Revoked law licenses leave clients in limbo

When Christopher Tomas Junk, 23, arrived at Prince William Circuit Court on March 5, he expected a judge and a prosecutor. He also expected his lawyer. Instead, the Manassas resident was given two weeks to find new legal representation.

Junk had retained Manassas attorney Kelly K. Latimer, paying her $4,600 for her services. But Latimer gave up her license to practice law March 7, the same day she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine charges in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

Junk’s refund has yet to come.

Latimer was one of seven attorneys statewide whose license to practice law has been revoked since January 2003. Twenty-seven attorneys had their licenses revoked by the Virginia State Bar in 2002, and 25 in 2001, according to state bar disciplinary records.

Latimer had been a criminal defense attorney in Manassas for about a decade, and was twice a Prince William Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney, in 1987-88 and in 1999.

“The judge gave me two weeks to come up with another lawyer,” said Junk, a backhoe operator earning $12 an hour. “On a circuit court trial, which you know costs a very large amount of money; and I got four kids. Coming up with that kind of money is really hard for someone like me. I just think it’s very unfair how the courts are being about this.”

Junk is charged with hit and run personal injury, felony driving under the influence, felony driving on a suspended license, misdemeanor driving without insurance and misdemeanor refusal. His was one of 14 cases Latimer had remaining active in the Prince William Circuit Court when she turned in her license. General District Court Clerk Margaret Cox said she was unable to tell how many open cases Latimer had in the District Court; she has requested a report from the Virginia Supreme Court with those numbers.

Junk was unable to find an attorney within the allotted two weeks, so on March 14, Circuit Court Judge William D. Hamblen granted him a further week. Junk said he had contacted five different attorneys in the first two weeks, but none had worked out.

“Two said they didn’t have time because they knew the judge would rush it. One said $10,000 [to take the case],” Junk said after the March 14 hearing. “I basically got screwed.”

Junk said he had called Latimer’s office and spoken with her attorney but hadn’t reached her. He stopped by her office, but found “three or four weeks” of mail on the doorstep.

“I haven’t heard of anyone who thought they were owed a refund,” Latimer said April 9.

Manassas attorney Gregory Stambaugh, appointed to represent Latimer in the charges against her in federal court, had no comment March 31 on whether Latimer would refund clients’ fees.

“My position is making the files available to new counsel,” Stambaugh said March 31.

For several weeks prior to Latimer’s March 7 court date in U.S. District Court, more than one client appeared in Prince William County courts expecting Latimer to represent them.

“Recently, there’s been a period of time where she’s been winding down the practice. She’s had necessary court appearances and matters,” Stambaugh said March 11.

Another defendant who had retained Latimer was unable to hire another attorney after Latimer stopped practicing. The court certified the defendant as indigent and appointed Manassas attorney Tony Kostelecky to represent her on charges of grand larceny and misdemeanor false police report.

“I feel terrible for her [the client] and embarrassed for the profession,” Kostelecky said April 9. “She paid a lawyer a lot of money and ended up with a job left unfinished.”

On March 26, another client was transported from the Manassas jail to Prince William Circuit Court to be told by Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. that Latimer would not be able to represent him. Whisenant inquired how long it would take Daniel Eugene Robinson, 34, to retain new counsel. Robinson, of Fairfax, is charged with assault and battery of a police officer and possession of cocaine.

“It might take me a little while. I pretty much lost $5,000,” Robinson said. He was granted three weeks to find a new attorney.

“The bulk of my clients, who were actually appeals to the Circuit Court, signed retainer fees for General District Court,” Latimer said April 9. “I was just doing them a favor if I thought [the case had] an appealable issue.”

Latimer said she took appeals of these clients’ dispositions in General District Court to Circuit Court for free. However, the three clients described above are all facing a felony charge or charges, meaning that only arraignment and preliminary hearings would take place in General District Court. The trials for these individuals will take place in Circuit Court.

Junk was advised by area attorneys to file a complaint against Latimer with the Virginia State Bar and to seek monetary relief through the bar’s Client Protection Fund. Kostelecky informed his client of the CPF, as “no one else had bothered to.”

But the CPF has no short-term fix for these clients.

The CPF board, comprised of 14 volunteer attorneys, meets only three times a year. The board investigates each claim and reimburse injured parties at its discretion “according to the circumstances,” the VSB Web site says. The CPF board can reimburse all or part of the client’s loss, up to $25,000 for losses incurred prior to July 1, 2000, or $50,000 for losses incurred thereafter.

“The attorney is supposed to notify all clients [when she or he ceases practicing]. We do notify the courts, so the judge knows what’s going on,” said Barbara Williams, bar counsel for the Virginia State Bar. “They [attorneys] should return the retainer [if they have not earned it]. The clients can always sue, they’re not without recourse. The CPF only pays what the attorney can’t or won’t pay.”

The CPF was founded in 1976 to “make monetary awards to persons who have suffered financial losses because of dishonest conduct by Virginia lawyers,” according to the State Bar’s Web site. A portion of every licensed Virginia attorney’s mandatory dues goes to the CPF.

“It’s a dependable board, and they try to work quickly,” said Laura Busch, a Virginia State Bar staff member working with the Client Protection Fund. “We usually don’t try to split hairs, if there’s a clear case of dishonest conduct …”

Busch said the number of claims the CPF receives vary every year. Sixty-four claims have been made since this fiscal year began July 1. The two proceeding years saw 76 and 60 claims, respectively.

At least one of those 60 claims was brought against former Manassas attorney Thomas Eugene Burks. He was one of 20 Virginia lawyers whose law license was revoked in 2000. Burks was convicted in Prince William Circuit Court of multiple charges of embezzling and money laundering, leaving an estimated 60 to 80 open cases in his practice.

An additional protection was provided for Burks’ clients: another attorney was appointed by the court as the receiver of Burks’ office files. In instances of attorney disability, illness or disciplinary action, the circuit court can appoint another attorney to receive the original attorney’s files. The receiver takes over open cases in the practice until the clients are able to find new counsel. No receiver has been appointed for Latimer’s practice.

“Receiverships aren’t done in the majority of cases,” Busch said. “The bar couldn’t afford to take over every case. … A receiver is very expensive; there are 37,000 lawyers in Virginia.”

Alexandria attorney Richard Mendelson was appointed receiver of Burks’ cases, a process which is still ongoing. Latimer’s files were placed in receivership for several months in 1994 and 1995, court records show. Disability and absence from Northern Virginia were reasons cited for appointing Burks and another Manassas attorney, Mark Voss, receivers of Latimer’s files at that time. Invoices Burks and Voss filed with the Circuit Court show their work on 16 individuals’ cases. The invoices’ combined charge for the receivership was $3,937.50.

As for Junk, closure has yet to come.

A month after Latimer left his case, Junk was declared indigent. Manassas attorney Robert King was appointed to represent him Friday.

Robinson is expected to report his efforts at retaining new counsel on April 18 and Kostelecky will represent his client in May.

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