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In Re Betts

OPINION FILED OCTOBER 3, 1985.

IN RE JOHN A. BETTS, ATTORNEY, RESPONDENT.


Disciplinary proceeding.

JUSTICE MORAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied December 11, 1985.

The Administrator of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission filed a complaint charging respondent, John A. Betts, with professional misconduct. The charges stem from respondent's participation in a conservatorship proceeding. The complaint alleged that respondent knowingly made false statements in the filing of a petition for conservatorship; that he knowingly created false evidence; and that he engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, deceit and misrepresentation. The Hearing Board found respondent guilty of the above charges and recommended that he be suspended from the practice of law for a period of one year. Both the Administrator and respondent filed exceptions with the Review Board. The Review Board concluded that the Administrator had not proved the charges by clear and convincing evidence and recommended that the complaint be dismissed. (94 Ill.2d R. 753(e)(3).) We granted the Administrator's petition for leave to file exceptions to the report and recommendation of the Review Board. 94 Ill.2d R. 753(e)(6).

At issue is whether the charges of misconduct were proved by clear and convincing evidence. Additionally, respondent contends that he was denied a fair hearing, in part, because the Hearing Board conducted hearings over a seven-week period instead of on a continuous basis in violation of Rule 9.1 of the Rules of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110A, following par. 771.) He also maintains that members of the Hearing Board represented clients with adverse interests to those of respondent in civil matters related to the charges in this proceeding, and that the hearing panel erroneously precluded respondent from introducing certain evidence.

The relevant facts are as follows. Respondent was admitted to the Illinois bar in October 1975. Soon thereafter he began representing Lyle and Robert Weber in various business and real estate transactions. The Webers owned a realty company. In March 1978, respondent, on behalf of the Webers and himself, approached Emil Knutson and inquired whether Knutson's property was for sale. The Webers and respondent were interested in developing a residential subdivision on Knutson's property, a 20-acre tract in La Salle County. According to Lyle Weber, respondent was to provide all the legal services involved in purchasing and subdividing the parcel in return for a one-third interest in the subdivision project.

Knutson, who was then 79 years old, had lived on the property for most of his life. His only source of income consisted of benefits from a pension and social security amounting to approximately $600 a month. According to respondent, the only structure on the property was an "old ramshackle beaten-down building." After viewing the property, respondent inquired whether the property was for sale. Knutson offered to sell the property for $500 an acre, or $10,000.

Respondent thereafter discussed the possible purchase with the Webers. They agreed with respondent that Knutson's asking price of $10,000 was acceptable and directed respondent to prepare a title report on the property. The title search revealed that Knutson owned approximately a 51% interest in the property. The other owners were relatives of Knutson. According to respondent, Knutson denied knowing the whereabouts of any of his relatives. However, Knutson testified that he told respondent that he had a niece who lived in California, and another who lived in Chicago.

Upon discovering Knutson's fractional interest, respondent stated that he attempted to locate the other owners. By examining records in the township assessor's office, respondent found the name and address of Carol Mitchell, a niece of Knutson who lived in California. Mitchell did not have an interest in the property at that time. She testified, however, that Knutson had promised to devise the property to her in his will. Respondent called Mitchell on March 19, 1978, regarding the whereabouts of any relatives who might have had an ownership interest in the property. Mitchell told respondent that he could not purchase the property because Knutson was not the sole owner. She refused to give him the addresses of any relatives. Respondent testified, however, that he learned from their conversation that only two other relatives — Mary and Edward Knutson — had a substantial interest in the property. Respondent also learned from Mitchell that these two relatives lived near Dixon, Illinois. In an effort to locate Edward and Mary Knutson, respondent called directory assistance and the Dixon, Illinois, police department. Both attempts were unsuccessful. Thereafter, on March 26, 1978, respondent again called Mitchell and requested that she furnish him with the addresses of relatives having an interest in the property. Mitchell refused.

On March 29, 1978, respondent, along with the Webers, purchased Knutson's interest for the agreed price. As part of the agreement, the Webers also paid $1,000 in real estate taxes due on the property. In addition, the quitclaim deed from Knutson to Lyle Weber reserved to Knutson the "[r]ight * * * to retain use of the East 150 feet of the Real Estate * * * for his lifetime or until his abandonment of the premises whichever comes first." Subsequently Weber conveyed title to the parcel by warranty deed to the First National Bank of Ottawa in trust. Respondent was named the sole beneficiary. A title insurance policy was issued in the name of the trustee, and "John Betts owner of property[.] Development contract among Lyle P. Weber, Robert F. Weber & John Betts."

Prior to the purchase, police had investigated several disturbances on the Knutson property. The evidence introduced at respondent's hearing showed that the number of disturbances on the property increased significantly after the March 1978 conveyance. The evidence also showed that Knutson's living conditions were substandard.

Tom Templeton, a La Salle County deputy sheriff, testified that he visited Knutson's residence in the fall of 1978. Upon entering Knutson's trailer he found several persons, including Knutson, unconscious on the floor. According to Templeton, all of the persons in the trailer had been drinking. He observed garbage strewn about the trailer, and human excrement on the floor. The trailer smelled of sewage. He testified that a hole cut in the corner of the trailer was being used as a toilet.

David Keller, chief of police of the Seneca police department, testified that he had responded to several disturbance calls on the property. On each occasion he said that Knutson appeared to have been intoxicated. Several other law-enforcement officials testified about the conditions and disturbances on the Knutson property. They testified that the property had become a center for certain undesirable young people. They also testified that they had received complaints from neighbors about noise, drinking, fighting, and the use of firearms on the property.

The numerous complaints about the disturbances and conditions on the property culminated in a meeting attended by the La Salle County State's Attorney, respondent, the Webers, and several of Knutson's neighbors. The State's Attorney testified at respondent's hearing that he suggested that a conservatorship for Knutson be considered as a solution to the problem. He also suggested that respondent employ John W. Hardin III, a local attorney, to institute the conservatorship proceeding.

Respondent contacted Hardin on September 22, 1978, and inquired whether Hardin would be interested in serving as conservator. After meeting with Knutson and observing his living conditions, Hardin agreed to represent respondent in the conservatorship proceeding. Thereafter, Hardin requested a hearing and assistance for Knutson from the Manlius Township Health Board.

On October 2, 1978, respondent asked Dr. Terrance W. Love, a physician, to accompany him to the Knutson property for the purpose of making an examination. Dr. Love testified that his examination consisted solely of history taking, interrogation, and close observation of Knutson and Knutson's living conditions. He left his medical instruments in the car at the request of respondent, who stated that he believed Knutson would become belligerent if the purpose of the visit was made known to him. Once inside Knutson's trailer, Dr. Love discovered that it was filled with garbage and infested with rodents. Both the trailer and Knutson's clothing smelled of urine. Dr. Love also observed that the trailer lacked plumbing, electricity, water or a telephone. A woodburning stove in the trailer did not function. There was no food in the trailer.

Dr. Love also testified that Knutson appeared to suffer from several physical ailments, including a severe eye irritation, a fungal infection in the fingernails, enlarged joints in the fingers, and clubbing, which indicated a lung problem. Dr. Love observed that Knutson suffered unintentional tremors in his hands, a symptom he attributed to parkinsonism or alcoholism. Respondent subsequently prepared an affidavit signed by Dr. Love which stated that it was Dr. Love's opinion that Knutson was "physically and mentally incapable of managing his personal estate and his person within the meaning prescribed" by Illinois law.

The Manlius Township Health Board conducted a hearing on October 6. Knutson, respondent, and Hardin were present at the hearing. The Board discovered that Knutson had spent the $10,000 he had received in March for the sale of his property. The Board also discovered that Knutson had spent all but $1.47 of his monthly pension and social security benefits within three days of their receipt, leaving him without any source of income for nearly a month. The Health Board determined that Knutson's "health condition and the physical condition of his living quarters * * * indicate that he needs supervision in daily ...


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