collected fees for legal services she said would be performed through attorneys hired and supervised by Exum Consultants.

John O. Lafferty Jr. of Lincolnton surrendered his law license and was disbarred by the DHC. Lafferty acknowledged that he did not file federal and state tax returns and did not pay federal and state income taxes for 17 years.

Darin P. Meece of Durham surrendered his law license and was disbarred by the Wake County Superior Court. Meece admitted that he misappropriated fiduciary funds totaling $15,000.

James M. Zisa of Wilmington surrendered his law license and was disbarred by the Wake County Superior Court. Zisa admitted that he had sex with two clients, disclosed confidential client information, charged excessive fees, did not act with diligence and did not communicate with multiple clients, made a false statement to the State Bar, and did not respond to the Grievance Committee.

Suspensions & Stayed Suspensions

Gavin A. Brown of Waynesville forged a notary’s signature and affixed the notary’s seal to a deed without authorization. He was suspended by the DHC for two years.

Meredith Ezzell of Wilmington abandoned her law practice for several months, did not provide legal services for which she was retained, did not communicate with her clients, collected excessive fees, did not protect her client's interests, misrepresented the services she would provide, engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, aided a paralegal in the unauthorized practice of the law, and violated trust account rules. The DHC suspended her for three years. The suspension is stayed for three years upon Ezzell’s compliance with enumerated conditions.

James Goard of Charlotte was twice convicted of driving while impaired and committed a third driving while impaired offense involving a collision, advised and assisted an individual in drafting an affidavit while his law license was suspended, made misrepresentations to a client, and made misrepresentations during a disciplinary inquiry. The DHC suspended him for five years. After serving two years active suspension, Goard will be eligible to apply for a stay of the balance upon showing compliance with enumerated conditions.

Carl D. Lee of Glendale, Arizona, mismanaged entrusted funds, did not reconcile his trust account, and did not maintain required trust account records. The DHC suspended him for one year. The suspension is stayed for two years upon Lee’s compliance with enumerated conditions.

Christopher A. Stella of Winston-Salem committed criminal acts by patronizing a prostitute and filing a false police report about the incident. The DHC suspended him for three years. After serving 18 months of active suspension, Stella will be eligible to apply for a stay of the balance upon showing compliance with enumerated conditions.

Interim Suspensions

The chair of the DHC entered an interim order suspending the law license of Hendersonville lawyer H. Trade Elkins. Elkins pled guilty to one count of wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343, a class C felony. Elkins was sentenced to 24 months in prison followed by supervised release, and was ordered to make restitution in the amount of $545,738.90.

The chair of the DHC entered an interim order suspending the law license of Mayodan lawyer Hayley C. Sherman. Sherman pled guilty to the state felony offenses of possession of marijuana with intent to manufacture, sell, or deliver in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-95(a) (three counts); sale or delivery of marijuana in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-95(a) (two counts); conspiracy to sell or deliver marijuana in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-98 (two counts); maintaining a store, dwelling, vehicle, boat, or other place for use, storage, or sale of controlled substances in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-I08(a)(7) (three counts); and one count of possession of a Schedule IV substance with intent to manufacture, sell, or deliver in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-95(a); and to the state misdemeanor offense of possession of marijuana paraphernalia in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-113.22(a) (two counts).

Censures

The Grievance Committee censured Asheville lawyer Jennifer Nicole Foster. Foster made false and misleading social media postings concerning the local district attorney and the court-appointed criminal defense attorney for one of her friends, and communicated and met with the friend in prison while misrepresenting herself to prison personnel as his attorney.

Larry G. Hoyle of Gastonia made false statements to the court and engaged in conduct that was dishonest and prejudicial to the administration of justice by submitting an improper designation of secured leave. Hoyle also falsely represented to the court that a defendant for whom he took action in a criminal case at the behest of a bail bondsman was his client. He was censured by the DHC.

The Grievance Committee censured Tonza D. Ruffin of Windsor. Ruffin did not timely obtain a client’s informed consent to a conflict of interest, made a misleading statement to opposing counsel, and engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice by taking action that was intended solely to delay trial and ensure that a different judge presided over her client’s case.

Ryan Shoaf of Raleigh facilitated the unauthorized practice of law by a domestic limited liability company. He was censured by the DHC.

Leslie Van Der Have of Greenville was censured by the Grievance Committee for her conduct as guardian of an estate, in which capacity she improperly allowed the guardian of the person access to fiduciary funds, allowed the guardian of the person to write checks to cash and to use a debit card on an account containing fiduciary funds, did not timely file annual accounts, and established financial arrangements that made it impossible to account accurately for fiduciary funds.

The Grievance Committee censured Steven Wright of Wilmington. In one case, Wright did not reasonably communicate with his client and with court officials and did not comply with the court’s scheduling order. In another case, Wright did not properly wind down his practice when his law license was administratively suspended. Wright misrepresented to the State Bar that he was paid in full by his client before the effective date of his suspension when he actually accepted installment payments of his fee during the suspension. Wright’s website represented that he was admitted to practice law in the state of Vermont at a time when his Vermont law license was administratively suspended.

Reprimands

Richard Batts of Edgecombe and Nash Counties did not communicate with his client, did not notify his client of her duly-noticed deposition, did not cooperate in scheduling mandatory mediation, did not appear at a scheduled court hearing, did not respond timely to discovery requests, and did not comply with discovery orders. He was reprimanded by the DHC.

Jerry Braswell of Goldsboro was reprimanded by the Grievance Committee for providing legal advice while his law license was suspended.

The Grievance Committee reprimanded Sean Dillenbeck of Gastonia. Dillenbeck neglected and did not communicate with his client and did not respond timely to the Grievance Committee.

The Grievance Committee reprimanded Rachel Kiblen of Mooresville. While she was representing a client in a domestic case, Kiblen left her law firm without notifying her client and without providing her client new contact information. She did not make reasonable efforts to serve the opposing party. Kiblen did not maintain regular communication with her client, resulting in a missed opportunity to settle the client’s case, did not respond for extended periods to her client’s requests for status updates, and did not respond to the Grievance Committee.

The Grievance Committee reprimanded Jeffrey Patton of Winston-Salem. Patton pursued frivolous claims, misrepresented facts, and filed an amended complaint for an improper purpose.

The Grievance Committee reprimanded Steven Wright of Wilmington. In 2015, Wright told his client that the client’s misdemeanor charge was dismissed. In 2017, his client learned, while applying to increase his security clearance, that the charge had not been dismissed and that a warrant for his arrest was outstanding for failing to appear on the charge. When the state eventually dismissed the charge, Wright agreed to deliver documentation of the dismissal to his client but did not do so, knowing that his client had a short timeframe in which to submit the documentation.

Reinstatements from Disability Inactive Status

In June of 2017 the chair of the Grievance Committee entered a consent order transferring Elisabeth Murray-Obertein of Morganton to disability inactive status. In December 2018 the DHC entered an order that would reinstate her to active status if she satisfied enumerated conditions. She was reinstated to active status on March 11, 2019.

Reinstatements from Disbarment

Theodore G. Hale of Wilmington was disbarred in 2004 for misappropriating entrusted funds. After a hearing on February 7, the DHC denied his petition for reinstatement.

Geoffrey H. Simmons of Durham was disbarred in 2013 for misappropriating entrusted funds. On April 8, Simmons withdrew his petition for reinstatement.

Orders to Show Cause

In February 2016 the DHC suspended Katherine Pekman of Hickory. Pekman neglected and did not communicate with a client, did not promptly refund an unearned fee, did not account for entrusted funds, and did not respond to the Grievance Committee. The suspension was stayed for three years. The DHC concluded that Pekman did not comply with the conditions of the stay and therefore granted the State Bar’s motion to lift the stay and activate the suspension. After serving six months of active suspension, Pekman may apply for a stay of the balance upon demonstrating compliance with enumerated conditions.

In November 2016 the DHC suspended Darryl G. Smith for three years for violating trust account rules. The suspension was stayed for three years. The State Bar filed a petition alleging that Smith did not comply with the conditions of the stay and seeking to lift the stay and activate the suspension. The DHC entered a consent order continuing the stayed suspension under a plan of compliance that is acceptable to the State Bar.

 

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