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Iowa Supreme Court Commission On Unauthorized Practice of Law v. Sullins

Supreme Court of Iowa

April 7, 2017


         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Emmet County, Duane E. Hoffmeyer, Chief Judge.

         Disbarred attorney appeals district court order enjoining him from the unauthorized practice of law. DISTRICT COURT INJUNCTION AFFIRMED.

          Raymond William Sullins, pro se.

          N. Tré Critelli of Iowa Supreme Court Commission on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, Des Moines, for appellee.

          WATERMAN, Justice.

         In this appeal, we must decide whether a disbarred attorney engaged in the unauthorized practice of law when he took a partial assignment of a judgment for back-due child support from a friend who owed him money and they both pursued collection in the same court proceedings. Nonlawyers can represent themselves in court to pursue collection on claims they wholly own by assignment. But a nonlawyer cannot represent another party in court. After a bench trial, the district court found this former lawyer engaged in the practice of law because his friend stood to receive part of the recovery on the assigned claim, and he helped her pursue collection of her own claims. We reach the same conclusion on our de novo review of the record and, therefore, affirm the injunction entered by the district court.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         On our de novo review, we find the following facts.

         In 2012, Raymond Sullins met Sarita Henricksen, a woman living in Earlham, Iowa. They became friends, and he loaned her between $24, 000 and $28, 000 by paying her living expenses for six months. This case arises from his efforts to collect money her ex-husband owed her.

         We revoked Sullins's license to practice law in 2002. Iowa Supreme Ct. Bd. of Prof'l Ethics & Conduct v. Sullins (Sullins III), 648 N.W.2d 127, 136-37 (Iowa 2002). Sullins had previously received an admonishment, two public reprimands, and a license suspension of one year. See Iowa Supreme Ct. Bd. of Prof'l Ethics & Conduct v. Sullins (Sullins II), 613 N.W.2d 656, 656, 657 (Iowa 2000) (per curiam) (suspending license); Iowa Supreme Ct. Bd. of Prof'l Ethics & Conduct v. Sullins (Sullins I), 556 N.W.2d 456, 456, 457 (Iowa 1996) (reprimanding Sullins and noting prior reprimand and admonishment). When we suspended his license due to trust account violations and neglect of four client matters, we stated Sullins was "unwilling or unable to discharge the duties required in the practice." Sullins II, 613 N.W.2d at 656. When we later revoked his license for neglect of another six client matters and additional trust account violations, we stated,

We must bear in mind the purposes of attorney disciplinary proceedings which include: protecting the courts and the public from persons unfit to practice law, vindicating public confidence in the integrity of our system of justice, assuring the public the courts will maintain the ethics of the profession, and deterring other lawyers from similar misconduct. The evidence clearly shows Sullins should not practice law. His conduct reflects a deep misunderstanding of his obligations as a lawyer and disrespect for this entire profession. We find the seriousness of these violations warrant revocation of his license to practice law.

Sullins III, 648 N.W.2d at 136 (citation omitted). Sullins remains disbarred.

         In 1989, Sarita and her husband, Jim Henricksen, obtained a divorce in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma decree ordered Jim to pay Sarita child support for their two children, born in 1984 and 1987, respectively. Jim failed to pay much of his child support, resulting in a substantial arrearage. Jim's parents owned farmland in Iowa and died two decades after his divorce. Jim stood to receive a sizeable inheritance. On October 5, 2012, a probate petition was filed in the Iowa District Court for Emmet County to administer Jim's father's estate. Two months later, another probate petition was filed to administer Jim's mother's estate. The combined estates included property valued at over $2.4 million.

         In August 2013, Sullins began giving Sarita money for her living expenses after she lost her teaching job. Sullins loaned Sarita money for her mortgage payment, utility bills, car payment, student loan payment, groceries, medical bills, medication bills, veterinarian bills, and other expenses. Sometimes he paid her bills directly. Sullins estimated he paid Sarita about $2000 monthly. Sullins knew Sarita's ex-husband owed her money. He told Sarita that he wanted an assignment of part of her interest in the support judgment, to repay the money he loaned her or spent on her behalf. Sarita agreed to the assignment. Sarita and Sullins disagree about whether he planned to remit to her amounts collected on the assigned claims above what she owed him.

         A. Proceedings to Secure Child Support Payments.

         In October, Sullins and Sarita met with attorney Phil Redenbaugh in Storm Lake about collecting the back-due support payments. Redenbaugh agreed to review the documents Sarita brought and advise her about how to proceed. Because Redenbaugh was a long-time family friend of Sarita, he told her he would not charge for his services. Sullins informed Redenbaugh of his intent to take an assignment and enter the action to secure the funds. Redenbaugh told Sarita she may be able to "join in" whatever Sullins filed. Redenbaugh asked Sullins to send him any documents before filing so he could review them and determine whether he was comfortable with Sarita joining.

         Redenbaugh gave Sarita the impression that recovering the back-due child support would be simple. She told Sullins after the meeting she did not "want to be imposing on Phil any more than what [she had] to" and "if it's so easy, why [couldn't she] do it [herself]?" She asked what "join in" meant. Sullins introduced her to Jerry Wieslander, an attorney friend, to help her. Sarita spoke with Wieslander by phone. On October 9, Sarita sent a letter and a copy of the Oklahoma divorce decree to the clerk of Emmet County, claiming a portion of Jim's inheritance. Five days later, the clerk filed a notice of foreign judgment, captioned "Sarita Henricksen v. Jim Henricksen, Emmet County No. TJCV018129." Two months later, Sarita asked the clerk to issue a writ of general execution to the sheriff in the amount of $353, 819.10 plus interest. The writ was issued December 30. On the estate executor's application, the court scheduled a "Hearing of Priority of Claims" on March 3, 2014. Shortly before the hearing, the executor requested a continuance until March 17, which the court granted.

         Sullins and Sarita filed a number of legal documents on March 3.[1] Each of them signed and filed their respective documents "pro se, " unrepresented by counsel.

         In the matter of Henricksen v. Henricksen, Sarita filed a handwritten, unnotarized document entitled "ASSIGNMENTS OF JUDGMENTS IN CASE #TJCV018129, " purportedly assigning to Sullins her support judgments for the years 1987, 1988, and 1989. The filing stated:

Sarita Henricksen for good and valuable consideration receipt of which is hereby acknowledged assigns the following judgments to Ray Sullins:
All support judgments for 1987, 1989 [sic], and 1989 in the Oklahoma decree in Emmet County Iowa in case #TJCV018129.

         The assignment was signed by Sarita but not dated. The document did not mention any release of Sarita's indebtedness to Sullins or what was paid for the assignment.

         Sullins the same day filed a typewritten "APPLICATION FOR ORDER UNDER SECTION UNDER SECTION [sic] 252K.305(2)(f) AND (g) CODE OF IOWA" as "assignee of Sarita Henricksen." Sullins sought to levy on real estate Jim was going to inherit. Sarita filed a handwritten document bearing the same caption, including the same error: "APPLICATION FOR ORDER UNDER SECTION UNDER SECTION [sic] 252K.305(2)(f) AND (g) CODE OF IOWA." Sarita joined Sullins's application. Sarita's motion was filed at 10:03 a.m., four minutes before Sullins's motion.

         In the estate proceedings, Sullins filed a typewritten "RESISTANCE TO MOTION TO CONTINUE HEARING ON CLAIMS AND REQUEST FOR ORDER" as "assignee of Sarita Henricksen" at 10:08 a.m. This filing incorrectly put a space in the caption, "ES PROO9643, " and used capital "O"s instead of zeros. Three minutes earlier, Sarita had filed a handwritten "RESISTANCE TO MOTION TO CONTINUE HEARING ON CLAIMS AND REQUEST FOR ORDER" bearing the same errors in the caption. Sarita requested to join Sullins's motion.

         On March 17, the district court held the hearing of priority of claims under section 252K.305. Sarita did not appear. Sullins reported she attempted to call into the hearing but could not get through. Sullins appeared and claimed the assignment gave him standing to participate in the action. He made arguments in support of both of their claims.

         B. Proceedings Regarding the Unauthorized Practice of Law.

         On August 13, the Iowa Supreme Court Commission on the Unauthorized Practice of Law (Commission) filed a complaint in the Iowa District Court for Emmet County pursuant to Iowa Court Rule 37.2. The complaint alleged the Commission had reasonable cause to believe Sullins was practicing law without a license. The Commission alleged Sullins committed the following acts constituting the practice of law:

a. The drafting and filing of legal documents in two matters in Emmet County:
i. In Sarita Henricksen v. Jim Henricksen, Emmet Cnty. No. TJCV018129; and
ii. In the Matter of the Estate of Darlene Henricksen, Emmet Cnty. Probate Docket ESPR009643
b. The representation of the legal interests of Sarita Henricksen in the above captioned matters.

         The Commission did not contest the validity of Sarita's assignment. However, it pointed out this complaint was not the first instance of Sullins attempting to use assignments to represent another person. Four years earlier, Sullins had received a cease and desist letter from the Commission after obtaining an assigned interest and attempting to use it to represent other parties. See Daggy v. Mersch, No. LACV-017595, Ruling on Mot. to Recuse, (Iowa Dist. Ct. for Humboldt Cty. filed July 20, 2010).

         The Commission requested the district court enter a "permanent injunction prohibiting [Sullins] from engaging in activities which constitute the unauthorized practice of law, including but not limited to the use of legal assignments of interest as a means for representing the legal interests of others." On October 31, the district court held a show-cause hearing pursuant to Iowa Court Rule 37.2(2). The Commission argued the matching incorrect captions and near-simultaneous filings by Sullins and Sarita indicated Sullins either drafted Sarita's filings or allowed her to copy his filings. The Commission asserted Sullins represented Sarita's interests by advising her on the significance of the documents. It also alleged Sullins represented Sarita's interests at the hearing on ...

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