Goshen attorney Joseph C. Lehman has been barred from practicing law for at least two years by the Indiana Supreme Court.
Speaking to The Goshen News Thursday afternoon, Lehman took exception to a number of the high court’s findings.
The court, through Judge Margot F. Reagan and a hearing officer appointed by the court, found cause against Lehman on five counts of misconduct. Those counts include:
• Failure to appear for court hearings, in which he was found in contempt and jailed by an Elkhart County judge;
• Improper handling of client information due to throwing records into a Dumpster that were found to contain personal information of those clients;
• Improperly representing a client in a bankruptcy case and not filing proper bankruptcy schedules in that case and habitually filing incomplete bankruptcy schedules;
• Another incident of misconduct by failing to appear in court and then arguing his $400 fine imposed for that violation was owed by his client;
• Writing two checks drawn on his trust account that were rejected for insufficient funds and mixing his own funds with those of his clients in his trust account.
Lehman, who has run for local offices as a Democratic candidate, was jailed for contempt of court in March 2012 by Superior Court 1 Judge Evan Roberts. In that case Roberts gave Lehman the option to spend three days in jail or reimburse an opposing attorney $2,100 for his travel time from Michigan City and witness costs and only serve one day in jail. Lehman paid the reimbursement, according to a Goshen News article published April 13, 2012.
It was the second time Judge Roberts found Lehman in contempt for not appearing for court cases. Roberts said in that news account that Lehman had not appeared on five different occasions in that case.
“A lawyer has a duty, a responsibility and an obligation to professionally represent their client,” Roberts said at the time.
Also in that article Lehman said he was not notified about the hearing until 10 minutes before it occurred and he was in Goshen when notified. The hearing was in the Elkhart courthouse.
Lehman’s conduct first came into the public eye in April 2009, when the then-owner of Constant Spring, 219 S. Main St., which is next to Lehman’s office, found legal papers in the bar’s Dumpster. The owner, Jason Oswald, told The News that he complained to Lehman about him using his Dumpster and asked for $40 from Lehman for the cost of emptying the trash container. Lehman agreed to pay the fee.
In that article Lehman said he was sorry for the incident and had disposed of the files, thinking they would be taken to a landfill. He was clearing old files while moving his office from Main Street to Clinton Street.
In the Supreme Court’s finding against Lehman, aggravating and mitigating facts were outlined.
The document states, “The hearing officer found the following facts in mitigation: (1) Respondent has no disciplinary history; and (2) he has represented many clients to a successful completion. The hearing officer found the following facts in aggravation: (1) Respondent has refused to acknowledge his misconduct; (2) Respondent has engaged in a pattern of misconduct over an extensive period of time; (3) he apparently does not feel it necessary to show up for court hearings; (4) the sheer volume of the repeated violations, apparent dishonesty, and lack of any effort to address or apologize for the problems indicate unfitness to practice; and (5) he has a contemptuous disregard for the most basic professional obligations.”
Lehman addressed the aggravating factors Thursday:
(1) Speaking about the Dumpster incident, Lehman said that he should have put the items into the landfill, adding, “I did not compromise any of my clients in the whole matter.”
(2) “It’s hard to rebut a nebulous allegation.”
(3) “Absolutely not true.”
(4) Regarding “sheer volume,” Lehman said, “There again, I have to know exactly what they’re talking about.” Regarding “apparent dishonesty,” he said, “I have never in my life been dishonest to anybody — clients, the courts, anybody, other lawyers.” Of “lack of any effort,” Lehman said, “I’m willing to apologize, but I have to know where they’re coming from.”
(5) “Once again, how do I know what they’re talking about?,” Lehman said, later adding, “Basic professional obligations — I’ve met them.”
The court suspended Lehman’s law license for two years, with no automatic reinstatement. The court ruled Lehman may ask the court for reinstatement after two years if he fulfills his duties outlined in state rules for suspended attorneys and meets the state’s requirements for reinstatement.
Supreme Court spokewoman Kathryn Dolan said Thursday those requirements are extensive and are set forth in standardized state rules for attorney licensing and reinstatement.
She also said Lehman will have to pay for the cost of his disciplinary hearing, even if he does not seek reinstatement. That cost is $7,760.59.
It’s not unusual for requests for disciplinary action to be filed against Indiana attorneys, according to Dolan, but it’s rare when the process ends in disciplinary action. She said oftentimes clients seek action against an attorney because of an unfavorable outcome of their case, which she said does not warrant disciplinary action.
“The court hands down about 90 per year, so the actual number of cases that result in disciplinary action are very, very small,” Dolan said.
Speaking to The News, Lehman stood by the job he’s done as a lawyer.
“I have always done well for my clients, and I think that’s of the utmost importance,” he said. “I’m proud of my work.”
To read the full complaint and finding against Lehman go online to http://www.in.gov/judiciary/2768.htm.