TIP: Beating Client With a Baseball Bat Almost Certainly Violates Ethics Rules

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Among other things.

As described by the [Hearing Panel Subcommittee], Mr. Robinson beat a client, [Mr. Gump,] with a wooden baseball bat on his front porch and then chased his defenseless client with this weapon down a residential street until he fell to the ground. When Mr. Gump fell down, Mr. Robinson began beating him again with the baseball bat in the head, chest, and back. Mr. Gump sustained significant injuries, and the HPS concluded that causing such injuries to his client constituted a violation of Mr. Robinson’s duty to his client.

This goes directly to the point I make in my legal-ethics presentations about the rules themselves not being especially helpful in advance. Nowhere in the Rules of Professional Conduct will you find anything about beating a client with a baseball bat. The rules are completely silent on that. But many of them are sufficiently vague that they provide little guidance but are still likely to be enforced after the fact.

Point being, if you beat your client with a baseball bat, they will find something to charge you with.

BatThis is actually a tip I offered a couple of years ago, and so I was glad to see that this was a later proceeding in the same case, not a second incident of baseball battery. See TIP: Lawyer-Client Interactions Should Not Involve Baseball Bat,” Lowering the Bar (Apr. 23, 2010). At that time, Robinson had pleaded guilty to “unlawful wounding” but still faced legal-ethics charges, so I took the opportunity to speculate that he might be found to have violated, at a minimum, Rules 1.2(a), 1.7(b), 1.14, and 8.4. For example, Rule 1.7(b) states that a conflict of interest exists if a representation would be materially limited by the lawyer’s own interests, and here it seemed pretty clear to me that Robinson’s representation of Gump’s interests would have been materially limited by his own interest in hitting Gump with a bat. So that seemed like a given.

But West Virginia seems to have concluded it would be enough to go with Rule 8.4(b) and (c), although that is a little problematic, frankly. Rule 8.4 states that it is professional misconduct to:

(b) commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects; [or]

(c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation ….

In all seriousness, I’m not seeing any violation of 8.4(c) here at all. Yes, he did “repeatedly beat [his client] with a wooden baseball bat and then continued to beat him as he lay defenseless on the ground,” that is true, but what’s “dishonest” about that? There are in fact plenty of cases where a lawyer engages in misconduct or is even convicted of a crime (8.4(b)), but does not face ethics charges, because not every crime involves “dishonesty.” Maybe if he had said, “Hey, Gump, c’mere, I need you to sign something,” and then jumped out with a bat, we’d have a different case. But he didn’t.

I would agree, though, that doing this could be said to “reflect adversely” on one’s “fitness as a lawyer in other respects,” so I’m okay with the 8.4(b) charge.

Were there aggravating factors? Yes. Robinson also took money that belonged to a different client, and then there was the time he threw a propane tank through the window of his wife’s car. These also seem to relate to fitness. And I would award bonus points for his contention at the hearing that he should be treated more leniently because he had no prior disciplinary record; that was true, technically, but only because similar charges in Kentucky were still pending at the time he said this. (See “threw propane tank,” supra.) Also, the whole “no prior record” argument probably works better if your first charge does not involve beating your client senseless. I have no citations for that proposition, I just think it’s true.

Despite the clear failure to prove any violation of Rule 8.4(c), the West Virginia court approved the recommendation of disbarment. He can petition for reinstatement after two years, but only if he has completed a recommended “extensive course” in anger management.