In the Matter of the Application for Disciplinary Action Against Michael Ward, a Member of the Bar of the State of North Dakota Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court, Petitioner
Michael Ward, Respondent
A. Heintz (argued) and Kara J. Johnson (appeared),
Disciplinary Staff, for petitioner.
H. McLean (argued) and Ian McLean (appeared), for respondent.
1] Attorney Michael Ward objects to a report of a hearing
panel of the Disciplinary Board finding he violated rules of
professional conduct and recommending he be suspended from
the practice of law for two months and pay the costs and
expenses of the disciplinary proceeding. We conclude there is
clear and convincing evidence Ward violated N.D.R. Prof.
Conduct 1.3, N.D.R. Prof. Conduct 1.4, and N.D.R. Prof.
Conduct 1.16(e). We accept the hearing panel's
recommendation, suspend Ward from the practice of law for two
months, and order he pay $8, 284.78 for the costs and
expenses of the proceeding.
2] Ward was admitted to practice law in North Dakota in July
1966 and currently practices as a member of a law firm in
Minot. In his private practice, Ward primarily focuses on
accounting, estates, IRS related matters, and bankruptcy.
Bankruptcy accounts for about 20 percent of Ward's
practice. Brenda Grubb was one of Ward's administrative
assistants. She worked with Ward for 13 years and assisted
Ward with two to ten bankruptcy petitions per month. Grubb
left the firm in 2012, but returned to work with Ward for a
short period from April 22 to May 25, 2013. This disciplinary
proceeding stems from Ward's representation of Robert and
Kelly Stigen in their bankruptcy case.
3] The hearing panel found that on April 24, 2013, the
Stigens paid Ward $1, 500 to secure a Chapter 7 discharge in
bankruptcy, and on May 20, 2013, Ward filed on behalf of the
Stigens an 84-page bankruptcy petition. On June 28, 2013, the
Stigens attended the meeting of creditors with Ward and the
bankruptcy trustee. The Stigens brought to the meeting their
unfiled 2012 tax returns, which indicated they would receive
refunds, and learned the trustee wanted an appraisal on a
snowmobile they owned. The Stigens subsequently obtained an
appraisal and claim they gave it to Ward. Between July 1 and
November 4, 2013, the trustee sent eight letters to Ward and
called him with questions about the Stigens' unfiled tax
returns and the appraisal of the snowmobile. Ward did not
forward these letters to the Stigens. Ward ceased contact
with the trustee, even though the trustee threatened an
adversary action against the Stigens. After being contacted
by the IRS, the Stigens filed the tax returns.
4] On November 26, 2013, the bankruptcy trustee filed an
adversary complaint against the Stigens to deny the
bankruptcy discharge for failing to provide the trustee with
the tax refunds and the snowmobile appraisal. Upon being
served, the Stigens unsuccessfully attempted to contact Ward,
so they found a different attorney to take their case and
file an answer to the adversary complaint. The Stigens and
the bankruptcy trustee eventually entered into a settlement
agreement and the adversary proceeding was dismissed. One of
the conditions of the settlement agreement, demanded by the
trustee, was that the Stigens file a disciplinary complaint
against Ward. After taking over representation, the new
attorney asked Ward for the Stigens' file, but Ward did
not provide a complete copy of the file. Following
commencement of these proceedings, about seven months after
Ward's termination of representation, Ward returned the
$1, 500 flat fee to the Stigens.
5] The petition for discipline against Ward alleged
violations of N.D.R. Prof. Conduct 1.1 (competence), N.D.R.
Prof. Conduct 1.3 (diligence), N.D.R. Prof. Conduct 1.4
(communication), and N.D.R. Prof. Conduct 1.16(e)
(terminating representation) while acting as the Stigens'
attorney in their bankruptcy case. Ward denied the charges
and requested dismissal. Following a hearing, the panel found
Ward violated these rules because he failed to be competent
in his representation of the Stigens in the bankruptcy
proceedings, failed to be diligent in his representation by
not promptly providing information to the bankruptcy trustee,
failed to have reasonable and sufficient communication with
the Stigens regarding their bankruptcy, and failed to provide
the Stigens' subsequent lawyer with their complete client
file. The panel specifically found "the Stigens'
testimony regarding the events and documentation both
provided to and received from Ward regarding their bankruptcy
was more credible than that of Ward or members of Ward's
staff, " and "Ward's failures to adequately
communicate what was occurring within the Stigens'
bankruptcy was due to negligence." The panel recommended
that Ward be suspended from the practice of law for two
months and pay $8, 284.78 for the costs and expenses of the
6] Ward argues the hearing panel erred in determining there
was clear and convincing evidence that he violated any of the
rules of professional conduct charged.
7] In Disciplinary Bd. v. Carpenter, 2015 ND 111,
¶ 9, 863 N.W.2d 223, we explained:
This Court reviews disciplinary proceedings de novo on the
record. Disciplinary Board v. Light, 2009 ND 83,
¶ 6, 765 N.W.2d 536 (citations omitted). Disciplinary
counsel must prove each alleged violation by clear and
convincing evidence, which means the trier of fact must be
reasonably satisfied with the facts the evidence tends to
prove and thus be led to a firm belief or conviction.
Id. The evidence need not be undisputed to be clear
and convincing. Id. We give due weight to the
findings, conclusions, and recommendations of the
Disciplinary Board, but we do not act as a mere rubber stamp
for the Board. Id. To decide which sanction, if any,
is appropriate, each disciplinary matter must be considered
on its own facts. Id.
Because the hearing panel has the opportunity to hear
witnesses and observe their demeanor, we accord special
deference to the panel's findings on matters of
conflicting evidence. Disciplinary Board v. Bullis,
2006 ND 228, ¶ 12, 723 N.W.2d 667. Similarly, we defer
to the hearing panel's findings on the credibility of a
witness, because the hearing panel has the opportunity to
observe the witness's demeanor and hear the witness
testify. Disciplinary Board v. Johnson, 2007 ND 203,
¶ 22, 743 N.W.2d 117.
(quoting Disciplinary Bd. v. Askew, 2010 ND 7,
¶¶ 8-9, 776 N.W.2d 816).
8] Ward argues the hearing panel erred in determining there
was clear and convincing evidence that he violated N.D.R.
Prof. Conduct 1.3 relating to diligence.
9] Rule 1.3, N.D.R. Prof. Conduct provides that "[a]
lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in
representing a client." Comment  to N.D.R. Prof.
Conduct 1.3 states in part:
 A lawyer should pursue a matter on behalf of a client
despite opposition, obstruction or personal inconvenience to
the lawyer, and take whatever lawful and ethical measures are
required to vindicate a client's cause or endeavor. A
lawyer must also act with commitment and dedication to the
interests of the client and with zeal in advocacy upon the
Diligence is a core requirement "of an attorney's
duty to zealously and faithfully pursue a clients's
interests, " and an attorney's "lack of
preparation, lack of attention, lack of vigilance and lack of
communication undermine the caliber of attorney performance,
the quality of the result[, ] the temper of the relationship
with the client, " and "diminishes client trust and
confidence in the attorney." Disciplinary Bd. v.
Britton, 484 N.W.2d 110, 112 (N.D. 1992).
10] The hearing panel found that between July 1 and November
4, 2013, the bankruptcy trustee sent eight letters to Ward
and made a phone call to him raising questions about the
Stigens' tax returns and the requested appraisal of the
snowmobile and asked Ward to contact him about these
concerns. The panel found Ward did not forward the letters to
the Stigens or provide them with any instruction how to
respond to the trustee's concerns, and failed to provide
documentation and information to the trustee that was
provided to him by the Stigens. The panel found "Ward
totally ceased contact" with the trustee between August
28, 2013 and November 4, 2013. The panel concluded there was
clear and convincing evidence Ward violated N.D.R. Prof.
Conduct 1.3 because he "knowingly failed to promptly
provide information and documentation regarding the
Stigens' taxes and snowmobile, to the bankruptcy
11] Ward claims there is not clear and convincing evidence of
a violation of the rule because the Stigens were difficult
clients who did not heed his advice. Ward testified he did
not recall receiving an appraisal of the snowmobile even
though he requested one from the Stigens. Ward also blames
these disciplinary proceedings on the bankruptcy trustee and
suggests that the Stigens' testimony is suspect because
they were required to bring this disciplinary proceeding as
part of the settlement agreement. Therefore, Ward argues the
Stigens' testimony is skewed because of their desire to
be discharged in bankruptcy.
12] Although the settlement provision is unusual, a
reasonable inference to be drawn from it is the trustee's
frustration in dealing with Ward in this bankruptcy
proceeding. The hearing panel specifically found "the
Stigens' testimony regarding the events and documentation
both provided to and received from Ward regarding their
bankruptcy was more credible than that of Ward or members of
Ward's staff." Deferring to the panel's findings
on credibility, see Carpenter, 2015 ND 111, ¶
9, 863 N.W.2d 223, we conclude there is clear and convincing
evidence Ward violated N.D.R. Prof. Conduct 1.3. SeeDisciplinary Bd. v. Seaworth, 1999 ND 229, ...