SUPREME COURT OF ILLINOIS
535 N.E.2d 808, 126 Ill. 2d 509, 129 Ill. Dec. 43 1989.IL.113
JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the court. STAMOS and CALVO, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
DECISION OF THE COURT DELIVERED BY THE HONORABLE JUDGE MILLER
On July 19, 1985, the Administrator of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission filed an eight-count complaint charging the respondent, Ronald Sherman Samuels, with professional misconduct in his handling of various clients' cases. A panel of the Hearing Board found against respondent on seven of the eight counts and recommended that he be suspended from the practice of law for one year. The respondent filed exceptions to the Hearing Board's report and recommendation. The Review Board concurred in the Hearing Board's report and recommendation. The respondent filed exceptions with this court pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 753(e)(5) (107 Ill. 2d R. 753(e)(5)).
Respondent was licensed to practice law in this State in May 1969. From 1977 to the present, respondent has been a partner with the law firm of Washington, Kennon, Hunter & Samuels. In 1982 and 1983, five of respondent's clients, Lee Jones, Roosevelt Long, Jesse Robinson, James Ellis and Audrey Gant Holmes, filed separate complaints with the ARDC. The clients alleged that during a six-year period between 1977 and 1982, respondent had undertaken to represent them in various matters and had neglected their cases. The facts surrounding each client's complaint are set forth below.
Lee Jones was involved in an automobile accident on January 1, 1977. Thereafter Jones consulted with and retained respondent to represent him in a suit against the driver of the other car involved. Respondent filed suit on Jones' behalf in the circuit court of Will County on December 21, 1977 (Jones v. Morris (Will Co. Cir. Ct.), No. W77 -- B -- 7216 -- M). While the case was pending Jones received a settlement check in the amount of $467.51 from the other driver's insurer. Respondent and Jones agreed that the settlement was inadequate and decided to continue with the lawsuit. Jones turned the check over to respondent who kept it in his file. Jones contacted respondent periodically about the status of his case and was told that the case was proceeding.
In 1979 Jones asked respondent on several occasions to dismiss the suit and to give him the settlement check, because in Jones' opinion the case was taking too long and he wanted the money. Respondent refused to turn over the check unless Jones paid him $600 for services rendered and costs. Jones declined to do this. Respondent then explained his costs and fees to Jones and convinced Jones to continue with the case. In August 1982, over four years after the suit had been filed, Jones again asked respondent about the status of his case. In response to his client's inquiry, respondent called the clerk of the court and learned that Jones' case had been dismissed the previous year. A month later, respondent informed Jones of the dismissal. Although respondent noted on Jones' file folder that he told Jones he would attempt to have the case reinstated, respondent testified that he never took any steps to reinstate or refile the case. Respondent also admitted that he never returned the check from the insurance company to Jones.
Roosevelt Long was seriously injured in a fire that occurred in his apartment on November 14, 1976. While he was in the hospital, his wife, Julia Long, consulted Mr. Hunter, a partner in respondent's law firm, about filing a suit against Wallace Reid, Jr., one of the owners of the apartment building, and Home Investment Company, the management company. Mr. Hunter died in February 1977. The Longs then consulted with and retained respondent to handle the matter.
Wallace Reid died in September 1977. Mrs. Long telephoned respondent's firm and left a message for respondent reporting that Reid had died. Respondent makes no claim that he did not receive the message concerning Reid's death. Reid's estate was admitted to probate on October 14, 1977 (In re Estate of Wallace Reid, Jr. (Cook Co. Cir. Ct.), No. 77 -- P -- 8222), at which time letters of office were issued. For three consecutive weeks in October and November 1977, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin published the notice of death of Wallace Reid, stating that claims not filed within six months after the issuance of letters would be time-barred as to the inventoried estate. On March 3, 1978, the executor submitted an inventory of the estate listing its assets in excess of $370,000.
On August 1, 1978, respondent filed a $1 million personal injury suit on Long's behalf in the law division of the circuit court of Cook County naming Home Investment Company and Reid's estate as joint defendants. (Long v. Home Investment Company and Estate of Wallace Reid by Heritage Standard Bank, Executor (Cook Co. Cir. Ct.), No. 78 -- L -- 15340.) Two days later, on August 3, 1978, over nine months after the issuance of letters, respondent filed a claim against the estate. The lawsuit was dismissed for want of prosecution on August 13, 1981, when respondent failed to appear at a court call, but was refiled in July 1982 (No. 82 -- L -- 14197). Reid's estate was closed on October 30, 1981, after Long's suit against the estate had been dismissed and before it was refiled.
Throughout this period, Long made numerous attempts to contact respondent by telephone and wrote to respondent on several occasions about the matter. Respondent met with the Longs on September 17, 1982. At this meeting, respondent told the Longs that he had been unsuccessful in locating defendant Home Investment. Respondent further informed the Longs that if he was unable to find that defendant in the near future he would not pursue the case.
Dissatisfied with respondent's handling of his case, Long retained another attorney, and respondent withdrew from the matter in February 1983. In June 1983, the court granted the motion of the estate's former executor to dismiss it as a party to the personal injury action, leaving only Home Investment Company as a defendant in the tort case. The former executor's motion had asserted that the executor could no longer be sued since Long's claim against the estate had not been timely filed and the estate was properly closed. Long's new attorney was successful in obtaining a $450,000 judgment against Home Investment on Long's behalf. However, because Long's new attorney was unable to discover any assets of Reid's estate which had not been included in the inventory, Long's petition to reopen the estate was denied on the grounds that his claim had not been filed within six months of the issuance of letters as required by section 18-12 of the Probate Act of 1975 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 110 1/2, par. 18-12). No evidence was presented that Long has been able to collect any portion of the $450,000 judgment against Home Investment. From the record it appears that the only money Long received as a result of the suit was $88,260 in settlement of a legal malpractice action against respondent and his firm.
Another of respondent's clients, Jesse Robinson, was transferred from his position as an electrical worker at the Chicago Transit Authority to that of a ticket agent on August 16, 1978. Robinson subsequently filed complaints, with the Illinois Fair Employment Practices Commission , regarding the transfer against both his employer, the CTA, and his union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers . Robinson retained respondent and paid him $250 to represent him at the FEPC fact-finding hearings on the complaints and to advise him of his legal options. After adverse initial determinations, respondent filed a request for reconsideration of the CTA complaint with the FEPC. Respondent, however, did not request the FEPC to reconsider the IBEW complaint. In early 1980, the FEPC rendered a final decision on both complaints adverse to Robinson.
Robinson then retained respondent to prosecute his actions against the CTA and IBEW in Federal court. Respondent explained to Robinson that the FEPC would refer the charge to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the EEOC would issue a right-to-sue letter. Respondent told Robinson that once he received the letter he would file the lawsuit.
Between March 1980 and November or December 1980, Robinson paid respondent $1,500 to represent him. Although the EEOC issued the right-to-sue letter in May 1980, respondent claimed throughout the disciplinary proceedings that he was unaware of this fact. Respondent's claim that he did not know of the right-to-sue letter was substantiated by the Robinson case file folder, on which respondent noted in August 1980 that there was no right-to-sue letter and that no case was pending. Respondent, however, told Robinson in August 1980 that the lawsuit was proceeding and further informed him in September 1980 that he had received the right-to-sue letter. Respondent and Robinson again talked in November 1980. At that time, respondent told Robinson that the lawsuit would take a while. After Robinson made the final payment on the retainer, respondent told him that suit had been filed and that they were waiting for a court date. Respondent ...