review of the report of the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance
grievance commission recommends a thirty-day suspension of an
attorney's license to practice law for violations of
van Brederode and Wendell J. Harms, Des Moines, for
Kirk, Waterloo, for respondent.
Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board filed a
complaint against Matthew L. Noel alleging multiple
violations of the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct. A
division of the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission found
the Board proved some of the alleged violations and
recommended a thirty-day suspension. We agree that the Board
proved some of the alleged violations, but we publically
reprimand Noel under the circumstances of this case.
Scope and Standard of Review.
review attorney disciplinary matters de novo. Iowa Ct. R.
36.21(1); Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v.
Kowalke, 918 N.W.2d 158, 161 (Iowa 2018). "The
Board must prove attorney misconduct by a convincing
preponderance of the evidence, a burden greater than a
preponderance of the evidence but less than proof beyond a
reasonable doubt." Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y
Disciplinary Bd. v. Turner, 918 N.W.2d 130, 144 (Iowa
2018) (quoting Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary
Bd. v. Morse, 887 N.W.2d 131, 138 (Iowa 2016)). We give
the commission's findings, conclusions, and
recommendations respectful consideration, "especially
with respect to witness credibility," but we are not
bound by them. Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary
Bd. v. Kieffer-Garrison, 847 N.W.2d 489, 492 (Iowa 2014)
(quoting Iowa Supreme Ct. Bd. of Prof'l Ethics &
Conduct v. Beckman, 674 N.W.2d 129, 131 (Iowa 2004));
accord Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v.
Stansberry, 922 N.W.2d 591, 593 (Iowa 2019). We may
impose a sanction that is greater or lesser than that
recommended by the commission. Iowa Ct. R. 36.21(1);
Stansberry, 922 N.W.2d at 594.
Findings of Fact and Prior Proceedings.
admitted in an answer are 'deemed established.'"
Iowa Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. West,
901 N.W.2d 519, 522 (Iowa 2017) (quoting Iowa Supreme Ct.
Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Nelson, 838 N.W.2d 528,
532 (Iowa 2013)). We admitted Noel to the practice of law in
Iowa in 2008. He practices primarily in civil and criminal
litigation. In December 2015, Noel practiced law in the
office of Mayer, Lonergan & Rolfes. On April 20, 2017,
Noel began to practice law as The Noel Law Firm and ended his
partnership with Mayer, Lonergan & Rolfes.
Prior Disciplinary Proceeding.
October 30, 2017, the Board filed an ethics complaint against
Noel for conduct predating and unrelated to his conduct that
gave rise to the present disciplinary proceeding. Iowa
Supreme Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Noel (Noel
I), 923 N.W.2d 575, 581 (Iowa 2019). Between November
2008 and January 1, 2014, Noel had a contract with the state
public defender to provide legal services to indigent adults
and juveniles. Id. at 579. During that time, Noel
sought fees for services he did not perform, made false
mileage claims, and failed to remedy billing submissions that
he subsequently realized were incorrect. Id. at
585-86, 587, 588.
Board filed an amended complaint in Noel I on March
5, 2018. Id. at 581. The Noel I commission
held a hearing on that amended complaint on March 27 and 28,
and issued its report and sanctions recommendation on July
18. Id. In February 2019, we suspended Noel's
license for at least one year as a result of his unethical
billing practices between 2008 and January 1, 2014.
Id. at 591.
Fact-Finding Regarding Present Disciplinary Proceeding-
Janelle Huffman Matter.
December 2015, Janelle Huffman spoke with Noel about filing a
lawsuit against a roofing company, JT Home Improvement, for
water damage caused by the roofing company. Noel agreed to
represent Huffman in a lawsuit against JT Home Improvement
upon payment of a retainer. Noel and Huffman also orally
agreed that Noel would charge her $175 per hour.
Huffman's insurance carrier hired Restoration and
Cleaning of the Quad Cities, L.L.C., doing business as
Rainbow International Restoration & Cleaning (Rainbow),
to repair the water damage and restore the interior of her
January 2016, Huffman met with Noel to discuss filing a
lawsuit against Rainbow for failing to properly repair and
restore the interior of her residence. Noel agreed to
represent Huffman in a lawsuit against Rainbow upon payment
of a retainer. That month, Huffman paid Noel's firm $920.
January 26, Noel billed Huffman $350 to "Draft and
Prepare Petition and Original Notice." The petition
named JT Home Improvement and Rainbow as defendants, but Noel
never filed this petition.
January and June 2016, Huffman repeatedly contacted
Noel's law office to ask about the status of her suit
against JT Home Improvement and Rainbow and for advice on how
to handle her housing situation and interactions with
Rainbow. She received no substantive response from Noel.
17, Rainbow sued Huffman for $6800, which it alleged Huffman
owed for Rainbow's water damage remediation and
reconstruction services beginning in August 2015. Huffman
emailed Noel on June 25 to report that Rainbow had served her
with papers and that she would deliver them to his office.
letter dated July 17, Noel informed Huffman that he was
working on an answer and counterclaim to Rainbow's suit,
the answer was due on July 15, and he would have it filed by
then. Noel filed an answer and breach-of-contract
counterclaim against Rainbow on July 29.
August 29, counsel for Rainbow and Huffman filed the Iowa
Rule of Civil Procedure 1.281 Trial Scheduling and Discovery
Plan for Expedited Civil Action. The plan provided that the
parties would provide initial disclosures no later than
September 30, 2016, and a complete set of joint jury
instructions and verdict forms, including a statement of the
case, at least fourteen days before trial. It also stated
late settlement fees under Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.909
were applicable. Noel never provided Huffman's initial
disclosures to Rainbow. He admitted he did not file the jury
instructions and "that is certainly something [he]
dropped the ball on, there's no doubt about it."
October 7, Rainbow served interrogatories and requests for
production of documents on Noel as Huffman's counsel.
Noel's office passed along the interrogatories to Huffman
on October 10, asking her to answer and return them to the
office "at her earliest convenience." Noel did not
inform Huffman of the necessity of returning the
interrogatories in a timely manner.
did not timely produce the discovery requests. He eventually
conveyed unsigned interrogatory answers on February 1, 2017,
and responded to Rainbow's request for documents on May
8, 2017. However, he did so only after Rainbow sent him a
notice of overdue discovery requests, and the court granted
Rainbow's motions for orders compelling discovery and
did not resist either the motion to compel or the motion for
sanctions. Although it is disputed whether Noel informed
Huffman of the motion to compel, he did not inform Huffman of
the motion for sanctions. The sanctions order imposed a $345
attorney fee sanction that Noel eventually paid, even though
he claimed Huffman was the cause of the delay.
February 3, the court granted Noel's motion to continue
the trial. It scheduled a settlement conference for April 21
and trial for May 22. On April 20, court administration
informed Rainbow's counsel and Noel that Judge Mark Cleve
would preside at the settlement conference. However, on April
21, the court cancelled the settlement conference because
Noel did not want to proceed with the settlement conference
due to Judge Cleve's prior affiliation with Rainbow's
counsel's law firm, some years back. The court never
rescheduled the settlement conference.
did not consult with Huffman about whether to proceed with
the settlement conference scheduled with Judge Cleve. Huffman
did not instruct Noel to cancel the settlement conference.
Efforts to reach Huffman to discuss the circumstances with
Judge Cleve were unsuccessful, so Huffman met Noel at the
courthouse for the cancelled conference on April 21. Noel
then was able to inform Huffman that the case was not settled
and would be tried to a jury beginning on May 22. Throughout
this time, Huffman continued to inquire about the status of
her case against JT Home Improvement.
week before the trial date, Noel and Huffman met for a trial
preparation meeting. On Friday, May 19, Huffman emailed
Noel's legal assistant, saying she hoped "Noel can
maybe make a settlement." Noel's legal assistant
conveyed this desire to Noel and to Rainbow, but Rainbow
refused to settle unless Huffman paid something. Noel's
office informed Huffman of Rainbow's refusal. It also
said that a settlement would be unlikely and that trial on
Monday was "probably the best bet."
morning of trial, counsel met with the presiding judge, Judge
Joel Barrows, in chambers to discuss Rainbow's unresisted
motion in limine and Noel's failure to file jury
instructions. Because Noel did not file jury instructions and
neither party moved to continue, Judge Barrows said that he
needed some time to think about the appropriate next steps
and suggested the attorneys "see what we can go do with
attorneys then negotiated a $4500 settlement with their
respective clients and reported the settlement to Judge
Barrows. The court assessed a late settlement fee of $1000
against Huffman. Noel testified that he told Huffman the late
settlement fee was part of the settlement package. Huffman
denies this. We find Huffman more credible on this fact
6, Huffman filed the first of two "To Whom It May
Concern" letters with the court. In the June 6 letter,
Huffman alleged that Noel "told [her] the judge told him
this isn't a Rainbow problem - it's a Roofer [(i.e.,
JT Home Improvement)] issue - get out of there - settle it -
he was sending the Jury home." She also claimed that
Noel led her to believe that she had to pay only $4500 but
then she was sent a bill for an additional $1000.
9, Noel sent Huffman a letter after he had received a copy of
her June 6 letter. In his letter to Huffman, he explained
that he thought she understood that she would pay the court
costs. He also stated that he had not filed against JT Home
Improvement yet because her June 6 letter "essentially
turned [him] into a witness as to the [settlement]
negotiations [and] it may be [his] ethical duty [to] withdraw
from th[e] case [against JT Home Improvement]." He then
stated, "If [Huffman] insist[ed] on holding a hearing
with the Judge about the Court costs [he] will have to
withdraw and will no longer [be] able to represent
[her]." Huffman paid the $1000 late settlement fee on
14, Huffman sent her second letter to the court. In that
letter, she again inquired why the court assessed her the
$1000 fee even though she already paid Rainbow and did not
have her day in court. She claimed, "[T]his [(the $1000
fee)] wasn't a late settlement[;] this
was a you pay!!!" She also claimed Noel told her he
would not represent her against JT Home Improvement if she
did not pay the $1000 bill.
district court treated Huffman's June 6 and June 14
letters as motions for a hearing and scheduled one for July
27. At the hearing, which Judge Barrows presided over,
Huffman declined to waive attorney- client privilege such
that Noel could discuss the communications between himself
and Huffman relevant to the allegations made in Huffman's
letters. Judge Barrows also expressed his belief that he was
obligated to refer the matter to the Board because of
Noel's purported misrepresentation of Judge Barrows's
statements, handling of discovery, and failure to comply with
the terms of the trial scheduling and discovery plan. Judge