Reading that another attorney has been disbarred is never good news; we don’t delight in the misery of others. But we can learn lessons from their mistakes. Let’s take a deeper dive into The North Carolina State Bar v. Erickson to see how we can more understand how to better serve clients.
Ms. Erickson was admitted to the North Carolina State Bar in 2015. She began her career at a law firm, but was discharged in 2018 after certain grievances were filed against her with the State Bar. Those grievances are as follows:
Ms. Erickson represented Client 1 in a proceeding to sell the home of Client 1’s deceased husband. Ms. Erickson attempted to notify Client 1’s children, and obtain their consent to the sale of the home. In a meeting with Ms. Erickson, Client 1 presented a man that Client 1 claimed to be her son. The man signed the required document and Ms. Erickson notarized it. The man was, in fact, not Client 1’s son. Ms. Erickson did not check the man’s identification upon notarization.
Ms. Erickson represented Clients 2 in estate planning matters. Ms. Erickson told Clients 2 that they would need to transfer certain real property to a trust, and that notarized deeds would be needed. Clients 2 dropped off the signed deeds at Ms. Erickson’s office. Thereafter, Ms. Erickson notarized the deeds without personally witnessing Clients 2 signing the document. Ms. Erickson registered the deeds with the Register of Deeds.
Ms. Erickson represented Client 3. Mother of Client 3 had revoked her power of attorney that named Client 3 as agent. Ms. Erickson went with Client 3 to visit Mother, in her home. Ms. Erickson did not inform Mother that Ms. Erickson was Client 3’s attorney. Ms. Erickson advised Mother to reinstate her power of attorney.
Clients 4 contacted Ms. Erickson to help them gain the authority to manage the affairs of their Father. Ms. Erickson went with Clients 4 to Father’s home with a blank power of attorney document and a mobile notary. A contentious situation occurred at Father’s home. Clients 4 threatened Father, saying they would call the police on Father’s caretaker if Father didn’t sign the power of attorney. Father agreed and signed the power of attorney. The next day, Ms. Erickson filed a petition to have Father declared incompetent and to appoint Clients 4 as guardians. On a later date, Ms. Erickson met with Father and informed him that the power of attorney was invalid and that she had destroyed it. However, Clients 4 had indeed acted under the power of attorney, and froze Father’s bank accounts.
Due to the above Complaints, the State Bar alleged that Ms. Erickson “had violated Rules 1.2(a), 1.16(a)(1), 3.1, 3.3(a), 4.3 , and 8.4(b), (c), and (d), prohibiting dishonest, deceitful, or misrepresentative conduct that reflects adversely on a lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness and that is prejudicial to the administration of justice; providing legal advice to an unrepresented individual; and knowingly engaging in fraudulent conduct.” North Carolina State Bar’s Disciplinary Hearing Commission disbarred Ms. Erickson and she filed the instant appeal.
The Appeals Court of North Carolina upheld the disbarment. Although Ms. Erickson made several arguments to the court that the record didn’t reflect the necessary evidence for the judgement, the court was unpersuaded.
What are the lessons we can take away from this case?
- There are strict rules about notarization. Don’t cut corners! Follow notarization rules for every document.
- Conflicts of interest are a serious matter. Study state rules and follow them precisely.
- Don’t give legal advice to unrepresented individuals.
The Model Rules of Professional Conduct are there for a reason. As attorneys, we need to provide competent, transparent, and professional representation. We need to be regarded as trustworthy officers of the court. Hopefully, the lessons from this case will serve as a reminder about some ways in which to best do that.
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