Are Attys Being Held Accountable For Client Sexual Contact?

By Hannah Albarazi | June 28, 2023, 8:34 PM EDT ·

After reviewing the case of an attorney accused of sexually assaulting six of his clients, Missouri Supreme Court Judge Zel Fischer had one question: Why are we letting this man keep his law license?

The allegations against Dan K. Purdy were severe — that he sexually assaulted four female clients incarcerated at Missouri's Vernon County jail in 2020 and then, in 2021, after being notified of an investigation into his conduct, sexually assaulted a female client who accepted a ride in his car and groped yet another client in open court.

But in March, a divided Missouri Supreme Court held that Purdy, 86, would be "indefinitely" suspended, not disbarred. And that "indefinite" has a possible end date: Purdy could ask for his suspension to be lifted in March of next year.

The decision shocked Judge Fischer, who expressed deep distress that his colleagues in the majority chose not to disbar Purdy.

"Anything less than disbarment will not protect the public or preserve the legal profession," Judge Fischer wrote in a dissent signed by two other judges.

But a Law360 review of attorney discipline records reveals that while Purdy's case is extreme, he's far from the only attorney who's been allowed to keep their law license after having sexual contact with clients.

Missouri, like the majority of states, has a bright-line rule prohibiting attorney-client sexual contact. Yet, there and across the U.S., attorneys who have been found to have had sexual contact with clients are rarely disbarred for directly violating that legal ethics rule, and are often allowed to continue practicing law after a reprimand or suspension.

A Law360 investigation of publicly accessible attorney disciplinary records and dozens of state supreme court decisions since 2015 found more than 100 examples of attorneys being disciplined after having sexual contact with clients. The number of disciplined lawyers is likely higher, as some states, including Texas and California, restrict public access to attorney disciplinary records by limiting the ability to search the records for specific conduct.

The alleged misconduct runs the gamut, from consensual sexual affairs, to sexting with clients, to demanding sexual favors for legal services, to sexual assault.

While stealing from a client or being convicted on corruption charges are surefire ways for an attorney to get disbarred, Law360's findings show that sexual contact with clients is not typically a career-ending offense. In the vast majority of cases reviewed by Law360 — roughly 86% — attorneys held onto their law licenses after being disciplined for engaging in sexual contact with or sexual harassment of their clients. In most cases, attorneys received either a public reprimand or a suspension ranging from one month to multiple years.

Among those disciplined for sexual contact with clients were current and former prosecutors and public defenders, former judges and judicial candidates. The contact often happened in law offices, or in some cases, in courtroom conference rooms, motels, a client's home or in jail interview rooms.

Law360's analysis found that roughly one in 10 cases involved some sort of quid pro quo arrangement in which attorneys sought or received sexual favors in exchange for legal services. While three of the attorneys who engaged in such behavior were disbarred, the rest received a reprimand or suspension. One surrendered his license in lieu of receiving discipline.

Many attorneys appeared to be repeat offenders. Roughly a fifth of the 105 attorneys disciplined engaged in sexual contact or sexual harassment of more than one client, with disciplinary authorities and courts frequently finding that individual attorneys had engaged in a pattern of taking advantage of clients who were emotionally or economically vulnerable. At least one attorney had been fired decades earlier for sexually harassing female coworkers.

Attorneys also admitted to lying to judges or investigators, or encouraging their clients to lie, when confronted with allegations about the sexual misconduct.

Many of the disciplined lawyers also often proved to be ineffective advocates for their clients. Law360's review of attorney disciplinary cases found that nearly half of the attorneys who engaged in sexual contact with clients also failed to appear at those clients' hearings, jeopardized child custody and divorce cases, missed court deadlines, left clients uninformed about their cases or mishandled client funds.

All but five of the disciplined lawyers in the records reviewed by Law360 were male, while nearly all clients were female.

Law360's survey revealed that out of more than 100 attorneys who had sexual contact with clients, only 15 were disbarred or had their law licenses annulled. However, those who were disbarred also tended to have engaged in other misconduct, making it difficult to discern whether the sexual contact with the client was the main reason for their disbarment.

For instance, one now-disbarred Wyoming attorney who had sex with a client while representing her in a child custody battle allegedly told that client that he had the ability to improperly influence the presiding judge in her case and instructed her to destroy text messages that could reveal the misconduct.

In West Virginia, an assistant prosecutor had his license annulled — that state's equivalent to disbarment — and was indicted on charges of sexual assault and imposition of sexual intercourse on an incarcerated person after he was found to have had sexual contact with at least three female clients, as well as with criminal defendants and their family members. The disciplinary authorities determined that his ethical violations were particularly egregious because they betrayed the public trust attached to the office.

Likewise, disciplinary authorities found that a now-disbarred Washington attorney who had a sexual relationship with a client involved in a divorce proceeding knowingly withdrew his clients' funds to cover expenses and fees for other clients.

Attorneys Behaving Badly

Attorneys disciplined for engaging in sexual contact with clients often did so with multiple clients, had quid pro quo arrangements and/or provided ineffective legal counsel.

Out of 105 total, attorneys disciplined who...

Offered to or engaged in legal work in exchange for sexual favors from clients.
12 attys

Proved to be ineffective advocates for their clients.
44 attys

Engaged in sexual contact or sexual harassment of more than one client.
23 attys
Source: Law360's analysis of attorney disciplinary records

'A Gentle Slap of the Wrist'

In Missouri, Purdy's pattern of sexually assaulting clients came to the attention of the Vernon County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the county jail, in September 2020, when security cameras captured footage of Purdy molesting clients. The footage showed him grabbing clients, reaching underneath their jumpsuits and kissing them on the mouth, according to the state Supreme Court's opinion.

The sheriff's office interviewed the client-victims and shared the footage with Missouri's Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, which subsequently alerted Purdy that he was under investigation.

During the investigation, the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel received two more reports of Purdy groping clients: while driving his car and in open court.

The Missouri's Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel charged Purdy with violating the Rules of Professional Conduct and after an evidentiary hearing, a disciplinary panel determined Purdy should be disbarred for his conduct.

But Purdy, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. He told the state high court that he believed his clients were "enticing" him and that his law license should be immediately reinstated.

In the 4-3 majority opinion, authored by Judge George W. Draper III, the Missouri Supreme Court acknowledged that Purdy sexually assaulted his clients multiple times over an extended period, writing, "Purdy's unwanted sexual assaults happened in the jail, in open court, and in his private vehicle."

Purdy engaged in a conflict of interest, sex discrimination and conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice toward his clients, the majority held. In addition, the court found his "qualified, after-the-fact remorse" to be disingenuous.

But despite all those findings, the majority rejected the recommendation to disbar Purdy, opting instead to indefinitely suspend his law license and allow him to apply for reinstatement after one year, finding such discipline to be "consistent with the [American Bar Association's] Standards and discipline imposed by this court in prior cases."

Some legal experts say Purdy's case shines a light on the need for greater transparency when it comes to how lawyers are disciplined.

"I think most members of the public would be shocked to know how lax this self-regulating profession is toward lawyers who have sexually preyed upon their clients," Gillian R. Chadwick, a professor at Washburn University School of Law, told Law360.

Last year, Chadwick wrote a law journal article digging into what she found to be the "remarkable leniency" in discipline for attorneys who violated prohibitions on sexual relations with clients. One of the forces that have weakened disciplinary consequences in these cases, Chadwick argues, is the doctrine of proportionality, which courts tend to follow to ensure that sanctions are comparable to those previously imposed in similar cases, as appears to have been done in the Purdy case.

Relying on past cases to justify discipline in attorney-client sexual contact cases runs the risk of courts "importing regressive social norms and beliefs into their contemporary analysis and judgment," Chadwick said.

One of the past cases the Missouri Supreme Court examined in rendering its decision in Purdy's case was a 1986 matter involving an attorney who had been accused of sexually harassing an incarcerated client and then sexually assaulting her after she was released. In that case, the Missouri Supreme Court agreed to let the attorney, Donald C. Littleton, reapply for his law license after a six-month suspension.

But the Purdy majority was not swayed by the strongly worded dissent in the Littleton case, penned by the now-deceased Missouri Supreme Court Judge Warren Welliver. Someone who makes sexual advances toward a client, Judge Welliver wrote, "is not a person ethically qualified to represent the public in legal matters."

"The suspension is nothing more than a gentle slap of the wrist," he added. "Wrist slapping does not protect the public, it deceives and misleads the public."

The dissenting judges in Purdy's case echoed Judge Welliver's words.

"In my view, Mr. Purdy's conduct, which was clearly and explicitly depicted in the video evidence, warrants disbarment," Judge Fischer wrote, adding that it is "inconceivable" that any other discipline would be appropriate.

A Culture of Leniency

Law360's analysis of attorney disciplinary records since 2015 revealed that Purdy is not the only attorney to have avoided disbarment after being found to have molested clients.

In Washington State, a court appointed attorney Jason M. Feldman to represent a client in a domestic violence case. The client, referred to in court documents as M.R., had recently divorced and was fighting for custody of her child.

According to disciplinary records, the client alleged that Feldman sexually assaulted her at his law office. She became physically sick and emotionally upset after the assault and reported it to the police. The Washington State Bar Association's Office of Disciplinary Counsel validated her allegations and determined that Feldman had indeed sexually assaulted her.

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel also determined that Feldman "may have persuaded M.R. to plead guilty to a charge she believed she was innocent of for the sole purpose of expediting his relationship with her."

Despite these findings, the disciplinary counsel recommended, and the Washington Supreme Court in 2016 agreed, that Feldman's law license should be suspended for 2 ½ years.

In June 2023, Washington State bar records showed Feldman had an active law license. He did not respond to a request for comment.

What Happens When Attorneys Get Caught?

The vast majority of attorneys found to have engaged in sexual contact with clients keep practicing law.

Out of 105 total attorneys

15 attys

47 attys for 1 year or less 23 attys for over 1 year

Public reprimand
14 attys

Resigned in lieu of discipline
5 attys

Received probation
1 atty
Source: Law360's analysis of attorney disciplinary records

Legal ethics rules in every U.S. jurisdiction clearly spell out that it is a conflict of interest for an attorney to put their own interests above those of their clients and that attorneys who engage in criminal misconduct or intentional misconduct that seriously adversely reflects on their fitness to practice law can expect to face disbarment.

To avoid any ambiguity about whether attorney-client sexual contact is acceptable, the ABA put forth a model rule over 20 years ago that states: "A lawyer shall not have sexual relations with a client unless a consensual sexual relationship existed between them when the client-lawyer relationship commenced."

Today, most U.S. states have adopted that rule in order to prevent predatory behavior in the legal profession. In those states, and in others that have taken the view that attorney-client sexual contact is a legal ethics violation, disciplinary authorities often turn to the ABA's standards for imposing lawyer sanctions when considering discipline, according to the disciplinary rulings reviewed by Law360.

However, those standards do not directly address sex with clients, or sexual misconduct more generally. Instead, the ABA's Black Letter Rules for imposing lawyer sanctions merely state that disbarment is generally appropriate when an attorney intentionally tries to benefit themselves at their client's expense.

These standards, which were last amended in 1992, also spell out that disbarment is generally appropriate for an attorney whose dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation raises serious questions about their fitness to practice law, or when they do something like selling drugs or committing an intentional homicide.

But the Black Letter Rules don't say disbarment is generally appropriate for rape, other sex crimes or sexual contact with a client.

Chadwick, the Washburn University professor, argues that by not spelling that out, the ABA standards leave disciplinary authorities to draw their own conclusions about the seriousness of the misconduct.

"Thus, on their face, the Standards take selling drugs more seriously than raping a client," Chadwick wrote in a law journal article last year.

In a separate ABA document, known as the annotated standards for imposing lawyer sanctions, attorney-client sexual relationships and sexual misconduct are addressed head-on, but disbarment isn't mentioned as a possible sanction unless the client is a minor. The annotated standards note that "inappropriate relationships or transactions with clients rise to conflicts of interest justifying suspension."

The ABA declined to comment on its standards or the findings of Law360's investigation.

But the tendency toward suspension for sexual misconduct instead of more severe punishment is apparent in disciplinary records.

In April 2021, for instance, the Wisconsin Supreme Court's Office of Lawyer Regulation found that attorney James C. Ritland had coerced or quid pro quo sexual relationships with vulnerable women, luring them to his law office and engaging in sexual activities with them there. A jailhouse note Ritland wrote to a female client stated that he expected "six free ones" from her in exchange for paying her bail.

Ritland's law license was suspended for two years. In June 2023, Wisconsin state bar records showed his law license remained suspended. Ritland did not respond to Law360's requests for comment.

Similarly, in 2016, when disciplinary authorities in New York found that attorney Richard R. Shaw II agreed to represent a client in exchange for sexual contact — which resulted in his conviction for loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense — Shaw received only a censure.

Shaw, who did not respond to Law360's requests for comment, still has an active law license, according to New York state court records.

In laying out their reasoning for the censure, the disciplinary authorities said they considered Shaw's argument "that the misconduct occurred at a time when he was experiencing family difficulties and mental health issues for which he has since sought treatment, and his expression of extreme remorse."

Appropriate Discipline?

Many of the disciplinary cases reviewed by Law360, including Purdy's, showed disciplinary panels, boards and state supreme courts acknowledging the exploitative nature of the attorneys' acts, but nonetheless approving requests or recommendations for reduced discipline. They often cited past precedent or an attorney's sex addiction, substance abuse problem or remorse to justify reduced discipline.

But legal experts say granting leniency for attorney-client sexual contact negatively affects public safety and diminishes trust in the legal profession.

Chadwick said disciplinary authorities are failing to recognize that sexual violence is a serious injury to a client, and that attorneys who use their position to engage in such acts of power to violate a client's trust, dignity and bodily autonomy should face the most severe professional discipline: disbarment.

However, others in the legal community argue that presumptive disbarment is too heavy-handed, as there may be situations where attorney-client sexual relationships are consensual.

While Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek partner Dan Eaton, who teaches business ethics at San Diego State University and helped overhaul the California State Bar's ethical requirements for attorneys, told Law360 that "underenforcement of a professional disciplinary rule tends to breed disrespect for the rule and the profession to which it applies," he stopped short of calling for presumptive disbarment.

Eaton said attorneys should only be disbarred for sexual contact with a client "in extreme cases, such as where an attorney takes advantage of an especially vulnerable client or in cases involving repeat offenders."

Prior to California's 2018 adoption of an explicit ban on attorney-client sex, the California Bar Association's Office of General Counsel noted that between late 1992 and early 2010, there had been 205 complaints over attorney-client sexual contact filed in California alone. But only one resulted in disciplinary action.

Illinois attorney Sari Montgomery, a partner at Robinson Stewart Montgomery & Doppke LLC, said there may be times when attorney-client sexual contact is consensual.

But in cases where the lawyer "truly is exploiting the power imbalance in the relationship, then harsher sanctions are appropriate," said Montgomery, who previously spent more than a decade prosecuting attorneys on behalf of the Illinois Supreme Court's Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

"Certainly, if an attorney is convicted of sexual assault or rape, that would be grounds for disbarment," she said. "Similarly, even if there is no criminal conviction, if, in a disciplinary case, an attorney was found to have engaged in sexual assault or rape, the attorney would also likely be disbarred or otherwise indefinitely suspended." 

But in dozens of cases since 2015 alone, attorneys who had sexual contact with clients — even when unwanted — have been allowed to continue to practice law after a reprimand or suspension.

Law360's analysis of attorney disciplinary records since 2015 found that of the more than 100 disciplinary cases involving attorney-client sexual contact, nearly half resulted in a suspension between one month and one year in length. About a quarter resulted in a suspension between one and three years in length. Of the remainder, about an equal number of attorneys were disbarred or given a public reprimand.

Further, Law360's analysis found that like Purdy, at least three other attorneys were suspended "indefinitely" for sexually assaulting or harassing a client, and were likewise allowed to apply for reinstatement after one to two years' suspension. A handful of attorneys resigned in lieu of discipline.

Casey Baker, an assistant professor who teaches law and business at Marshall University in West Virginia and has researched attorney-client sexual relations, noted that "practically every observer acknowledges that attorney-client sexual relationships are problematic, due to the potential for conflicts of interests, breach of trust and issues of confidentiality."

If an attorney is willing to put their client's interests at risk in order to pursue a sexual relationship, Baker said, that attorney might also be more likely to engage in other risky and unethical conduct.

However, prescriptive discipline for such conduct may not be the answer either, according to Baker.

"This really should be considered on a case-by-case basis," he said.

Increasing Accountability

Law360's analysis of attorney disciplinary records reveals that discipline for sexual contact with clients can vary depending on where the attorneys practice and who is determining the discipline.

Legal experts told Law360 there might be better ways to approach the problem of such conduct.

Baker suggests giving an attorney who wishes to pursue a sexual relationship with a client the ability to withdraw from representation, saying that "better allows the attorney to compartmentalize the aspects of his or her life into public and private spheres."

"Most states currently do not allow attorneys to withdraw in such instances — attorneys are prohibited from engaging in the conduct, period," Baker told Law360.

Chadwick told Law360 that there are several steps bar associations and disciplinary authorities could take to improve accountability and reduce instances of sexual contact between attorneys and clients, including requiring attorneys to inform clients that attorney-sexual contact is prohibited when they sign a retainer, increasing diversity on disciplinary boards and creating a survivor-centered model of attorney discipline.

Disciplinary authorities and courts "have consistently prioritized the subjective experience of the offending attorney to the near total exclusion of the client-victim's subjective experience," Chadwick wrote in her law review article, adding that the ABA Standards' list of aggravating factors could include ones that center victims' perspectives.

"Currently, client-victims' voices are marginalized in the attorney discipline process and their suffering is minimized," Chadwick wrote. "That needs to change."

--Editing by Alanna Weissman and Marygrace Anderson. Graphics by Ben Jay.

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