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Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board v. Laing

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 14, 2013

IOWA SUPREME COURT ATTORNEY DISCIPLINARY BOARD, Complainant,
v.
DONALD N. LAING and D. SCOTT RAILSBACK, Respondent.

On review of the report of the Grievance Commission of the Supreme Court of Iowa.

In attorney disciplinary action, grievance commission recommends suspension for multiple violations of ethical rules, including charging and receiving excessive fees for services.

Charles L. Harrington and Elizabeth E. Quinlan, Des Moines, for complainant.

Donald N. Laing and D. Scott Railsback of Keota, pro se.

HECHT, Justice.

Attorneys Donald N. Laing and D. Scott Railsback provided conservator services to a ward over a period of more than three decades. The attorneys were later sued by the ward who alleged, and the district court found, the attorneys had charged and received excessive fees for their services. The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board (Board) charged the attorneys with multiple violations of the ethical rules governing the conduct of Iowa lawyers. A division of the Grievance Commission of the Supreme Court of Iowa found the attorneys violated the rules and recommended their licenses to practice law be suspended for at least three years. We suspend their licenses for a period of eighteen months.

I. Scope of Review.

This court reviews attorney disciplinary proceedings de novo. Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. McCarthy, 814 N.W.2d 596, 601 (Iowa 2012). The commission's recommendations receive our respectful consideration, but they do not bind us. Id. If we find a violation of an ethical rule has occurred, our determination of the appropriate sanction "is guided by the nature of the alleged violations, the need for deterrence, protection of the public, maintenance of the reputation of the bar as a whole, and [the attorney's] fitness to continue in the practice of law." Comm. on Prof'l Ethics & Conduct v. Kaufman, 515 N.W.2d 28, 30 (Iowa 1994). The Board must prove its allegations of misconduct by a convincing preponderance of the evidence. Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Howe, 706 N.W.2d 360, 366 (Iowa 2005).

II. Factual Findings and Prior Proceedings.

Laing was appointed conservator for John T. Klein on May 21, 1974. Klein, a Vietnam War veteran, had a history of paranoid schizophrenia, depression, and substance abuse. He needed the assistance of a conservator, having recently inherited 160 acres of farmland and other property from his mother's estate. Klein inherited from an aunt an undivided one-half interest in additional farm real estate in the early 1980s.[1] In 1993, he inherited from another aunt a certificate of deposit and other personal property valued at $56, 947.58, and he became the life beneficiary of a trust corpus valued at $321, 282.[2] Klein also owns a single lot in the state of Texas and a parcel of two acres the respondents acquired for him in an Iowa tax sale.

The respondents performed legal services in connection with a series of farm leases between the conservatorship and members of a farm family who had also long been the respondents' clients.

During the thirty-four years following his appointment in 1974, Laing served as Klein's conservator. Laing prepared annual reports of the conservatorship's status—with some assistance from Railsback, who joined Laing as a partner in the practice of law in 1975—and submitted them to the court for each of these years. The reports detailed the conservatorship's receipts and disbursements for the reporting period and summarized the status of the ward's assets, including an investment account managed by an investment firm. Each year Laing sought, and a district court judge entered, an order approving fees for the services provided by the respondents to the ward.

Among the services for which Laing and Railsback requested compensation were legal, accounting, and property management services, and, as we will detail below, other services typically performed by guardians rather than conservators.

At the time of Laing's appointment as conservator, Klein was undergoing outpatient mental health treatment in Boulder, Colorado. His illness presented significant challenges for his caretakers and the respondents. During Laing's years of service as conservator, residential care facilities in California, Colorado, and Connecticut provided Klein's care for varying periods of time. When Klein's behavior—including occasional acts of violence directed at care providers and others—was incompatible with the policies of residential treatment facilities housing him, when his health insurer refused to pay for care and treatment, and when he became dissatisfied with his accommodations and ...


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