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
J. Johnson (argued) and Ryan A. Heintz (appeared),
Disciplinary Staff, Bismarck, N.D., for petitioner.
H. McLean (argued) and Ian McLean (appeared), N.D., for
W. VandeWalle, C.J., Dale V. Sandstrom, Daniel J. Crothers,
Lisa Fair McEvers, John T. Paulson, S.J. The Honorable John
T. Paulson, S.J., sitting in place of Kapsner, J.,
for disciplinary action.
[¶1] Attorney Michael Ward objects to a
report of a hearing panel of the Disciplinary Board finding
he violated professional rules of conduct and recommending he
be suspended from the practice of law for four months and pay
the costs of the disciplinary proceedings. Ward argues the
hearing panel erred in finding he violated N.D.R. Prof.
Conduct 1.1 relating to competence and N.D.R. Prof. Conduct
1.3 relating to diligence. We conclude there is not clear and
convincing evidence of a violation, and we decline to adopt
the hearing panel's recommendation. We dismiss the
petition for discipline.
[¶2] Ward was admitted to practice law in
North Dakota in 1966. On April 2, 2012, Margaret Oakland
contacted Ward to inquire about representation for contesting
her father's will and revocable trust. On April 3, 2012,
Oakland emailed Ward copies of documents related to her case.
Oakland claims she included a letter dated March 12, 2012,
from the trustee of her father's trust, notifying her
that she had 120 days to contest the validity of the trust.
Ward's office staff later notified Oakland that he was
unable to take her case at that time. Oakland hired Chris
Kennelly to represent her, and she objected to the will
within the probate case.
[¶3] On May 1, 2012, Ward contacted Oakland
by email, requesting she call him. His email also stated that
he thought some of the documents she sent him were
interesting but it seemed like a complicated matter and he
would have a better understanding after speaking to her.
Oakland spoke to Ward, but continued to be represented by
[¶4] On May 17, 2012, Ward contacted Oakland
and offered to take her case on a contingent fee basis, and
Oakland later decided to have Ward represent her. In a letter
dated June 4, 2012, Oakland notified Kennelly she wanted to
be represented by a different attorney, she would like the
change of counsel to be completed as soon as possible, she
did not want him to perform any more billable services, and
she wanted to pick up her file. Oakland emailed a copy of
this letter to Ward.
[¶5] On June 14, 2012, Oakland met with Ward
in Grand Forks. Oakland testified that she asked Ward whether
he was her attorney and he confirmed he would be representing
her. Oakland gave Ward additional documents and the file from
Kennelly's office, which she claimed contained the March
12, 2012, letter from the trustee informing her she had 120
days to contest the validity of the trust.
[¶6] In late June and early July, Oakland
sent Ward emails about completing the substitution of counsel
because Kennelly was still the attorney of record for the
case and he continued to receive correspondence related to
the case. On July 10, 2012, Ward sent Kennelly a notice of
substitution of counsel for Kennelly to sign. Notice of
substitution of counsel was filed with the district court on
July 11, 2012. In August 2012, Oakland received a contingent
fee agreement from Ward.
[¶7] In September 2012, Ward amended
Oakland's objection in the probate case to include an
objection to the trust. On October 15, 2012, Ward spoke to
the trustee's attorney and was informed that the 120-day
statute of limitations to contest the validity of the trust
had passed. On October 18, 2012, Ward initiated a civil case
contesting the will and the trust. On October 20, 2012,
Oakland informed Ward she had included the March 12, 2012,
notice letter in the documents she emailed him on April 3,
2012. The next day, Ward informed Oakland he was ending his
representation. Oakland represented herself in the probate
proceedings, but she was unsuccessful and her objection to
the probate of her father's will was dismissed. The
district court's decision was affirmed on appeal. In
re Estate of Gassmann, 2015 ND 188, 867 N.W.2d 325.
[¶8] In April 2014, disciplinary counsel
filed a petition for discipline against Ward, alleging he
violated N.D.R. Prof. Conduct 1.1 related to competence,
N.D.R. Prof. Conduct 1.3 related to diligence, and N.D.R.
Prof. Conduct 1.4 related to communication. Disciplinary
counsel alleged Ward failed to act with reasonable competence
and diligence in challenging Oakland's father's will
and trust and he failed to adequately communicate with