Can a lawyer’s failure to pay business-related debts be sanctionable in the lawyer disciplinary system? Yes, according to a March 14, 2018, opinion by the Supreme Court of South Carolina. See In re Whitlark, No. 2017-002323 (S.C. Mar. 14, 2018). In Whitlark, the respondent failed to pay invoices that he received from court reporters totalling $3,279.11, and from a physician totalling $9,054.81. Citing Rule 8.4(e), which provides that “[i]t is professional misconduct for a lawyer to . . . engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice,” the court ruled as follows:
We find respondent’s misconduct warrants a definite suspension from the practice of law in this state for six months. Within thirty days of the date of this opinion, respondent shall pay the costs incurred in the investigation and prosecution of this matter by ODC and the Commission on Lawyer Conduct and enter into a payment agreement with the Commission for payment of restitution . . .
A recent order by the Louisiana Supreme Court is in accord. See In re Appeal of Decision of the Disciplinary Board, No. 16-PDB-049 (La. Jan. 9, 2017). In that order, the Louisiana Supreme Court reinstated a disciplinary investigation that was closed by ODC arising out of a lawyer’s failure to pay unspecified litigation expenses:
Based on our review of the record, we find the disciplinary board was arbitrary and capricious in dismissing the complaint. This court’s opinion in In re Bilbe, 02-1740 (La. 2/7/03), 841 So. 2d 729, is limited to the unique facts presented and does not stand for the blanket proposition that an attorney’s failure to pay litigation-related expenses can never constitute conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
Id. As a result, the court remanded the matter to ODC “to conduct further investigation and to institute formal charges, if appropriate.” Id.
The simple takeaway? Lawyers, pay your debts.