In the Matter of the Application for Disciplinary Action Against Jesse D. Matson, a Member of the Bar of the State of North Dakota; Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of the State of North Dakota, Petitioner
Jesse D. Matson, Respondent
Gerald W. VandeWalle, C.J., Lisa Fair McEvers, Carol Ronning Kapsner. Crothers, Justice, concurring and dissenting. Sandstrom, Justice, concurring and dissenting.
Application for Discipline. SUSPENSION ORDERED.
[¶1] The Court has before it Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Recommendation of a hearing panel of the Disciplinary Board recommending that Jesse D. Matson be suspended from the practice of law in North Dakota for six months and one day; that he be required to take a continuing legal education course on the rules of professional conduct as a condition of reinstatement; that he pay the costs and expenses of the disciplinary proceeding; and that he pay the unpaid costs and expenses assessed in a previous disciplinary action. We accept the recommendation. We suspend Matson from the practice of law for six months and one day, and we require him to take a continuing legal education course on the rules of professional conduct as a condition of reinstatement. We order Matson to pay costs and expenses of these disciplinary proceedings in the amount of $6,287.52 and of a prior disciplinary proceeding in the amount of $4,485.43.
[¶2] Matson was admitted to practice law in North Dakota on October 10, 2011, and he is currently licensed to practice law.
[¶3] This matter involves three consolidated disciplinary actions against Matson, file numbers 5680-SE-1404, 5711-SE-1407, and 5718-SE-1409. Matson was served a summons and petition for discipline for file number 5680-SE-1404 on October 1, 2014. He was served a summons and petition for discipline for file numbers 5711-SE-1407, and 5718-SE-1409 on December 22, 2014. Matson failed to answer or otherwise respond to the petitions. Therefore, under N.D.R. Lawyer Discipl. 3.1(E)(2), Matson is in default and the charges contained in the petitions for discipline are admitted. A dispositional hearing was held before the hearing panel on May 13, 2015.
[¶4] In file number 5680-SE-1404, Matson represented a client in a divorce action including parental responsibility. The client was in the military and was stationed in South Korea during the representation. Matson took a substantial amount of time to respond to the client's attempts to contact him. His actions during the case resulted in several delays. He arrived for the trial seconds before it began, and attended a hearing in another
matter during a recess. Therefore, the client was uninformed about Matson's thoughts regarding the trial or about the next steps during the trial. Matson failed to understand the military compensation system resulting in an error in child support. Matson falsely assured the client he would get the judgment amended with respect to child support. Matson delayed providing rulings to the client, and after January 2014 ceased communicating with the client.
[¶5] In file number 5711-SE-1407, a client paid Matson a $2,000 retainer to represent her in a child support modification matter at a rate of $200 per hour. The retainer was deposited into Matson's operating account, not an IOLTA account. Matson failed to communicate with the client and failed to provide copies of documents drafted on her behalf. Because of the lack of progress, the client sought other counsel and paid another retainer fee. Matson provided no work product that could be used by the new counsel. Despite several requests, Matson never sent the client an itemized billing or accounting, and Matson did not refund any portion of her retainer. The client attempted to arbitrate her fee issue, but Matson did not respond to her request.
[¶6] In file number 5718-SE-1409, a client paid Matson a $4,000 retainer to represent him in a divorce action involving primary residential responsibility at a rate of $200 per hour. The retainer was deposited into Matson's operating account, not an IOLTA account. Neither Matson nor his law firm had an IOLTA account. Matson took approximately two months to prepare the summons and complaint, and the delay resulted in complications for service on the spouse. Matson took approximately four months to prepare interim documents and discovery and failed to file any of the divorce documents with the district court. His work on the documents was not thorough and showed a lack of legal knowledge and skill. Matson did not properly communicate with the client or keep him reasonably informed about the status or objectives of the case. The client retained new counsel and Matson failed to provide a copy of his file upon request. Based on the accounting provided to the client's new counsel, Matson charged an unreasonable fee which included charges for overhead items. Although a credit balance existed based on the accounting, Matson failed to refund the balance to the client.
[¶7] The fee agreements in 5711-SE-1407 and 5718-SE-1409 stated the retainers were non-refundable and also stated that the retainer would be applied toward earned fees and reimbursement for costs. The agreement does not state that the fee was earned upon receipt, was a minimum fee, or was for the purpose of retaining Matson's time. All three clients were injured or potentially injured by Matson's conduct. They were forced to seek new counsel or proceed self-represented, experienced delays, and incurred expenses.
[¶8] Matson was reprimanded by a hearing panel of the disciplinary board on April 30, 2014. He was ordered to pay costs and expenses in the amount of $4,485.43. He failed to pay that amount or make arrangements with Disciplinary counsel for payments. The hearing panel concluded Matson's knowing failure to pay costs as ordered caused injury and interfered with the disciplinary system.
[¶9] The hearing panel concluded Matson violated N.D.R. Prof. Conduct 1.1, Competence, by failing to have the requisite legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation, which were reasonably necessary to represent the clients; N.D.R. Prof. Conduct Rule 1.3, Diligence, by failing to act with reasonable diligence and
promptness in representing the clients; N.D.R. Prof. Conduct Rule 1.4(a), Communication, by failing to reasonably consult with the clients about the manner in which their objectives were to be accomplished and by failing to make reasonable efforts to keep them reasonably informed about the status of their cases; N.D.R. Prof. Conduct Rule 1.5(a), Fees, by charging unreasonable fees for his services, including charges for overhead items; N.D.R. Prof. Conduct 1.15(a), Safekeeping Property, by failing to hold retainers separate from his own property and not placing them into a IOLTA account; and N.D.R. Prof. Conduct 1.16(e), Declining or Terminating ...