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From the Spring 2021 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

Judith Birchfield of Chapel Hill did not ensure that a client’s estate planning documents were properly executed and properly amended to effectuate the client’s wishes, notarized a false acknowledgment, knowingly assisted in probating an invalid will, and made false statements to third parties and to the Grievance Committee. Birchfield surrendered her law license and was disbarred by the DHC.

Matthew Coxe of Jacksonville misappropriated entrusted funds, did not reconcile his trust accounts, acted as attorney-in-fact for an elderly client while he was enjoined by the court from acting as a trustee or attorney-in-fact, used the client’s funds to pay his personal expenses, and otherwise mismanaged the client’s funds. He was disbarred by the DHC.

Nicole A. Crawford of Durham neglected a client’s case; made multiple false statements to her client, opposing counsel, and the court; and fabricated documents. Crawford did not participate in the DHC proceeding. She was disbarred.

Suspensions & Stayed Suspensions

Kenneth Davies of Charlotte had his client execute a promissory note for the benefit of his law office without advising the client in writing to seek independent legal counsel. Knowing that his client disputed his legal fee, he disbursed the disputed fee to his law office from his client’s entrusted funds without the client’s consent or authorization. Davies was suspended by the DHC for one year. The suspension is stayed for two years upon enumerated conditions.

Gina E. Essey of Oak Island did not conduct quarterly and monthly trust account reconciliations, did not maintain accurate client ledgers, did not promptly disburse earned fees, and did not perform quarterly trust account reviews. The DHC suspended her license for two years. The suspension is stayed for two years upon enumerated conditions.

Gregory A. Newman, district attorney for Prosecutorial District 42, falsely represented to the court that the victim of an alleged sexual assault had been notified of a plea agreement and made false representations to the Grievance Committee about the underlying criminal case. The DHC suspended his license for three years. The suspension is stayed for three years upon enumerated conditions.

Completed Motions to Show Cause

In February 2019 the DHC suspended Meredith P. Ezzell of Wilmington for three years. The DHC concluded that Ezzell neglected and did not adequately communicate with her client, collected excessive fees, did not refund unearned fees, did not protect her client’s interests upon termination of the representation, misrepresented her services, did not supervise her nonlawyer assistant, and violated multiple trust accounting rules. The suspension was stayed for three years upon enumerated conditions. The DHC entered a consent order finding that Ezzell did not comply with the conditions and extended the stay for an additional 18 months.

In April 2020 the Wake County Superior Court enjoined Sean Thomas Dillenbeck of Gastonia from handling entrusted funds and ordered him to provide trust account and client records to the State Bar. The court granted the State Bar’s motion for an order requiring Dillenbeck to show cause why he should not be held in contempt for failing to produce the required documents. After multiple hearings necessitated by last-minute document production and requests for more time to produce additional documents, the court determined that Dillenbeck was not in contempt.

Censures

Julian Hall of Durham was censured by the Grievance Committee. While representing a client who was acting as a confidential informant, Hall cued the client to stop talking to law enforcement authorities about Hall’s other clients or acquaintances by standing up and leaving the debriefing. The committee concluded that Hall did not act with diligence and competence, that Hall did not adequately explain or obtain informed consent for the conflict of interest inherent in the situation, and that Hall’s conduct was prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Reprimands

William Lassiter of Rocky Mount represented his client in the closing of a loan. He collected funds to pay for property insurance. When the check was returned to him by the insurance company, Lassiter did not inform his client, did not issue a replacement check, and did not refund the premium to his client, leaving the client without insurance coverage on her home. Lassiter did not respond to his client when she contacted him after her home was damaged by fire. He was reprimanded by the Grievance Committee. The committee considered the harm suffered by Lassiter’s client, Lassiter’s lack of remorse, Lassiter’s absence from the office during some of the relevant time, and the fact that this appeared to be an isolated incident.

James R. Levinson of Benson collected nearly $15,000 from a court-appointed, indigent client. He did not adequately explain to the client that Levinson could continue as appointed counsel free of charge to the client, did not promptly notify the court that the client had sufficient funds to pay for private counsel in violation of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-450(d), and knowingly disobeyed an obligation under the rules of a tribunal. He was reprimanded by the Grievance Committee.

Valerie Queen of Raleigh cashed a check made payable jointly to Queen and her client and delivered the client’s portion of the funds in cash, did not give the client a written accounting of the receipt and disbursement of entrusted funds, did not maintain an IOLTA trust account, did not respond to the Grievance Committee’s question whether she maintained an IOLTA trust account, and did not comply with a federal court order to attend training, be admitted to the bar of the federal court, file a notice of appearance, and obtain competent co-counsel. She was reprimanded by the Grievance Committee.

Heather Ziemba of Wilmington was disciplined for her handling of immigration cases for three separate clients. Ziemba undertook each representation before she changed law firms. Ziemba did not notify all clients that she changed law firms. Ziemba did not respond to her clients’ requests for information and did not perform the legal services she undertook to perform. In one case, because of her neglect and failure to communicate, Ziemba had to file a second I-601A application, for which she charged her client an additional fee, and it ultimately took six years for her client to receive a Lawful Permanent Resident card. In that case, Ziemba also made a false representation to the Grievance Committee. In another case, Ziemba made multiple false representations to her client. She was reprimanded by the Grievance Committee. The committee took into consideration Ziemba’s lack of prior discipline, significant personal issues and stress Ziemba experienced, and Ziemba’s refund of the fee for legal services necessitated by her neglect.

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