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Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Bd. v. Blessum

Supreme Court of Iowa

March 27, 2015

IOWA SUPREME COURT ATTORNEY DISCIPLINARY BOARD, Complainant,
v.
ANTHONY ZANE BLESSUM, Respondent

Page 576

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 577

On review of the report of the Grievance Commission of the Supreme Court of Iowa. Respondent appeals from the grievance commission's findings of ethical violations and its recommendation of a four-year suspension.

LICENSE SUSPENDED.

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

David L. Brown, Hansen, McClintock & Riley, Des Moines, Brenda K. Wallrichs, Lederer Weston Craig PLC, Cedar Rapids, and Kent A. Gummert, Lederer Weston Craig PLC, West Des Moines, for respondent.

All justices concur except Cady, C.J., who takes no part.

OPINION

Page 578

MANSFIELD, Justice.

An Iowa attorney entered into an intimate relationship with one of his clients, then assaulted her after the relationship deteriorated. The attorney pled guilty to assault causing bodily injury, a serious misdemeanor. See Iowa Code § § 708.1(1), .2(2) (2011). In addition, the attorney did not finalize the qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) in this client's divorce case for two years, and he withdrew this client's fee from his trust account before doing the work.

The Board filed a complaint alleging the attorney violated Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct 32:1.3 (lack of diligence), 32:1.8(j) (sexual relationship with a client), 32:8.4(b) (criminal act adversely reflecting on the attorney's fitness as a lawyer), and 32:1.15(c) (improper handling of client funds). A grievance commission panel found that these alleged violations had occurred and recommended the attorney be suspended indefinitely with no possibility of reinstatement for four years. The attorney has appealed from the commission's recommendation.

Based on our de novo review of the matter, including the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and our relevant precedents, we conclude the attorney violated rules 32:1.8(j), 32:8.4(b), and 32:1.15(c). We order that his license be suspended indefinitely with no possibility of reinstatement for eighteen months.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Anthony Zane Blessum was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1984. For eleven years beginning in 1986, Blessum served part time as the Madison County Attorney. He currently practices in West Des Moines as a solo practitioner. He handles criminal law, family law, personal injury, breach of contract, workers compensation, and social security cases.

In October 2008, Jane Doe[1] and her husband came to Blessum's office seeking legal assistance to dissolve their marriage. Blessum had previously represented Doe's husband in one matter in 2002 and had written a letter on behalf of Jane Doe in a real estate matter in 2007. Blessum informed the couple he could not represent both of them because it would be a conflict of interest. It was decided that Blessum would represent Jane Doe only and would draft the petition for dissolution of marriage.

Doe paid Blessum a $1000 fee on October 6, 2008, for his representation in the divorce. Blessum deposited the $1000 into his trust account on October 6 but then withdrew the entire amount on October 14. He did not notify Doe of the withdrawal.

Blessum filed the petition on behalf of Jane Doe later that month. In February 2009, Blessum drafted a proposed divorce decree and sent copies to Doe and her husband. The stipulated decree of dissolution was filed and approved by the district court in March. It provided, in relevant part, that Jane Doe was to be awarded $110,000.00 from her husband's retirement plan and that " [Jane Doe]'s attorney shall be responsible for preparing the necessary documents to effectuate this transfer."

At that time, Blessum sent a copy of the decree and a letter to Doe, stating, " Our office will prepare the Qualified Domestic

Page 579

Relations Order [QDRO--to effectuate the transfer from your ex-husband's retirement plan] once we receive the pension documents from [your ex-husband]." That same day, Blessum wrote Doe's ex-husband asking him to forward his pension documents. Doe's ex-husband provided the relevant documents to Blessum two months later. Handwritten notes in Blessum's file indicate he mailed drafts of the QDRO to both parties for their approval but received no response. Undated, handwritten notes in the file also indicate that Doe later called Blessum's office and asked him to stop work on her case.

On December 21, Blessum's legal assistant mailed copies of the QDRO to Jane Doe, Doe's ex-husband, and the pension provider of Doe's ex-husband as part of the Blessum office's end-of-the-year procedure to tie up loose ends. Yet on December 31, Blessum sent Doe a further letter that stated in part,

Recently my office sent out to you, [your ex-husband] and the Administrator [of his pension plan], a proposed Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) that we were to prepare according to the stipulated decree. This was done.
Previously you had called and said to hold off on the QDRO. Again, we have not heard back from you. We will . . . close out this file.
This concludes our work for you.
Sincerely,
A. Zane Blessum

Meanwhile, the pension administrator for the ex-husband's plan wrote Blessum on February 3, 2010, signaling its approval of the proposed QDRO. And on February 12, Blessum received a faxed letter from Jane Doe's ex-husband himself. The letter read,

Dear Zane,
In regards to our QDRO we agree to the following changes to your draft submitted to [ex-husband's pension provider] dated December 21, 2009.
Item #4: The Alternate Payee's [(Jane Doe's)] accounts effective date shall begin as of August 1, 2008.
Item # 7 [Line struck through].
Thank you for your attention in this matter.
(Signed)
[Doe's ex-husband] [Jane Doe][2]

Both Jane Doe and her ex-husband had signed the letter at the bottom and initialed the line that had been struck through. The fax cover sheet from Doe's ex-husband contained an additional handwritten note that explained, " We crossed off #7 so the only change will be to the date the money is split. I'm mailing you an original. Any questions please call." Blessum did not take any additional action on the QDRO at the time.

Blessum had no further correspondence with Jane Doe until March 22, 2011. On that day, Doe came to Blessum's office seeking assistance in preparing her will. During that meeting, Doe and Blessum also discussed finalizing the QDRO. Within the next few weeks, Doe and Blessum began an intimate relationship. Blessum completed Doe's will on June 28 and the QDRO was filed on August 23.

Page 580

Blessum and Doe's intimate relationship lasted for some time. By early June 2012, though, they were experiencing problems. Doe was concerned that Blessum had been with another woman at a concert on the evening of June 8. Doe and Blessum discussed Doe's concerns via text message on June 9 and 10. On June 10, Doe suffered an anxiety attack and was admitted to the emergency room. She was prescribed medication and released the same day. On June 11, Doe came to Blessum's house to talk about her concerns that he was involved with other women. The discussion became heated. Doe was angry Blessum appeared to be fixing a romantic dinner for someone else and she picked up and threw the cooking pan he had been using.

During the argument, Doe became quite upset and attempted to take one of the anxiety pills that had been prescribed to her the day before. Before Doe could take the pill, Blessum struck her in the face, causing her to drop the pills. Blessum hit her more than once. Doe grabbed some of the pills that had fallen onto the floor and swallowed them after Blessum struck her. Blessum refused to let Doe leave his house and physically restrained her to prevent her from leaving.

Doe managed to call 911 when Blessum left the room to get a glass of water to try to make her throw up the pills. When Blessum returned, Doe hid the phone under a stack of papers. Both of them were unaware the call had gone through and was being monitored and recorded. Blessum continued to assault Doe and restrain her from leaving. He made crude threats to her as she begged to be let go. Meanwhile, the 911 dispatcher sent police to Blessum's house and continued to monitor the call until they had arrived. When the police knocked on Blessum's door, Doe cried out for help.

Doe suffered lacerations to her mouth, a black eye, a torn piercing, swelling on her eye, cheek, and mouth, and bruises to her arm, abdomen, face, and neck. She was taken away by an ambulance and treated at an emergency room for her injuries.

After the assault, Blessum contacted Doe repeatedly to apologize. In a note, he said, " I am sorry for hitting you and terrorizing you." Doe initially agreed to get back together with Blessum. Blessum also instructed Doe to call the Dallas County courthouse and tell the authorities she did not want to press charges. However, when the two of them broke up for good in August, Doe made further contact with the police and obtained a no-contact order from the court.

Blessum was eventually charged in January 2013. He pled guilty to assault causing bodily injury in violation of Iowa Code sections 708.1(1) and 708.2(2), a serious misdemeanor. He was sentenced to one year in jail with all but seven days suspended, ordered to pay a $315 fine and $6,988.68 in restitution, and placed on probation for twelve months. As part of his probation, Blessum was required to complete anger management counseling.

Doe lodged two disciplinary complaints with the Board concerning Blessum. The Board investigated and filed its complaint against Blessum in August. The complaint detailed Blessum's handling of the QDRO and his subsequent relationship with Doe, including the assault charge. It alleged Blessum had violated Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct 32:1.3 (lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence), 32:8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice),[3] 32:1.8(j) (sexual relations

Page 581

with a client), and 32:8.4(b) (criminal act reflecting on lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness).

On April 1, 2014, the Board amended its complaint to add a count relating to the advance fee Doe had paid Blessum to handle the dissolution. The Board alleged Blessum had withdrawn the $1000 fee before it was earned and did not provide Doe with a contemporaneous accounting. The Board asserted this conduct violated Iowa Rule of Professional Conduct 32:1.15(c) (lawyer shall withdraw fees as earned) and several of the rules governing trust accounts, including Iowa Court Rules 45.7(3) (lawyer may withdraw fee only as earned), 45.7(4) (lawyer must notify client of withdrawal), 45.10(1) (describing a flat fee), 45.10(2) (advance payment of a flat fee must be deposited into a trust account), and 45.10(3) (lawyer and client can agree on how fees are withdrawn).

Blessum filed his answer to the amended complaint on April 10, 2014. He admitted the factual allegations underlying his relationship with Doe and the assault, but denied that they amounted to ethical violations. He admitted that he had ...


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