SAVANNAH - A special master's recommendation that two Savannah lawyers be disbarred for leaving a client a pauper on her death bed while walking away with $2.4 million was correct, a state disciplinary panel has ruled.
It just didn't go far enough, the review panel said.
In twin reports obtained this week, the review panel agreed that both David Roberson and John Woodall should be removed from the practice of law, but said their misconduct was shown "clearly and convincingly," not "more likely" as found by special master James B. Gilbert Jr. of Brunswick.
And the panel set a special condition for the eventual reinstatement of either Mr. Roberson or Mr. Woodall - that they must repay to the estate of Julia Mae Shiggs all money they received for representing the estate. The review panel's findings now go to the Georgia Supreme Court, which ultimately will decide the proper discipline in the case.
Ms. Shiggs, 43, of Rincon, died in late 1996 after complications from childbirth in August 1994 left her comatose. Mr. Roberson and Mr. Woodall settled her medical-malpractice case against the hospital and doctor for a purported $4.8 million and took half in attorneys' fees.
When Ms. Shiggs died, her total assets of $250 - all from welfare payments - did not even cover her burial costs.
A subsequent review found the lawyers took 72 percent of the actual cash settlement. The State Bar of Georgia filed a complaint against both lawyers seeking their disbarment.
Mr. Gilbert, appointed by the state Supreme Court to review the complaint and recommend discipline, took a year to review evidence before he concurred with the bar's request - citing multiple violations of ethics rules governing Georgia lawyers.
Mr. Gilbert found the lawyers allowed their personal financial interests to interfere with their duty of loyalty to Ms. Shiggs and charged her a clearly excessive fee.
He also found they inflated the value of Ms. Shiggs' settlement of $3.3 million to $4.8 million to justify an increase in their 50 percent contingency fee in their zeal to collect additional fees.
Both lawyers and the state bar challenged Mr. Gilbert's findings to the review panel. The panel reviews Mr. Gilbert's findings and makes its own recommendations on sanctions to the Supreme Court. Parties in the case can again challenge the panel's findings to the high court.
In related activity:
The state bar has filed a new petition against Mr. Roberson, seeking his disbarment for using a client's money for personal and business expenses and lying about it.
Mr. Roberson is scheduled to appear before Chatham County Probate Court Judge Harris Lewis to challenge his being jailed for contempt of court.
In the newest bar complaint, Mr. Roberson is accused of using an account with Wachovia Bank for personal use, then bouncing six checks against it in November. Mr. Roberson contends the account was not a trust account as alleged by the bar, but a business operating account.
Mr. Roberson was arrested last month under a 1997 contempt-of-court order that he and Mr. Woodall repay the $2.4 million they took as attorneys' fees into Probate Court so that Judge Lewis could determine who got what.
"We're going to proceed with any matters we have pending (against the pair)," said Bill Smith, state bar general counsel.
Mr. Woodall, who has left Georgia and relocated in Texas, has not been arrested on the Lewis order.
In documents filed for Mr. Roberson, attorney Willie Yancy II contended his client is nearly broke himself, with less than $25,000 in assets and a virtually nonexistent law practice.
On Friday, Mr. Roberson is to face Judge Lewis in an effort to keep from returning to jail.