The Washington Supreme Court unanimously held in In re Disciplinary Proceeding Against Robert B. Jackson (No. 201,017-2) that substantial evidence supported the hearing officer’s findings that Robert Jackson engaged in fraud, deceit, conflicts of interest, and other serious ethics violations and that disbarment was the appropriate sanction.
This disciplinary proceeding arises out of two separate matters, each evidencing “a complex web of fraud, deceit, conflicts of interest, and other serious violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC).” After an 11-day disciplinary hearing, the hearing officer found that Jackson committed 14 counts of misconduct, the presumptive sanction for 10 of which is disbarment. The hearing officer recommended that Jackson be disbarred and the Washington State Bar Association Disciplinary Board agreed. On appeal, the Washington Supreme Court accepted the Board’s recommendation and ordered Jackson disbarred.
Although the Washington Supreme Court is ultimately responsible for lawyer discipline, it gives considerable weight to a hearing officer’s findings of fact. The Court treats unchallenged findings as verities on appeal and accepts challenged findings if they are supported by substantial evidence.
In this case, after first rejecting Jackson’s procedural challenges as “unfounded” and “wholly unsupported by facts or law,” the Court proceeded to reject his evidentiary challenges as well. The Court noted that while he “generally” assigned error to each of the hearing officer’s 391 findings of fact, Jackson did not support that assignment with any argument, legal authority, or references to the record. Instead, the Court found substantial evidence that Jackson engaged in the following misconduct:
- Falsely signing documents on behalf of a client;
- Lying on mortgage applications to obtain better terms and rates;
- Partnering with two clients to form a business called “RPC LLC” to purchase investment property;
- Intentionally deceiving those clients to induce them to sell their interest in the investment property;
- Concealing from those clients his attempts to acquire that investment property and adjoining properties on behalf of himself and another client;
- Engaging in transactions with and adverse to clients without disclosing concurrent representation, potential for conflicts-of-interest, or his personal interest;
- Using his trust account to transfer funds on behalf of a client whose assets had been frozen by the bankruptcy court;
- Intentionally modifying documents and withholding other documents in discovery because they revealed his culpability and the culpability of another client; and
- Actively ignoring and concealing relevant facts to protect one client, which, as a result, compromised his ability to represent other clients.
Lastly, the Court held that disbarment was the proper sanction for that misconduct and that the record supported seven aggravating factors and three mitigating factors.
Commentary: The Court understandably found that the misconduct in this case was “serious and pervasive.” Its analysis of that misconduct and the proportionate sanction is relatively straightforward and not surprising. Notably, the hearing officer, the WSBA Disciplinary Board, and the Supreme Court agreed, unanimously, that disbarment was the proper sanction for Jackson’s misconduct.
This case is a lesson for all attorneys to, above all else, abide by the Rules of Professional Conduct. It also is a lesson that when arguing your case (or your client’s case), support each argument with factual and legal authority, and avoid taking positions that are internally inconsistent and contrary to well-established facts.