Appeal from the report of the Grievance Commission of the Supreme Court of Iowa. The grievance commission reports an attorney violated several court rules and rules of professional conduct and recommends suspension.
David L. Brown of Hansen, McClintock & Riley, Des Moines, for appellant.
Charles L. Harrington and David J. Grace, Des Moines, for appellee.
CADY, Chief Justice.
The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board charged attorney Verla Jean Bartley with violating the rules of professional conduct based on neglect, misrepresentations, and trust account and fee violations in the representation of the executors in two separate estates. After reviewing a written stipulation entered into by the parties, the Grievance Commission of the Supreme Court of Iowa found Bartley violated several rules and recommended a 180-day suspension.
I. Background Facts and Prior Proceedings.
Verla Jean Bartley was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1961. She rose to prominence in the profession over the years and was active in the state bar association. She has no prior disciplinary record. In 2002, she began practicing as " of counsel" with an Iowa City law firm and retired from the active practice of law in 2014.
The events leading to this disciplinary action against Bartley involved her conduct in serving as the attorney for the executors in two estate proceedings. In 2001, Bartley opened the Shepherd estate. She completed most of the work for the estate in a timely manner. She billed and collected fees for her work on the estate in late 2006. The fees were not approved by the district court at that time and were deposited directly into the firm's business account rather than the trust account. In February 2008, the final report for the estate was filed and the previously paid fees were approved, but the estate did not close at that time because, according to Bartley, the Iowa Department of Revenue had not issued the " Certificate of Acquittance from Income Tax." The court granted multiple extensions of time to file the certificate from the time of the final report through June 2013 without resolution. In reality, Bartley was unable to close the estate due to tax difficulties, including unfiled returns and an unpaid creditor claim that remained outstanding until late 2013. In the course of trying to close the estate and then to resolving the tax returns and creditor-claim problems, Bartley made numerous misrepresentations to the court and members of her law firm regarding her actions. The misrepresentations included creating a false check purportedly
paying the creditor claim, creating a letter from the bank indicating the false check was processed, and knowingly misrepresenting the status of the estate's tax returns to the court. The interlocutory reports to the court on the status of the estate also contained false information.
In 2005, Bartley opened the Gergis estate. Again, Bartley completed the majority of the estate in a timely manner. In 2005, 2007, and 2008, the estate's executor paid Bartley a total of $65,000 in fees from the estate for her services. The court did not approve the fees at the time any of the payments were made. The fees represented an amount that was approximately half of the maximum ordinary statutory fee. The fees paid in 2005 and 2008 were deposited directly into the firm's business account; and the 2007 fee, though initially deposited into the firm's trust account, was immediately transferred to the business account. The estate included a charitable trust and could not be closed until the necessary tax clearances from the Internal Revenue Service were received. The final clearance was not issued until March 14, 2013. On June 24, 2013, the court approved the final report. In the report, the court approved the fees previously collected by Bartley in 2005, 2007, and 2008. No additional fees were requested under an agreement with the executor.
The Shepherd estate was open under Bartley's direction from March 2001 through 2013, over twelve years, including over five years after the final report was filed with the court. The Gergis estate was opened in May 2005 and closed in June 2013, just over eight years later. The court granted numerous extensions in both estates.
In November 2012, the court informed a partner in Bartley's law firm of its concerns regarding her conduct in the Shepherd and Gergis estates. The partner discussed the problems with Bartley. This discussion prompted Bartley to send a letter to the Board dated January 23, 2013, to self-report her neglect on a tax matter for the Shepherd estate, her conduct in collecting fees from the Gergis estate without a court order, and her neglect in handling the tax matters in the Gergis estate.
On April 29, 2013, a formal complaint was filed with the commission. The Board amended the complaint once in October after reviewing case files and a second time at the end of November in response to a letter from a partner in Bartley's law office documenting ...