review of the report of the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance
grievance commission recommends a one-year suspension of an
attorney's license to practice law for multiple
violations of ethics rules, including theft from a client
without colorable claim.
van Brederode, Des Moines, for complainant.
Hassane Muhammad, Chicago, Illinois, pro se.
disciplinary matter, we consider whether a lawyer's
depositing of $7500 advanced by a client into a personal
account amounts to theft as alleged and, if so, whether the
lawyer can avoid revocation by showing that she had a
colorable claim to the funds.
Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board (Board) sought
revocation of the lawyer's license to practice law. After
a hearing, the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission
(commission) concluded that the lawyer received the funds for
expense purposes in connection with a potential legal claim
but that the funds were deposited into the lawyer's
personal account. The commission also found that the lawyer
did not have a colorable present or future claim to the
funds. After balancing aggravating and mitigating factors,
the commission recommended the lawyer's license be
suspended for one year. The commission further recommended
that we require reimbursement of the $7500, that we require
the lawyer to obtain a mentor, that the lawyer undergo at
least six hours of continuing legal education related to
trust account and fee retainer agreements, and that the
lawyer continue to comply with our minimum continuing legal
education requirements during the period of suspension.
upon our de novo review, we revoke the lawyer's license
to practice law.
Factual and Procedural Background.
Muhammad is a licensed Iowa lawyer. Prior to becoming a
lawyer, Muhammad was a stay-at-home mother and worked for a
period of time outside the legal profession. She graduated
from law school in 2015 and was admitted to the Iowa bar in
2016. During her law school years, Muhammad worked with Black
Lawyers for Justice in support of their nationwide efforts
against police brutality and served as an assistant on cases.
time she obtained her Iowa law license, Muhammad was employed
as a compliance officer with a Des Moines-based company. She
left her employment there in the summer of 2016, and in
August 2016, she entered solo practice focusing on family and
criminal law. At the time of the disciplinary hearing in this
case, Muhammad was employed by Upright Law, a Chicago law
firm specializing in bankruptcy matters. She also on occasion
performed contract work reviewing documents. Muhammad has no
prior disciplinary history.
Peebles is a resident of the State of Washington. She
currently resides in Tacoma. Peebles' son was a mental
health patient at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle,
Washington. On August 12, 2014, an incident allegedly
occurred at Harborview which formed the basis for
Peebles' personal injury/civil rights matter against
Harborview and other related parties. In August of 2016,
Peebles contacted Muhammad in Iowa regarding potential legal
representation in this matter.
Nature of Complaint.
26, 2018, the Board filed a complaint against Muhammad. The
Board alleged that in the summer of 2016, Peebles conducted
an internet search to find an attorney to evaluate whether
she had sufficient grounds to bring a personal injury and
civil rights lawsuit against Harborview Medical Center, the
State of Washington, the University of Washington, and the
Seattle Police Department. According to the Board, Peebles
located Muhammad through an online advertisement and paid her
a $250 retainer to evaluate her case.
allegedly told Muhammad that she did not want an attorney
licensed in Washington to represent her. The Board asserted
Muhammad advised Peebles that there were grounds to bring a
personal injury and civil rights lawsuit in Washington
arising from the alleged incident. The Board claimed that
Peebles and Muhammad executed a contingency fee agreement
(Agreement) regarding the personal injury/civil rights claim.
to the Agreement, the Board alleged that Peebles paid
Muhammad $7500 in advance for expenses in connection with the
personal injury/civil rights representation. According to the
Board, Muhammad deposited the funds in a nontrust account.
The Board claimed that when Peebles severed the
attorney-client relationship with Muhammad, she requested an
accounting of the $7500 advanced for expenses. The Board
stated that no accounting was forthcoming and that none of
the $7500 was returned to Peebles.
Board alleged that Muhammad violated Iowa Rules of
Professional Conduct 32:8.4(b) (criminal acts) and 32:8.4(c)
(honesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation).
Specifically, the Board alleged,
17. Muhammad used the $7, 500 expense retainer for purposes
other than for the specific purpose for which it was paid as
set forth in the Agreement.
18.Muhammad did not have a colorable future claim to the $7,
500, as it was for the specific purpose of paying expenses,
and instead knowingly converted the funds in violation of
Iowa Code §§ 714.1(2) and 714.2(2).
conversion and lack-of-colorable-future-claim allegations are
sufficient to comply with Iowa Court Rule
Board also alleged a series of trust account violations.
Specifically, the Board alleged violations of Iowa Rules of
Professional Conduct 32:1.15(a) (holding funds in separate
accounts), 32:1.15(c) (depositing advance legal and expense
fees in trust account), 32:1.15(d) (safekeeping and prompt
delivery of property), and 32:1.15(f) (complying with chapter
45 of the Iowa Court Rules).
answered the Board's complaint. She asserted that Peebles
agreed to pay her a $15, 000 flat fee to assist in the
settlement of a separate action related to public disclosure
of video footage but not for expenses associated with her
potential personal injury/civil rights claim. Thus, according
to Muhammad, the payment of the $7500 was "already
earned." Muhammed asserted that she pulled the
Agreement off the Internet and that it was "all wrong
for this case." She asserted that the Agreement "is
very confusing and seems to allude that [she] charged
[Peebles] $7500.00 for expenses, but that is incorrect."
trust account issue, Muhammed claimed she put the $7500 she
received from Peebles in what she thought was a client trust
account. Muhammad claimed the account was improperly set up
by bankers, a fact she claimed she did not know until she
prepared her yearly client security questionnaire.
Muhammad admitted that she did not provide Peebles with an
accounting in connection with the $7500 payment. Regarding
her ability to provide an accounting to Peebles, Muhammad
asserted that she failed to keep track of her time. Muhammad
affirmatively pled that she helped get Peebles a settlement
in the public disclosure case, contacted attorneys regarding
a trust account for Peebles, helped Peebles get visitation
rights to the facility where her son was confined, and
negotiated a release for her son. According to Muhammad's
pleading, Peebles called her and her paralegal "every
day, and sent tons of emails and various documents." In
her answer, Muhammad maintained that not only did she earn
the $7500 but that Peebles owed her an additional $7500.
denied the Board's allegation that she had no colorable
claim to the $7500. She repeated her insistence that the
funds were not for expenses related to her potential personal
injury/civil rights claim. According to Muhammad, "I
never converted funds knowingly, that is not true. . . . [M]y
intentions were good and remained good, it was my paperwork
that was lousy. I admit that." In effect, Muhammad
admitted that she violated rule 32:1.15(f) (complying with
Iowa Code chapter 45) but denied the remainder of the
Board's alleged violations.
Proceedings Before the Commission.
Sanction for Pretrial Noncompliance and Motion to
scheduling order, the commission established November 6,
2018, as the deadline for the filing of exhibits, exhibit
lists, and witness lists. The scheduling order provided that
a hearing on the matter would be held on November 29-30,
did not timely file the required documents on November 6.
Further, on November 9, Muhammad did not participate in a
hearing on the question of whether the testimony of Peebles
could be taken by telephone.
November 13, counsel for the Board sent an email to Muhammed
asking when the documents might be available but received no
answer. In light of the lack of response, the Board on
November 15 filed a motion to intervene with the panel
president seeking any of the following: (1) an order
prohibiting Muhammad from introducing witnesses and exhibits,
(2) an order extending the deadline for witness and exhibit
lists, or (3) setting the matter for hearing.
November 16, the panel president granted the motion to
intervene and extended the deadline for providing submissions
to the following Monday, November 19, but warned Muhammad
that if she failed to provide the documents she would be
precluded from calling witnesses or offering exhibits at the
hearing. Muhammad failed to file any documents under the
extended deadline. On November 20, the Board filed a motion
to preclude her from offering exhibits or witnesses at the
hearing. That same day, the panel president granted the
motion and entered an order precluding Muhammad from offering
exhibits or witnesses at the hearing. Cf. Iowa Supreme
Ct. Att'y Disciplinary Bd. v. Cepican, 861 N.W.2d
841, 843 (Iowa 2015) (holding respondent was precluded from
introducing witnesses and evidence as a sanction for failing
to answer the complaint or to provide discovery responses).
November 26, Muhammad filed a motion to continue the hearing
asserting hardship and the need to consult with an attorney.
The Board resisted the continuance. The Board recounted
Muhammad's history of noncompliance with the various
orders and deadlines. The panel president denied the motion
Hearing Before the Commission.
hearing occurred on November 29 and 30, 2018. The Board
called two witnesses to testify, Peebles (telephonically) and
was not allowed to present a case-in-chief but only to
cross-examine Peebles and herself. The commission members
engaged in extensive examination of the two witnesses.
Commission's Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and