Board of Overseers of the Bar v. Adam D. Chase
Download Download Decision (PDF)
Docket No.: GCF#14-554 & 15-061
Issued by: Grievance Commission
Date: October 28, 2015
Respondent: Adam D. Chase
Bar Number: 005124
Disposition/Conduct: Notice to Clients, Adverse Parties and Other Counsel, Competence, Diligence, Communication, Conduct Prejudicial to the Administration of Justice
M. Bar R. 13
On September 24, 2015, pursuant to due notice, Panel B of the Grievance Commission conducted a disciplinary hearing pursuant to Rule 13(e) of the Maine Bar Rules concerning the Respondent, Adam D. Chase, previously of Lisbon Falls, Maine, and currently residing in New York, New York. The hearing was open to the public. Panel members included Thomas H. Kelley, Esq., Chair; Andre James Hungerford, Esq.; and Kenneth Roberts, Public Member. The Board of Overseers (Board) was represented by Deputy Bar Counsel Aria Eee. Complainant Diane Freeman was present. Adam Chase was present and not represented by counsel.
The Board of Overseers of the Bar initiated this proceeding by filing a Disciplinary Petition, dated July 2, 2015. Adam Chase failed to file a response to the Disciplinary Petition, and he had also failed to respond to the earlier complaints from the Board and Diane Freeman that preceded the filing of the Disciplinary Petition.
The official record of this proceeding consists of the Disciplinary Petition and the Notice of Hearing. No other documents or exhibits were offered, but a court reporter was present and made a record of the hearing.
The Board’s Petition raised two grounds for seeking disciplinary action against Adam Chase. Count I arises from Mr. Chase’s failure to comply with the Board’s annual registration requirements. Count II arises from Mr. Chase’s representation of Diane Freeman and her siblings in a probate matter and related insurance matter.
Because Mr. Chase did not file a response to the Disciplinary Petition, the factual allegations and alleged misconduct are deemed admitted. Rules 13(e)(3) and 20(a), Me. Bar Rules. Thus the purpose of the Grievance Panel hearing is to determine the appropriate sanctions for Mr. Chase’s conduct. In furtherance of this goal the Panel took the testimony under oath of Diane Freeman and Adam Chase.
Adam Chase was administratively suspended from the practice of law on October 30, 2014, for failure to comply with the annual registration requirements of the Board of Overseers of the Bar. As a result of that non-disciplinary suspension Mr. Chase was required to submit an affidavit to the Board confirming that he had notified clients and others of the suspension or in the alternative that he had no clients with active cases to be notified. Me. Bar Rule 4(k).
By certified letter dated December 29, 2014, sent to the last address provided to the Board by Mr. Chase, the Board notified Adam Chase that a formal grievance complaint would be filed against him if he did not provide the required affidavit. Although the certified letter was returned to the Board “unclaimed,” the Board also advised Mr. Chase by e-mail of his obligation to file the affidavit. Further, Mr. Chase appeared in person at the office of the Board of Overseers of the Bar on March 16, 2015, and told Bar Counsel’s assistant that he would take the necessary steps to be reinstated to the practice of law that week. The Disciplinary Petition alleged that as of July 2, 2015, Mr. Chase had not taken the steps necessary to be reinstated and had not filed the required affidavit. While this allegation is taken as admitted because Mr. Chase failed to file a response to the Petition, he also conceded at the September 24, 2015, hearing that he had failed to take these steps.
The Panel finds that Adam Chase violated Me. Bar Rule 4(k)(8) by failing to file the affidavit attesting that he had notified clients and other parties that he was suspended from the practice of law.
In late February 2015 Diane Freeman of Sabattus, Maine, filed a grievance with the Board against Adam Chase as a result of his handling of a legal matter she entrusted to him on behalf of herself and two of her siblings. An intra-family dispute arose after the death of Ms. Freeman’s father, and she sought Adam Chase’s assistance in recovering certain personal property through the Probate Court and in dealing with an insurance company regarding an annuity.
Diane Freeman testified that she had no experience dealing with attorneys when she retained Adam Chase in May 2013. Ms. Freeman was not sure how to find an attorney and sought Mr. Chase’s assistance because she was a friend of his mother. Mr. Chase assured Ms. Freeman that he could assist her. Ms. Freeman signed an engagement letter on May 22, 2013, and paid a fee of $1500 to Mr. Chase.1
It is clear from Ms. Freeman’s testimony that Mr. Chase performed some legal work for her. She testified that he prepared a document to have her appointed personal representative (presumably in connection with her father’s estate), and she attended a Probate Court hearing with Mr. Chase in December 2013. She and Mr. Chase met on at least a few occasions to discuss issues related to the probate and insurance matters. They also exchanged e-mail messages about the pending matters on various occasions.
The evidence also supports the following conclusions: Mr. Chase did not move these matters along promptly, did not bring the insurance matter to a resolution,2 and did not adequately communicate with Ms. Freeman about the status of her cases. Further, Mr. Chase never notified Ms. Freeman that he had been suspended from the practice of law in October 2014. Ultimately, Ms. Freeman retained a different attorney, at additional expense to her and her siblings, to complete the services she had hired Mr. Chase to perform.
Adam Chase testified that he had not seen the Disciplinary Petition until the morning of September 24, 2015, when he arrived at the hearing. He said that he had only learned of the hearing the day before by a phone call from his mother, and he had driven to Maine from New York City, where he had been recently living, that evening. Because the burden was on Mr. Chase to keep the Board informed of his mailing address, and because he was apparently receiving at least some mail from the Board in care of his mother, the Panel concluded it was appropriate to continue with the hearing without further delay.
Mr. Chase testified that he was first admitted to the bar in January 2013, just a few months before Ms. Freeman retained him. Mr. Chase was initially associated with an attorney in Topsham, Maine, but that business relationship did not work out, and he became a solo practitioner. Mr. Chase further testified that he was handling primarily criminal and family law matters and that he found himself struggling financially. He began working part-time in a non-legal position to make ends meet. By the time Mr. Chase was administratively suspended in October 2014, Diane Freeman was his only client with an active case. At some point during this period Mr. Chase decided to leave the practice of law, at least temporarily. Mr. Chase testified that he was not certain at this time whether he would return to the legal profession.
Mr. Chase’s primary objection to the Disciplinary Petition centered on paragraphs 12 and 13 of Count II, which refer to Ms. Freeman’s complaint about “Chase’s complete desertion and neglect of her legal matter” and her assertion that she received “no legal services from Chase.” Mr. Chase acknowledged that he had made mistakes in handling Diane Freeman’s legal matters, but he stated that he had provided significant legal services to her and that it was unfair to say that he had provided no services or deserted her legal matter.
Both Ms. Freeman and Mr. Chase testified about a Fee Arbitration panel that had been convened in May 2015 as a result of Ms. Freemans’ complaint about the $1500 fee. Because she had not received the services she expected and had to retain another attorney, Ms. Freeman believed that she should receive a refund of at least some of the fee paid to Mr. Chase. She testified that Mr. Chase had claimed he had $8000 in legal fees and expenses and that she decided to withdraw her grievance about fees because she thought he might otherwise seek additional fees from her. Mr. Chase testified, on the other hand, that he had mentioned the $8000 not because he wanted Ms. Freeman to pay him more but because he was trying to show that he had done significant legal work on her behalf.
The Panel finds it understandable that Ms. Freeman, someone with no experience in dealing with attorneys, might conclude that she had received no services of value from Mr. Chase. It also seems clear to the Panel, however, that Mr. Chase provided some services to Diane Freeman. He commenced a probate action for her and moved it along to at least one hearing. He incurred filing fees and other expenses of at least a few hundred dollars. He met with Ms. Freeman on at least few occasions to discuss the pending matters, typically for an hour or so. Mr. Chase testified that his time records reflected over 48 hours of time spent on Ms. Freeman’s legal matters.
The Panel also concludes, however, based on the testimony presented, that Mr. Chase did not pursue these legal matters with the competence and diligence that Ms. Freeman had a right to expect. It is also clear that Mr. Chase did not keep Ms. Freeman adequately informed of the status of the pending matters and did not promptly respond to reasonable requests for information.
Based on the foregoing review of Count II of the Petition, the Panel finds that Adam Chase violated Me. Bar Rule 4(k)(1) by failing to notify Diane Freeman that he had been administratively suspended from the practice of law. The Panel further finds that Adam Chase violated Rules 1.1, 1.3, and 1.4 of the Maine Rules of Professional Conduct by failing to pursue Diane Freeman’s legal matters with the competence and diligence Ms. Freeman had a right to expect and by failing to communicate adequately with her. The Panel further finds that this conduct was prejudicial to the administration of justice in violation of Rule 8.4(d), Me. R.P.C.
With the regard to the Board’s contentions that Mr. Chase charged unreasonable legal fees or failed to safeguard Diane Freeman’s files or other property in violation of Rules 1.5. and 1.15, Me. R.P.C., the Panel finds that the allegations of the Petition, considered in conjunction with the testimony at the hearing, did not provide sufficient detail to support findings of violations of those rules.
The Panel concludes that Adam Chase engaged in misconduct under the specific provisions of the Maine Bar Rules and the Maine Rules of Professional Conduct cited above. The Panel further finds that the misconduct is substantial and not minor. Bar Counsel urges the Panel to find that the misconduct is sufficiently serious to find probable cause for suspension (other than administrative suspension for failure to comply with registration procedures) or disbarment and to direct Bar Counsel to file an Information pursuant to Rule 13(g), Me. Bar Rules.
The Panel would be inclined to find probable cause for suspension or disbarment if it had found that Mr. Chase accepted money from Diane Freeman and provided no legal services. The evidence shows, however, that Mr. Chase spent considerable time and funds on Ms. Freeman’s cases. The evidence also shows that Mr. Chase, a recently admitted member of the bar at the time Ms. Freeman retained him, eventually found himself coping with a floundering law practice and financial straits. These circumstances undoubtedly contributed to the mistakes of judgment Mr. Chase made in the course of representing Ms. Freeman. The Panel cautions Mr. Chase to develop a viable business plan or find an appropriate support structure if he decides to return to the practice of law.
While Mr. Chase’s misconduct warrants disciplinary action, the Panel concludes that a referral for possible suspension or disbarment would be too harsh under the circumstances. The Panel determines that a reprimand is an appropriate sanction and hereby issues this public reprimand to Adam Chase.
Dated: October 28, 2015
Thomas. H. Kelley, Esq., Panel Chair
Andre James Hungerford, Esq., Panel Member
Kenneth L. Roberts, Public Member
1The Disciplinary Petition alleged that the engagement letter was “quite vague,” but the Panel was unable to evaluate this assertion because the letter was not introduced into evidence.
2There was some disagreement about whether the probate matter had been completed while Mr. Chase was involved in the case.