ANNOUNCEMENT OF DISCIPLINARY DECISIONS
November 19, 2012 10:00 am
The Supreme Court of Illinois has announced the filing of lawyer disciplinary orders entered during the November Term of Court. Sanctions were imposed because the lawyers engaged in professional misconduct by violating state ethics law.
In re AVALON E’LAN BETTS-GASTON, Attorney Number 6271949
Post Office Box 1133
Matteson, Illinois 60443-4133
File Number: M.R. 25529, 2008PR00005
Avalon E'lan Betts-Gaston was licensed in Illinois in 2000 to practice law
was disbarred November 19, 2012.
Over a period of time, Avalon Betts Gaston engaged in several different acts of
mortgage fraud/equity stripping. In doing so, she caused significant
harm to several clients, all of whom were vulnerable and experiencing
serious financial problems. The clients lost money and several lost their
homes. She was suspended on an interim basis on June 29, 2011.
Filed March 30, 2011
BEFORE THE HEARING BOARD
ILLINOIS ATTORNEY REGISTRATION
Commission No. 08 CH 5
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE HEARING BOARD
The hearing in this matter was held on April 19, 20, 22, and 23, 2010, at the Chicago offices of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission ("ARDC") before a Hearing Board Panel consisting of Lawrence S. Beaumont, Chair, George M. Shur and Robert A. Wilson. Tracy L. Kepler appeared on behalf of the Administrator of the ARDC. Respondent appeared pro se.
On January 9, 2008, the Administrator filed a six-count Complaint pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 753(b). The Administrator alleged Respondent engaged in a conflict of interest when representing clients in six separate real estate transactions. Respondent filed an Answer to the Complaint, admitting some of the factual allegations, denying some of the factual allegations, and denying all allegations of misconduct.
The Administrator presented the testimony of 13 witnesses, including Respondent, and Administrator's exhibits 2, 3, 8, 10-16, 18-20, 22-45, 49-59, 64-79, 81-89, 91-94, 96, 97, 100-107, 109-113, 115-121, 123,-125, 128, 129, 138-146, 148-151, 155-169, 171 and 173, which were admitted into evidence. Respondent testified on her own behalf, presented five witnesses, and Respondent's exhibits 1-95, 99-161, and 163-182, which were admitted into evidence.
Respondent is a sole practitioner. She was also an approved attorney for First American Title Insurance Company, which allowed her to act as a title agent and review title reports. W2X Inc., was an Illinois corporation engaged in the business of real estate ventures and assisting homeowners who were involved in foreclosure proceedings. Warren Jackson was the president of W2X. (Tr. 97-98).Between May 2004 and October 2005, Jackson referred 11 cases to Respondent in which Respondent ordered and cleared title to real estate and provided legal representation at the closings. (Tr. 853-54).Shaunte Thomas (Shaunte) was a licensed real estate broker, doing business as Majestic Realty. Jackson had an ongoing referral relationship with Shaunte in which she advised and consulted with Jackson on real estate matters, including clearing title of properties, managing properties and locating tenants for properties. Shaunte was paid various amounts for her services. (Tr. 95-125).In 2005, Kendra Thomas (Kendra) met Jackson. Jackson told Kendra he was looking for investors to assist property owners get out of foreclosure. Kendra decided to become an investor to make some money. (Tr. 484-86). She was the buyer in six real estate transactions, including the purchase of Helen Hachett's house. (Tr. 489-90, 504). Respondent represented Kendra at the real estate closings. (Tr. 485-86). Kendra knew a loan would be taken in her name, but she did not directly apply for the loan and was not required to contribute any money for the purchases. (Tr. 487-88). Kendra became involved in purchases because she was supposed to be paid by Jackson for her participation. She received $2,500 for the first two purchases. (Tr. 541-43). Kendra did not see Hatchett's house before she purchased it, she did not know the purchase price, and she did not sign the real estate contract or the disclosure document. (Tr. 490-91; Adm. Ex. 3). Kendra signed a loan application for the purchase of Hachett's property, but did not review it before signing it. The application contained inflated amounts for her income, bank account and rental income. (Tr. 494-95, 500-504, 534-35).
Helen Hatchett is 74 years old and has been retired since 1988. (Tr. 41-42). In 1971, Hatchett, her husband, and her mother, Ida Mae Quinn, purchased a house located at 10458 S. Vernon in Chicago. (Tr. 43-44). Prior to 1995, there were no outstanding debts owed on the property. In 1995, without Hatchett's knowledge, Quinn obtained a mortgage on the property for $12,000 from NationsCredit Financial Services Corporation. Quinn died on December 5, 2003, without fully paying the mortgage. Hatchett learned about the loan when her house was about to go into foreclosure. (Tr. 44-46; Adm. Exs. 10, 11).Shortly after Hatchett learned of the foreclosure proceedings, she received a solicitation from Jackson and W2X. (Tr. 46-48, 71-72; Adm. Ex. 2). The solicitation stated:W2X INC, will keep the Sheriff's [sic] from evicting you and leaving you out doors with nothing . . . Give you an opportunity to live free for 12 months, paying only your Utilities. That you will have adequate time to get back on your feet. W2X INC. is a corporation, that believe in giving people a real chance to make there [sic] situation right. After living free for 12 months, you have the option to do one of the following: 1st Stay and continue to pay your mortgage on the monthly basis. 2nd Leave at anytime during the 12 months, without any cost. 3rd Buy the building back! (Adm. Ex. 2). Based on this information, Hatchett called Jackson and met him at her house. Jackson told Hatchett he would take care of the foreclosure by putting the deed in his name for one year. After that time, he would transfer the deed to her, and she would repay the money. (Tr. 48-50, 69-76; Resp. Ex. 5). Jackson gave Hatchett some documents to sign, and she signed them without reviewing them. She was unsure if she signed a real estate sales contract. However, a real estate sales contract dated August 31, 2005, contained Hatchett's purported signature. (Tr. 50-52, 77-78, 83-86; Adm. Ex. 3). The contract stated that Hatchett agreed to sell her house to Kendra Thomas for $145,000, and pay Kendra three per cent of the purchase price toward closing costs. Respondent was listed as Hatchett's attorney, but she was not present at the meeting, and Hatchett never met her. Hatchett had a brief conversation with Respondent on the telephone after Jackson called Respondent and handed the telephone to Hatchett. (Tr. 52-54, 75-76; Adm. Ex. 3). She never called Respondent's office because Jackson told her to contact him with any questions. (Tr. 86-87). Hatchett was not aware that she was selling her house. (Tr. 51). Subsequently, Respondent began gathering documents required for the closing including ordering the title policies, and requesting mortgage payoff letters. (Tr. 860-63; Adm. Exs. 8, 10, 11).In October 2005, Respondent prepared the documents necessary to effectuate the closing and gave them to Jackson on October 6, 2005. Jackson brought the closing documents to Hatchett and she signed them. One of the documents was a power of attorney giving Respondent authority to act as Hachett's "attorney-in-fact" and to execute all necessary documents for the real estate transaction on Hachett's behalf. (Adm. Ex. 12). Ross signed the power of attorney certifying she witnessed Hatchett sign it. At Respondent's direction, Respondent's secretary notarized Hatchett's purported signature. At no time did Ross or Respondent's secretary observe Hachett sign the document.Another document was a disclosure statement informing Hatchett and Kendra that Respondent had a financial interest in First American, stating the estimated costs, and informing them they were not required to use Respondent's services. Respondent also prepared, and Jackson had Hatchett sign, a warranty deed. Respondent notarized Hatchett's signature, although she did not witness Hatchett sign the deed. Respondent's notary acknowledgment on the deed states that Respondent certified Hatchett "personally known to me to be the same person(s) whose name(s) are subscribed to the foregoing instrument, appeared before me this day in person, and acknowledged that they signed, sealed and delivered the said instrument as their free and voluntary act." (Adm. Ex. 13). Respondent was not present when Hatchett signed the documents and Respondent did not explain them to her. Respondent testified that Jackson gave her the signed documents along with Hatchett's driver's license so Respondent could compare the signatures. (Tr. 53-56, 860-63, 948-51; Adm. Exs. 8, 11, 12, 13).The closing took place on October 7, 2005. Present at the closing were Shaunte, Kendra, Ross, Respondent and Clennie Hernandez, the settlement agent. Hatchett was not at the closing. Respondent explained the documents to Kendra and told her where to sign them. Respondent did not discuss the sales contract, leaseback terms, loan application or mortgage terms with Kendra. (Tr. 516-17, 527, 551-52). Kendra and Respondent did not explicitly discuss whether Respondent was her attorney, but Kendra thought Respondent was her attorney. Kendra did not pay Respondent an attorney's fee. Respondent did not believe she was Kendra's attorney. (Tr. 528-29, 957). Respondent did not inform Kendra that she had a financial interest in First American, her relationship with W2X or of any conflict of interest. (Tr. 517-19; Adm. Ex. 16). Kendra paid the mortgage, with money Jackson gave her, until May or June 2006. (Tr. 522-23).A check in the amount of $117,959.50 was issued by the First American Title payable to Hatchett. Respondent gave that check to Shaunte, who was supposed to give it to Hatchett. (Tr. 863-64; Adm. Ex. 16). Hatchett never saw the check and did not endorse it. On October 11, 2005, that check was deposited into W2X's bank account. Two checks were written to Respondent, one in the amount of $500 for attorney's fees, and one in the amount of $686 for title agent fees. (Tr. 57-58; Adm. Ex. 16). On October 8, 2005, Hatchett received $3,000 from Jackson. (Tr. 58-60). Respondent believed Hatchett received the check for the sales proceeds. (Tr. 954-53).Subsequently, Hatchett began to receive mail at her house addressed to Kendra. On July 20, 2006, Kendra sent Hachett a letter requesting that Hachett mail the rental payments beginning August 1, 2006. Hatchett did not know she was supposed to pay rent. (Tr. 60-62, 968; Adm. Ex. 18). Hachett never made a rental payment, and Kendra defaulted on the mortgage. (Tr. 524-25; Adm. Exs. 18, 19). Kendra still owns the property, but there is litigation pending against her. Hatchett's house is the only property she currently owns. (Tr. 525-26). Kendra's participation with W2X has hurt her credit rating. (Tr. 526-27).When Hatchett realized something was wrong, and she hired an attorney, Michelle Weinberg, who filed a lawsuit on her behalf. The matter is pending in the circuit court. Hatchett is still living in her house. The experience has negatively affected her opinion of attorneys. (Tr. 62-68).
RYM Technology Holdings (RYM) was a company engaged in real estate investment, debt elimination and financing. Between May 2004 and August 2005, Respondent had an ongoing referral relationship with RYM, and accepted 22 referrals. (Tr. 864-65). D'Mona Ross worked for First Choice Funding, as a mortgage broker. Eva Breckenridge and Onshelle Jackson were third-party investors associated with RYM. Felix Daniel was the president of RYM. The RYM program provided that a property owner would put her property in trust and be able to pay off the mortgage in five years. During the five years, RYM, not the buyer, made the down payment and the mortgage payments. (Tr. 427-28). Daniel explained the program to Respondent, but did not explain how the money would be invested during the five year period. (Tr. 423-26, 460-61, 865-68, 957-58). Between June 2004 and early 2006, Breckenridge was the buyer of 13 properties with RYM. (Tr. 426). After the closing on each property, Breckenridge received $1,500. (Tr. 430).
Jacqueline Judge lived in a three-flat on Walnut Street in Chicago, and for 10 years, operated a child care business in her home. In 2004, she refinanced the building, and her payments were $1,500 per month. After experiencing some health problems, she fell behind on her mortgage payments. (Tr. 129-32). Judge learned of the program offered by RYM in which her property would be put in a trust until she could catch up on her mortgage payments. (Tr. 132-33).
Shirley Muhammad, from RYM, met Judge at her house. Muhammad was responsible for explaining the program to the Judge and obtaining her signature on the necessary documents. Judge signed several documents, including a sales contract, but did not read those documents and the blanks were not filled in. She did not notice that on some of the documents her signature was next to the word "seller." (Tr. 134-35, 140-42, 171-72, 869-70; Adm. Exs. 22, 23, 24). The sales contract listed the sales price of the property at $360,000, with the seller agreeing to pay up to six per cent of the sales price towards the buyer's closing costs. Respondent was listed as the seller's attorney and Breckenridge as the purchaser. Muhammad was listed as the purchaser's broker. Breckenridge signed the contract without negotiating the terms or reviewing it. (Tr. 431-32; Adm. Ex. 22).
In September 2004, Respondent agreed to represent Judge in the sale of the property, and accumulated and processed the documents required for the closing, including ordering title insurance policies from First American. (Tr. 871-75; Adm. Exs. 27, 28, 30, 31, 32).
On November 19, 2004, Judge attended a closing at First American Title. Also at the closing were Respondent, Breckenridge, Ross and a settlement agent from First American. During the closing, Respondent directed Judge to sign numerous documents including the warranty deed and residential lease and trust agreement. Respondent did not explain any of the documents to her. Judge had a question about one of the documents, and asked Respondent about it. (Tr. 135-39, 142-47, 174, 432-33; Adm. Ex. 33).
Respondent did not tell Judge or Breckenridge she had a financial interest in First American or that there might be a conflict of interest. However, Judge signed a document advising her that Respondent had a financial interest in First American, Judge could "shop around" for a different attorney, and the costs of the title policies and closing fees were on the RESPA statement. (Tr. 145, 147-48, 433-36; Adm. Ex. 33). Respondent never told Judge she was selling her house. (Tr. 166). Breckenridge believed Respondent represented her at the closing. Respondent sat with her and explained the documents before Breckenridge signed them. Breckenridge and Respondent did not have an explicit agreement that Respondent was her attorney. Breckenridge also observed Respondent explain the closing documents to Judge. Breckenridge did not pay Respondent a fee. (Tr. 429-35, 447-48, 455-56).
The residential lease and trust agreement provided that Judge would lease the property for five years, would pay no rent for the first six months, and pay $988.47 each month for the remaining term of the lease. It also provided that Judge conveyed title of the property to a real estate investment trust, of which the landlord, RYM, was the managing director. RYM also had the right to mortgage the property and use the proceeds as it "deems appropriate." RYM would have to repay the mortgage by the expiration of the five year term of the lease. Also at the end of term, the property would be conveyed back to Judge by warranty deed. (Adm. Ex. 33).
After all costs were paid and credits given, Judge was entitled to the net proceeds of $133,635.15. The purchase price was $360,000. Breckenridge borrowed $324,000 and received a seller's credit of $21,600. The difference was closing costs and fees including: $10,790 to Premier Mortgage and/or Ross; $862.50 to Respondent for title services; and $19,948.92, to Breckenridge. The check to Breckenridge contained her purported signature, but she did not sign the check. Judge did not receive the proceeds from the sale until several days after the closing. (Tr. 437, 876-79; Adm. Exs. 33, 34, 35, 36).
Also at the closing, Judge signed a self-amortizing conditional payment note in which she agreed to lend $160,000 to RYM from the proceeds of the sale of her property. The loan would mature at the expiration of the lease term. The parties agreed that, on that date, RYM would give Judge a warranty deed, and Judge would forgive the outstanding amount of the loan. (Adm. Ex. 33). Accordingly, when Judge received the check for the proceeds from the sale, Respondent met with her, and instructed Judge to endorse the check. Judge signed it and gave it to Respondent. The check was sent to RYM and deposited into its bank account. (Tr. 153-55, 174-75; Adm. Ex. 36).
Six months after the closing, Judge began making payments to Real Estate Assets. Judge believed she was making mortgage payments and that she still owned the property. On October 25, 2005, Real Estate Assets sent a letter to Judge informing her that after an escrow analysis, her rent payment would increase to $1,023.64. (Tr. 156-57, 181-82; Adm. Ex. 44). Subsequently, Judge fell behind on her payments. Approximately 18 months after the closing, Judge learned that the mortgage and real estate taxes had not been paid, and the property was in foreclosure. (Tr. 157-62). Judge contacted an attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation, Lea Weems, and on October 12, 2006, Weems filed a petition for intervention in the foreclosure action. (Tr. 162-64).
Breckenridge no longer owns the house. In November 2009, it was foreclosed on and sold. (Tr. 438). Judge is still living in the house, but she understands that she will eventually lose it because of the RYM program.
This experience has negatively affected her opinion of attorneys. She thought Respondent would protect her interests, but she did not. Judge did not know she was selling her house or that a mortgage would be taken out on it. (Tr. 165-66).
Leatrice Howard lived at 6810 S. Parnell between 1972 and 2008. She paid off her initial mortgage in 1988, but obtained a new mortgage in 2003. (Tr. 205-206). She began having financial difficulty and decided to participate in the RYM program. Howard thought RYM would invest the equity in her property, and in five years she would own the property with no mortgage. She signed numerous documents, including a real estate sales contract, but did not read them. The contract listed Howard as the seller and Breckenridge as the buyer. Breckenridge also signed numerous documents without reading them, including the real estate sales contract. Howard did not think she was selling her home. Under the terms of the contract,
Howard agreed to sell her house to Breckenridge for $145,000, with the seller paying six per cent of the sales price toward the buyer's closing costs. Respondent was listed as the seller's attorney. (Tr. 207-212, 239-41, 439-40; Adm. Exs. 49-52). Respondent agreed to represent Howard in the transaction, and gathered documents required for the closing, including the title insurance policy from First American. (Tr. 880-82; Adm. Exs. 53, 54, 55).
On February 7, 2005, Howard attended the closing. Respondent sat next to Howard as she signed the documents. Howard did not read the documents and had some questions, but Respondent told her she would answer the questions later. Howard signed numerous documents, including the warranty deed and a residential lease and trust agreement. Respondent did not explain any of the documents to Howard before she signed them, and did not explain any of the numbers on the settlement statement. Howard did not know she was selling her house. (Tr. 215-21; Adm. Ex. 59).
Respondent did not tell Howard or Breckenridge she had a financial interest in First American Title, that Howard could use a different title company, or that there might be a conflict of interest. However, Howard and Breckenridge signed a disclosure statement advising them that Respondent had a financial interest in First American, and could use a different title company. (Tr. 219-21, 442-44).
The residential lease and trust agreement provide that Howard would lease the property for five years, would pay no rent for the first six months, and pay $381.91 each month for the remaining term of the lease. It also provided that Howard conveyed title of the property to a real estate investment trust, of which the landlord, RYM, was the managing director. RYM also had the right to mortgage the property and use the proceeds as it "deems appropriate." RYM would have to repay the mortgage by the expiration of the five year term of the lease. Also at the end of term, the property would be conveyed back to Judge by warranty deed. (Adm. Ex. 59).
After all costs were paid and credits given, Howard was entitled to the net proceeds of $51,452.59. The purchase price was $145,000. Breckenridge borrowed $130,500 and received a seller's credit of $7,168. The difference was closing costs and fees including: $2,900 to Premier Mortgage and/or Ross; $686 to Respondent for title services; and $15,617.93, to Breckenridge. Howard did not receive the proceeds from the sale until several days after the closing. (Adm. Ex. 59). Howard also endorsed a check in the amount of $51,452.59. (Tr. 222-23; Adm. Ex. 58).
Also at the closing, Howard signed a self-amortizing conditional payment note in which she agreed to lend $59,200 to RYM from the proceeds of the sale of her property. The loan would mature at the expiration of the lease term. The parties agreed that, on that date, RYM would give Howard a warranty deed, and she would forgive the outstanding amount of the loan. (Adm. Ex. 59).
Breckenridge believed Respondent represented her at the closing. Respondent explained documents to Breckenridge before she signed them. Breckenridge did not pay Respondent attorney's fees. (Tr. 442-44, 447-48). Breckenridge received a check in the amount of $15,617.93, endorsed it, it was deposited into RYM's bank account. Breckenridge received $1,500 from RYM for participating in the transaction. (Tr. 444-46; Adm. Ex. 58).
One month after the closing, Howard began making payments of $260 or $270 per month to RYM. (Tr. 223-24). She stopped making payments in March or April 2006 after she learned RYM had not paid the property taxes and mortgage on the property, and the house was in foreclosure. (Tr. 224-26, 247-48, 446). Howard contacted attorney Lea Weems, who filed an action in court on Howard's behalf. (Tr. 226-27). She was forced to move out of the house in October 2008, and the house remains vacant. (Tr. 237). Howard would never have entered into the transactions with RYM if she knew she was selling her house. She planned on living in that house for the rest of her life. (Tr. 237-38). Breckenridge's credit has been "destroyed" because of her involvement with RYM. (Tr. 446).
Shakeela Muhammad (Shakeela) has lived at 5816 S. Rockwell Street in Chicago since 1988. (Tr. 257-60). In April 2003, Shakeela began having financial difficulties after suffering health problems. Shirley Muhammad was a real estate broker who told Shakeela about the RYM program. Shakeela learned that through the program, her house would be put into a trust for five years. During that time, she would be a tenant and pay rent. At the end of the five years, her house would be returned to her with no mortgage. If she did not pay the rent, she would have to leave the house, but would still get it back after five years. If RYM failed to comply with the terms of the agreement, Shakeela could terminate the program. She did not believe she was selling her house, it would simply be in a trust. (Tr. 260-265, 325-29).Shakeela signed several documents, including a sales contract, but she did not read these documents and the blanks were not filled in. Although some of the lines by her signature said "seller" she did not think she was selling her house. She believed she had to sign the papers so her house could be put into a trust. The sales contract listed the sales price of the property at $185,000. Muhammad was listed as the purchaser's broker, and the buyer was Onshelle Jackson. (Tr. 265-73, 330-33, 382-84; Adm. Exs. 64-67). Respondent agreed to represent Shakeela in the transaction, and Shakeela paid her a fee. Respondent accumulated and processed the documents required for the closing, including ordering title insurance policies from First American (Tr. 271-73, 883-85; Adm. Exs. 69-73). Onshelle understood she would act as the buyer of the property, but RYM would make the mortgage payments for the first six months, and buy the house after that period of time. She would receive $1,500 for her participation in the program. Onshelle purchased three properties through the RYM program. She applied for a mortgage for Shakeela's house through D'Mona Ross. Onshelle knew nothing about the property or the terms of the real estate sales contract. (Tr. 376-82).On July 14, 2005, Shakeela attended a closing along with Respondent, Onshelle, Ross and a settlement agent from First American. During the closing, Respondent directed Shakeela to sign numerous documents including the warranty deed and residential lease and trust agreement. Respondent told her where to sign the documents, but did not explain them to her. Respondent did not tell Shakeela or Onshelle she had a financial interest in First American or that there might be a conflict of interest. However, Shakeela signed a document advising her that Respondent had a financial interest in First American, and Judge could "shop around" for a different attorney. Respondent never told Shakeela that she was selling her house. (Tr. 273-80, 334-38, 385, 388-91; Adm. Ex. 75).The residential lease and trust agreement provide that Shakeela would lease the property for five years, would pay rent of $332 for the first month, $300 for the next five months, and $581.29 for the remaining term of the lease. It also provided that Shakeela conveyed title of the property to a real estate investment trust, of which the landlord, RYM, was the managing director. RYM also had the right to mortgage the property and use the proceeds as it "deems appropriate." RYM would have to repay the mortgage by the expiration of the five year term of the lease. Also at the end of term, the property would be conveyed back to Shakeela by warranty deed. Respondent discussed the program with Shakeela and made sure she wanted to do it. (Tr. 1013-16; Adm. Ex. 75). Also at the closing, Shakeela signed a self-amortizing conditional payment note in which she agreed to lend $64,750 to RYM from the proceeds of the sale of her property. The loan would mature at the expiration of the lease term. The parties agreed that, on that date, RYM would give Shakeela a warranty deed, and she would forgive the outstanding amount of the loan. (Adm. Ex. 75).After all costs were paid and credits given, Shakeela was entitled to the net proceeds of $44,156.71. The purchase price was $185,000. Onshelle borrowed $166,500. The difference was closing costs and fees including: $4,995 to Premier Mortgage and/or Ross; $350 to Respondent for attorney's fees; $12,004.43, to pay Shakeela's back federal taxes, and $5,441.59 to Onshelle. (Tr. 75). Shakeela endorsed the check from the proceeds of the sale in Respondent's office without seeing the amount of the check. Respondent told her she was going to give the check to RYM. Onshelle never saw the check payable to her, and did not endorse it. Respondent sent the check to RYM. (Tr. 282-84, 340, 351-52, 391-92, 888-90; Adm. Exs. 75, 76).After the closing, Shakeela started making rent payments to Real Estate Assets. She believed that the real estate taxes and property insurance would be paid by RYM. In November 2005, Shakeela learned that neither her real estate taxes nor insurance had been paid. In December 2005 or January 2006, she received notice of a foreclosure on her house. After receiving the notice, Shakeela attempted to contact Respondent. She also contacted the FBI. Shakeela also met with Onshelle and after Onshelle realized RYM was not making mortgage payments, she gave Shakeela a quit claim deed for her property. (Tr. 285-95, 339, 352-53, 395; Adm. Exs. 76, 77, 79, 81, 82). Subsequently, Shakeela attempted to expose RYM's fraudulent scheme by creating a web site, contacting the media and filing a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General's Office. (Tr. 295-306). Attorney Lea Weems filed a lawsuit on Shakeela's behalf. Weems has been successful in having Shakeela's house returned to her. (Tr. 306-309, 366-67). Shakeela's experience in this matter has negatively affected her opinion of attorneys. (Tr. 309, 318-19).Onshelle believed Respondent represented her at the closing. Respondent sat next to Onshelle, explained the documents to her and told her where to sign them. Onshelle never asked Respondent to represent her and they had no explicit agreement. Onshelle thought RYM provided Respondent as her attorney and paid her fee. Several months after the closing, Onshelle had questions about the legitimacy of the program and she contacted Respondent. (Tr. 386-94, 397-98, 402-404, 410-18; Adm. Exs. 88, 89). Onshelle still owns one of the properties she purchased through the RYM program, and one is in foreclosure. Her participation in the program has negatively impacted her credit rating. This experience has also negatively impacted her opinion of attorneys. (Tr. 400-401).
Respondent and D'Mona Ross owned and managed In Jesus Christ's Name Investments, Inc., (IJCN). Respondent was the registered agent and attorney. IJCN had a business checking account at LaSalle Bank, with Respondent and Ross as the only signatories on the account. Surrina Hamb worked for IJCN and performed administrative and secretarial work. IJCN solicited business by sending materials to homeowners whose houses were in foreclosure. (Tr. 589-97, 890-96; Adm. Exs. 91, 92). IJCN offered two mortgage elimination programs: the "sale option" and the "re-purchase option." Under the sale option, a homeowner would sell his property to one of IJCN's investors, who would take out a mortgage to pay the purchase price and costs. The homeowner would have the option to reside in the property for up to 12 months without making a rent payment. The equity the homeowner had in the property would be put into an escrow account. The investor's mortgage payment would be made by IJCN from the escrow account. Any excess equity would be allocated between the investor, a "risk fund" and program fees. Title to the property would be put in a trust in which IJCN was the sole beneficiary. Respondent and Ross held the power of direction in the trust. The risk fund was the amount set aside to be used for repairs or if the homeowner did not fulfill their obligations under the agreement. (Tr. 898-99, 1024-27; Adm. Exs. 93, 94; Resp. Exs. 169, 178).Under the re-purchase option, a homeowner would sell his property to one of IJCN's investors, who would take out a mortgage to fund the purchase and any costs. The homeowner would have the option of re-purchasing the property within 12 to 18 months at a price five per cent above the previous sales price. During the first six to 12 months, the homeowner would not make any rental payments, and IJCN would make the mortgage payments. After that period of time, the homeowner would make monthly rental payments equal to the mortgage payment. Any excess equity would be allocated between the investor, a "risk fund," and program fees. If the homeowner decided to repurchase the property, any remaining funds in the escrow account would be credited to them. The re-purchase price would be five to ten per cent more than the last sales price. (Tr. 1031-34; Resp. Ex. 178).In each transaction, IJCN used Respondent's legal services and title services, as an approved attorney for Lawyers Title Insurance Company. Ross also worked for NorStar Mortgage d/b/a First Choice Funding, Inc. James Betts is Respondent's father and Bobby Ross is D'Mona Ross's mother. Betts and Bobby acted as third-party investors associated with IJCN and they obtained mortgages, secured by Ross, to purchase properties of the participants in the IJCN programs. Betts and Bobby received payments of between $5,000 and $10,000 for each transaction they completed.Betts learned about IJCN from Respondent. On July 9, 2006, he agreed to act as a buyer of Sandra Spikes-Davis's property. He received $10,000 for his participation in the program. Betts paid none of the costs or fees, and did not make payments on the new mortgage. He understood that the mortgage payments would be made from an escrow fund consisting of the property's equity. He wanted to participate in the program to help people and make some money. (Tr. 654-64, 689-90; Adm. Ex. 112). Ross sent Betts numerous documents, including a loan application, which he signed and returned to her. The initial loan application showed that Betts earned $7,000 per month. A second loan application showed Betts earned $15,000 per month. Betts did not earn those amounts. During this period of time, Betts traded options for his own benefit, had no clients, and did not know how much he earned monthly. Respondent was not involved in the loan process or review the loan application. The loan application also stated that the property would be Betts's primary residence, but that was also not true. (Tr. 665-72, 701-702, 898-99, 984).Sandra Spikes-Davis (Davis) owned a two flat at 7759 S. Trumbull Avenue in Chicago. She purchased the property 14 years ago for $94,000, and lived there with her husband Andre Davis (Andre). Over the years she refinanced the property, and in 2005, her monthly mortgage payment was $921. In early 2005, the Davises began to have financial difficulties, and a foreclosure action was filed against them. (Tr. 782-85). In April 2006, Hamb, who was long-time friend of Davis, referred Davis to Ross who explained the IJCN program. (Tr. 785-89, 601-604). On June 9, 2006, Respondent, or someone acting at her direction, had Davis execute an authorization form allowing IJCN, Respondent and NorStar access to her financial information. On June 15, 2006, Respondent, or someone acting at her direction, forwarded a copy of the authorization to David Garcia, an attorney representing Merrill Lynch in Davis's foreclosure matter. On June 21, 2006, Respondent met with Davis and advised her to transfer title in her property into an IJCN land trust and participate in the IJCN program. Davis executed numerous documents including an agreement for Respondent's legal representation, a blank real estate sales contract, a quit claim deed transferring title into a land trust, a "disclosure statement-controlled business arrangement" form, and a "controlled/affiliated business arrangement disclosure and program election" form. Davis testified that Respondent did not fully explain the documents to her, and several of them were blank. Respondent also never told Davis she would be selling her property, and Davis did not believe she was selling it. Respondent testified she explained the documents to Davis. (Tr. 605-612, 630-40, 789-97, 815-16, 905-908; Adm. Exs. 101, 103,; Resp. Exs. 169, 173, 176, 178, 179).Davis testified that Respondent did not explain any potential conflicts of interest or advise Davis to seek independent legal counsel. However, Davis signed a document acknowledging that some of the companies or individuals who will receive compensation from the transaction have a business relationship or are owners of IJCN. Respondent did not explain this document to Davis before she signed it. (Tr. 824-29; Resp. Ex. 178).On July 5, 2006, Betts purchased three bank checks in the amounts of $2,100, $2,500 and $2,900 payable to Respondent. On July 6, 2006, Betts purchased two additional bank checks in the amounts of $2,500 and $2,000 payable to Respondent. Betts gave the checks to Respondent, and they were deposited into IJCN's bank account. Betts purchased the checks with money from IJCN. (Tr. 686-90, 900-904; Adm. Ex. 105).On July 28, 2006, Respondent, Ross and Betts attended the closing on Davis's property. Davis did not attend the closing because no one told her about it. Hamb brought several of the closing documents to Davis on July 27, 2006, and Davis signed them. (Tr. 641-48, 683, 831-32; Resp. Ex. 184). The purchase price was $225,000. Betts took out two mortgages, one for $180,000 and one for $33,750. After all costs and expenses were deducted, Davis was entitled to the net proceeds of $31,553.48. The difference was closing costs and fees including: $5,400 to First Choice Funding for broker's fees; $650 to Respondent for attorney's fees; and $955 to Respondent for title agent fees. Davis did not receive the net proceeds. Instead, they went to IJCN and were supposed to be put in an escrow account to be used to make the mortgage payments. Betts did not read the documents, including the loan application, before he signed them at the closing. He trusted Ross had properly completed the loan forms. (Tr.684-86, 710-25, 908-11; Adm. Exs. 92, 113).On August 30, 2006, Davis signed a "residential lease agreement and option to purchase." The lease provided that Davis would pay IJCN $1,041.99 in rent each month for the first four months, and $1,887.71 for the next eight months. It also provided that the property could be listed for sale until June 30, 2007, or the next business day following the nonpayment of rent. IJCN would pay the real estate taxes, and water and garbage bills. Davis had the option to re-purchase the property for $236,250. Davis made payments to IJCN in September, October and November 2006. She thought she was making mortgage payments, not rent payments. (Tr. 612-14, 798-805; Adm. Exs. 117, 118, 123, 124, 125, 128). In September 2006, Davis received a letter from Option One, the mortgage company, stating that it had not received full payment for the sale or refinancing of her property. Davis called Respondent, and Respondent told her that Option One had been paid. (Tr. 801-801; Adm. Ex. 119). In December 2006, Betts received a notice that the mortgage was in default, and he faxed the notice to Respondent. In September 2007, Betts received a second notice that the mortgage was in default. (Tr. 693-95).In April 2007, attorney Susan Malone filed a complaint in the circuit court on behalf of Davis and against Respondent, Betts, Hamb, Ross and other defendants. (Tr. 805-807). Betts still owns the property. (Tr. 698).
In August 2005, a foreclosure action was filed against Charles Kmiec (Charles) on the property he owned located at 5140 W. Howard, Skokie, Illinois. The property was the main residence of Charles's girlfriend Teri Reis-Schmidt, and her son. Charles sought assistance to refinance the property from various sources, including IJCN. (Tr. 749-50).On July 5, 2006, Charles executed a form authorizing IJCN, Respondent and NorStar Mortgage to discuss information related to his property. Shortly thereafter, Respondent began gathering documents necessary for Charles to participate in the IJCN program. On July 14, 2006, at Respondent's direction, Charles executed several documents, including a "disclosure statement-controlled business agreement" and a "waiver of conflict of interest." (Adm. Exs. 138-39). Bobby Ross was the buyer of the property and was told she would be paid for her participation. Bobby was not aware of the details of the transaction. (Tr. 555-62, 912-13; Adm. Ex. 141). On August 30, 2006, the closing on the property took place. Respondent directed Charles to sign numerous documents including a warranty deed transferring title of the property to Bobby. The settlement statement provided the purchase price was $395,000. From that amount, Respondent received $1,686 in attorney and title agent fees, and NorStar received $14,895 for broker's fees. Charles was shown to have received $83,955.07 in sales proceeds. The check issued in that amount was deposited into IJCN's bank account, without Charles's signature. Bobby was also at the closing. Respondent and Ross instructed her to sign certain documents, and she signed the documents without reading them. Bobby never paid Respondent a legal fee. Charles and Bobby signed a document waiving any conflict of interest. Bobby did not know what the waiver said, she just signed it because she was told to sign it. (Tr. 561-75, 585-88, 915-16; Adm. Exs. 142, 144, 145, 149, 150, 157, 158, 159).On August 31, 2006, Charles died without a will. He was survived by his mother, Helen, and sister, Michelle. On September 1, 2006, Michelle found the settlement statement from the closing and informed Respondent's assistant that Charles had died. On September 2, 2006, Respondent advised Michelle that IJCN had saved the house from foreclosure. Respondent also explained the IJCN program to Michelle and stated that the fee for the program was $30,000. Michelle told Respondent she was not interested in participating in the program. Respondent told Michelle that the proceeds due Charles from the sale of the house were in escrow and she was making the monthly mortgage payment with those funds. (Tr. 747-54; Adm. Exs. 151, 155).On January 6, 2007, Michelle sent a letter to Respondent requesting a copy of any contracts Charles had entered into, an accounting of the escrow funds, and payment of the remaining escrow funds. On January 16, 2007, Respondent told Michelle she would send the documents. On January 22, 2007, Respondent sent Michelle a letter giving her three options relating to the property: 1) immediately repurchase the property for $414,750 and receive $21,876.30, the remainder in the escrow account; 2) repurchase the property by June 20, 2007, for $420,000 and receive $2,458, the remainder in the escrow account; or 3) allow the current tenant to remain in the property until June 30, 2007, and allow IJCN to sell the property. The letter also stated that IJCN's program fees were $41,101.67. (Tr. 754-58; Adm. Exs. 165, 166). On February 3, 2007, Michelle left a voice mail message for Respondent informing her that she was not interested in the IJCN program, and requested the balance of the escrow account be sent to her. On February 26, 2007, Respondent sent Michelle a letter stating that Charles's "final wish" was to participate in the IJCN program, and IJCN would continue to make mortgage payments. Respondent also asked Michelle to draft an affidavit stating that as Charles's only lawful heirs, Michelle and Helen did not want to participate in IJCN's 12 month foreclosure assistance program, and for IJCN to disburse the $18,769.46 remaining in the escrow account. On March 1, 2007, Michelle wrote to Respondent reiterating her desire not to participate in the IJCN program and requesting a return of the escrow funds. (Tr. 758-60; Adm. Exs. 167, 168). Respondent told Ross to give Michelle the funds, and Ross agreed to do so. However, Ross did not turn over the funds because she did not have the necessary documents. During this period of time, Respondent was not involved in the day-to-day functions of IJCN because she was having a difficult pregnancy. (Tr. 1071-76, 1093-94).Subsequently, Michelle retained the Gleason Law Firm to represent her. Attorneys from that firm intervened in a foreclosure action filed on the property. The foreclosure action is still pending, but the property is no longer habitable. Respondent agreed to settle her claims with Michelle for $35,000, to be paid by February 19, 2010. Respondent has failed to pay any of the settlement to Michelle because she has insufficient funds. A motion to enforce the settlement is pending. Michelle's opinion of attorneys has been negatively affected by Respondent's actions. (T. 760-73, 1094-96).
Respondent is 42 years old and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 2000. (Tr. 1096). Respondent testified that generally, when she represented a client in a real estate transaction, she explained all the closing documents to them. (Tr. 925-39). The only compensation she received from Jackson, RYM and IJCN was attorney fees and title agent fees. (Tr. 940). Respondent represented the sellers in each transaction, not the buyers, and did not receive attorney's fees from the buyers. She might have answered some questions the buyers asked, but she did not represent them. (Tr. 956-57). Respondent was also not involved in the buyers obtaining financing to purchase the properties, and did not know their financial circumstances. (Tr. 961-62).Respondent believed RYM was a Christian organization that wanted to help people. Respondent became involved in these programs to help people who were in foreclosure. She had experienced a foreclosure in 2002, and stated "God had put me through [the foreclosure] because he wanted me to minister to people going through that situation." She had no idea anything bad would happen. (Tr. 994-96, 1046-52, 1088-89). Respondent believed RYM would invest the equity from the properties in commercial real estate and the proceeds would be used to pay off the mortgages. She discussed the program with a RYM attorney. Respondent now realizes that it was a Ponzi scheme. (Tr. 1001-1002).After the RYM program defaulted on the loans and trust agreement, Respondent believed God wanted her to start IJCN to help people not only get out of foreclosures, but to help them with other financial issues. (Tr. 1046-52, 1088-89). Respondent had no experience with mortgage loans, so she trusted Ross to handle that aspect of the business. Regarding IJCN, Respondent trusted Ross, and Ross took advantage of her. If Respondent knew what Ross was doing, she never would have gotten involved with her. (Tr. 1052-54). She set up the trust to protect the sellers, not to take their property. (Tr. 1055-56).IJCN completed transactions on four properties, and took in approximately $175,000. Most of that money was used to make mortgage payments. By December 2006, the balance in the IJCN account was $15,681, far below the amount IJCN should have had from the Davis and Charles transactions. IJCN made mortgage payments until July 2007, when the money ran out, and Respondent continued to make payments with her own money until October 2007. (Tr. 1072-75; Adm. Ex. 125).
Character Witnesses Arthurine Wilkinson is a pastor who has known Respondent since 2004. In 2006 or 2007, Respondent performed pro bono legal services for a Christian organization from Wilkinson's church. Wilkinson opined that Respondent is a giving and honest person. (Tr. 1101-1106).Earnest Ledbetter Jr., is a pastor who has known Respondent all of her life. Respondent has represented Ledbetter in a real estate transaction and has given him legal advice. He believes Respondent is an honest person. (Tr. 1140-43).Suzanne Bolda has known Respondent since 1996. She stated that Respondent has an outstanding sense of fairness and justice. She was not familiar with Respondent's reputation for truth and veracity in the legal community. (Tr. 1144-49).Marchette Turner has known Respondent all her life. She characterized Respondent as honest, fair and loyal. She was not familiar with Respondent's reputation for truth and veracity in the legal community. (Tr. 1152-54).
Respondent has performed charitable work for numerous organizations since she was in college, when she was a member of a public service sorority. She performs several volunteer activities at her church and in her community. She also performs pro bono legal work for various religious organizations, but she does not think it is appropriate to keep track of those hours. She has also completed several real estate transactions pro bono for first-time home buyers. Respondent has been an ordained minister since 2003. She is married and has two children. (Tr. 1154-59).
Respondent has not received a prior discipline.
In attorney disciplinary proceedings, the Administrator must prove the alleged misconduct by clear and convincing evidence. Supreme Court Rule 753(c)(6); In re Cutright, 233 Ill. 2d 474, 910 N.E.2d 581 (2009). Clear and convincing evidence is a standard of proof which, while less than the criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, is greater than the civil standard of preponderance of the evidence. "Clear and convincing evidence has been defined as evidence producing a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the proposition." Cleary and Graham, Handbook of Illinois Evidence, sec. 301.6 (8th ed. 2004). This standard of proof is one in which the risk of error is not equally allocated; rather, this standard requires a high level of proof, both qualitatively and quantitatively, from the Administrator. Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 764-66, 102 S. Ct. 1388 (1982); In re Tepper, 96 CH 543, M.R. 14596 (1998) (Review Bd. at 12). Suspicious circumstances are insufficient to warrant discipline. In re Lane, 127 Ill. 2d 90, 111, 535 N.E.2d 866 (1989).In this case, based on the admitted facts and the evidence and testimony presented at the hearing, we find Respondent engaged in all of the misconduct alleged in the Complaint. Specifically, we find Respondent: 1) overreached; 2) breached a fiduciary duty with a client concerning the objectives of representation and as to the means by which they are to be pursued; 3) failed to keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter; 4) failed to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions about representation; 5) failed to consult with a client concerning the objectives of the representation and as to the means by which they are to be pursued; 6) represented a client where the representation of that client was materially limited by Respondent's own interests or responsibilities to a third person; 7) committed a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects; 8) engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation; and 9) engaged in conduct that tends to defeat the administration of justice or brings the courts or legal profession into disrepute in violation of Rules 1.2(a), 1.4(a), 1.4(b), 1.7(b), 8.4(a)(3), and 8.4(a)(4) of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct and Supreme Court Rule 770.
We find the Administrator proved that Respondent engaged in all of the misconduct alleged in Count I of the Complaint. The evidence presented establishes that Respondent breached her fiduciary duties, overreached, engaged in a conflict of interest, and failed to adequately represent Hatchett in a real estate transaction, committed a criminal act and engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, deceit, fraud or misrepresentation, and conduct which tends to defeat the administration of justice or brings the legal profession into disrepute.We find that Respondent failed to adequately represent Hatchett. Respondent admitted, and the evidence shows, that Hatchett was her client in a real estate transaction. It is undisputed that Hatchett was having financial difficulties and her house was in foreclosure. She learned of the W2X program and thought the program would help her keep her house. She met with Jackson, the president of the W2X, and agreed to participate in the program. Jackson told Hatchett that he would transfer title in her property for one year, and after one year, would transfer the property back to her. Jackson had Hatchett sign numerous documents, including a real estate sales contract, which listed Respondent as her attorney. Hatchett had a brief telephone conversation with Respondent, but never met with her. Respondent did not explain any of the documents or the program to Hatchett. Subsequently, Respondent prepared the closing documents, which included the warranty deed and a power of attorney, and gave them to Jackson. Jackson took them to Hatchett and had her sign them. Respondent never told Hatchett the date of the closing and Hatchett did not attend the closing. Respondent was not present when Hatchett signed the closing documents, and she did not explain any of them to her.The closing took place on October 7, 2005, and Hatchett's house was sold to Kendra. Hatchett did not know her house was being sold and did not intend to sell it. She believed that after one year she would get her house back. Instead, Hatchett lost title to her house, was charged substantial fees by W2X, and lost all of the equity she had in her house. Respondent, as Hatchett's attorney, at a minimum had an obligation to explain the details of the transaction to Hatchett to make sure she understood the nature of the transaction. However, Respondent did nothing to protect Hatchett's interests. She had one brief conversation with Hatchett when the sales contract was signed. She prepared the closing documents, but never spoke to Hatchett about any of them. Instead of representing Hatchett's interests, she was instrumental in assisting W2X defraud Hatchett out of her house. Respondent engaged in overreaching, breached her fiduciary duty to Hatchett and engaged in a conflict of interest. An attorney commits overreaching when he takes undue advantage of or abuses the position of influence she holds in relation to a client. In re Rinella, 175 Ill. 2d 504, 516, 677 N.E.2d 909 (1997). Additionally, the attorney-client relationship creates a fiduciary relationship between the parties as a matter of law. In re Imming, 131 Ill. 2d 239, 253, 545 N.E.2d 715 (1989). As a fiduciary, the attorney owes his client a duty of loyalty, a duty of care, and a duty to avoid conflicts of interest. See In re Vrdolyak, 137 Ill. 2d 407, 422, 560 N.E.2d 840 (1990). Respondent breached the fiduciary duties she owed Hatchett.As discussed above, Respondent did not exercise an adequate duty of care when representing Hatchett. Respondent did nothing to protect Hatchett's interests or ensure she was not taken advantage of by W2X. Respondent, as an attorney, was in a position of influence and took advantage of that position. Hatchett trusted Respondent and Respondent violated that trust. Additionally, there was a conflict of interest created between Hatchett's interests and Respondent's interests. Respondent had a referral relationship with W2X, and had an interest in maintaining that relationship. Respondent had received 11 referrals from W2X to represent individuals in real estate transactions. This conflict is evident by Respondent's conduct which was focused on closing the deal for the benefit of W2X, rather than protecting Hatchett's interests. Respondent's involvement with W2X, and lack of involvement with Hatchett, establishes a conflict of interest, overreaching, and a breach of Respondent's fiduciary duties. Additionally, we find Respondent engaged in criminal conduct when she notarized Hatchett's signature without witnessing it being signed or properly verifying the signature. It is undisputed Respondent is a notary public and notarized Hatchett's signature on the warranty deed which transferred the property from Hatchett to Kendra. The Illinois Notary Act requires a notary public to witness the signature being notarized or verify that the signature is that of the person whose signature is being notarized. 5 ILCS sec. 312/6-102. A notary who willfully violates the Act is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, and a notary who recklessly or negligently violates the Act is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor.Respondent admitted she did not witness Hatchett sign the warranty deed. However, her notary acknowledgment on the deed states that Respondent certified Hatchett "personally known to me to be the same person(s) whose name(s) are subscribed to the foregoing instrument, appeared before me this day in person, and acknowledged that they signed, sealed and delivered the said instrument as their free and voluntary act." Respondent's notary statement was false. Not only did she fail to witness Hatchett's signature, she had never met Hatchett prior to notarizing the deed, and made no effort to determine if Hatchett signed the document. Respondent testified she verified Hatchett's signature by comparing it to the signature on Hatchett's driver's license. We find this testimony not credible. Even if, for the sake of argument, Respondent's testimony were credible, it is inconsistent with her certification which stated Hatchett personally appeared before her and signed the document in her presence. Accordingly, Respondent violated the Notary Act. Respondent's conduct involved dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation, was prejudicial to the administration of justice, and brought the legal profession into disrepute. Respondent lead Hatchett to believe she was representing Hatchett's interests in the transaction, when she was not. She failed to adequately represent Hatchett, which resulted in adverse consequence to Hatchett. Respondent also acted dishonestly when falsely notarizing Hatchett's signature. Further, when an attorney fails to adequately represent a client, to the client's detriment, as Respondent did here, the legal profession is brought into disrepute.
We find the Administrator proved that Respondent engaged in all of the misconduct alleged in Counts II through IV of the Complaint. The evidence presented establishes that Respondent breached her fiduciary duties, overreached, engaged in a conflict of interest, and failed to adequately represent three clients in real estate transactions and engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, deceit, fraud or misrepresentation, and conduct which tends to defeat the administration of justice or brings the legal profession into disrepute.Respondent failed to adequately represent Judge, Howard and Shakeela in real estate transactions involving RYM. All three individuals were experiencing financial difficulties, and decided to use the RYM program to help keep their houses. Each of them believed that under the RYM program, they would put their houses in a trust, which would give them time to catch-up on their mortgage payments. After five years, their mortgage would be paid off, and they would own the house free and clear. None of these individuals believed they were selling their houses.Respondent failed to adequately represent Judge, Howard and Shakeela. It is undisputed that Judge, Howard and Shakeela were Respondent's clients. The most obvious deficiency in Respondent's representation of these clients is her failure to explain the nature of the transactions and the closing documents to them. This is a significant deficiency because without a thorough explanation, Respondent's clients did not understand the most basic fact about the transaction: that they were selling their houses. We will accept, for the sake of argument, Respondent's assertions that she was not involved in these matters until after the real estate sales contracts were signed. Based on this assumption, we will begin our consideration after the contracts were signed. Respondent was listed on the contracts as the seller's attorney, and began the process of accumulating the necessary documents to complete the transactions.At the closing, Respondent directed her clients to sign the documents, but failed to explain the documents to them. These closings were not typical real estate closings, but more complex transactions. Under the RYM program, Respondent's clients were selling their houses, agreeing to rent the houses back, and lending the equity in the house to RYM. It was an unusual and complex scheme. Nevertheless, Respondent failed to explain any of the documents to her clients, failed to explain the implications of the transactions, and failed to give them even a cursory overview of the program. Consequently, Respondent's clients entered into legally binding agreements without understanding the basic nature or ramifications of the transactions.In fact, none of Respondent's three clients even realized the most basic aspect of the transactions: that they were selling their houses. Judge testified that she did not believe she was selling her house, and even six months after the closing, she still believed she owned her house and thought she was making mortgage payments. Howard also testified that at the closing she did not know she was selling her house, and never would have entered into the transactions if she had known she was selling her house. Similarly, Shakeela testified that she did not believe she was selling her house. Additionally, each of Respondent's clients signed a residential lease and trust agreement, and a self amortizing conditional payment note. The leases provided that Respondent's clients could live in their houses for five years and pay a certain amount for rent. During the five year period, RYM could obtain mortgages on the houses. At the end of the five years, the property would be conveyed back to the clients. The conditional payment note involved the clients lending the equity in their houses back to RYM. At the end of the five year term, the clients would forgive the amount of the loans in exchange for warranty deeds to their property. Again, none of the clients understood the terms of these agreements.It is apparent that the reason Respondent did not explain the documents to her clients was because if they understood them, they would not have entered into the program. Based on the evidence presented, we conclude that the RYM program was a scheme to defraud the mortgage lenders, take the homeowners' equity, and leave the homeowners in worse financial condition than before they entered into the program. An examination of each case is illustrative.Judge agreed to sell her house for $360,000. At that time, she owed $199,515 to her mortgage company, and had approximately $160,000 in equity. Breckenridge, the buyer, obtained mortgages on the property for $324,000. After all the fees and charges were deducted, including $25,299 in closing costs, Judge was entitled to $133,635 in net proceeds. According to the terms of the conditional payment note, Judge agreed to lend $160,000 to RYM. Respondent advised Judge to sign the proceeds check, and the check was sent to RYM. Approximately 18 months later, Judge learned that the mortgage payments and real estate taxes had not been paid and the property was in foreclosure. Therefore, on the day of the closing, Judge owned a house worth $360,000, owed slightly less than $200,000, and had more than $133,635 in equity in the house. Eighteen months later, after making rent payments, she had nothing. She had no ownership rights in the house and no equity. Even if she owned the house, it had a mortgage that was more than $100,000 higher than 18 months earlier. Howard agreed to sell her house for $145,000. At that time, she had a mortgage in the amount of $81,431, and had $63,569 in equity. After all fees and charges were deducted, including $12,083 in closing costs, Howard was entitled to $51,452 in net proceeds. According to the terms of the conditional payment note, Howard agreed to lend $59,200 to RYM. Breckenridge, the buyer, took out a mortgage in the amount of $130,500. Howard paid rent for more than one year until she learned that the mortgage payments and real estate taxes had not been paid and the property was in foreclosure. Therefore, on the day of the closing, Howard owned a house worth $145,000, owed less than $82,000, and had more than $63,000 in equity. The following year, she had no equity, and, even if she owned the house, it had a mortgage that was more than $50,000 higher than the previous year. Unfortunately, she had no ownership interest in the house. She was forced to move out of the house and it remains vacant.Shakeela fared no better. She agreed to sell her house for $185,000. At that time, she had a mortgage in the amount of $111,371, and had $73,629 in equity. After all fees and charges were deducted, including $13,966 in closing costs, Shakeela was entitled to $44,156 in net proceeds. According to the terms of the conditional payment note, Shakeela endorsed the proceeds check, in the amount of $44,156.71, over to RYM. Onshelle, the buyer, took out a mortgage in the amount of $166,500. Just four months after the closing, Shakeela learned that neither the real estate taxes nor the insurance had been paid. One or two months later, she received a foreclosure notice, and learned that no one was making mortgage payments. Based on these facts, on the day of the closing, Shakeela owned a house worth $185,000, owed $111,371, and had more than $73,000 in equity. Within months, she had no equity. She was successful in regaining title to the property because Onshelle gave it back to her, however, the house is involved in litigation and has a mortgage of more than $55,000 higher than before the closing. The evidence clearly establishes that Respondent failed to adequately represent her clients in each of these cases. She failed to explain the transactions to them, and failed to protect their interests in any way. In fact, she appears to have done nothing for her clients except process the documents necessary for the closings to occur. The closings did not benefit her clients. Instead, the only party benefited was RYM. RYM took all the equity in the houses, took inflated closing fees, and defaulted on the mortgages. Respondent was instrumental in RYM's success, and that success was gained at the expense of her clients.Respondent argues that she did what she was paid to do, close the deal, and she is not responsible for RYM's conduct, which is essentially a breach of contract. We reject Respondent's argument. As discussed above, she had a duty to do more than simply make sure the closing was completed. She was required to protect her clients' interests and, at a minimum, make sure they understood the details of the transactions, and failed to do so. Moreover, this was not a simple breach of contract situation. There is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the RYM program was nothing more than a scheme to steal homeowner's equity and defraud mortgage lenders. The program preyed on owners who were having financial difficulties and used individuals with good credit to apply for mortgages and act as straw buyers. RYM had no intention of fulfilling its obligations under the program.In fact, there is no reason to believe the program could be successfully completed. RYM represented that it would take the equity in a house, invest it for five years, pay off the mortgage, and return the house to the original owner unencumbered by a mortgage. There has been no demonstration that this was financially possible. For example, in Shakeela's case, the new mortgage was $166,500 and the equity was $44,000. In order to pay the mortgage off, the five year return on the equity would have to be 378 per cent. In the Howard matter, the new mortgage was $130,500 and the equity was $51,452. To pay the mortgage off, the five year return on the equity would have to be 254 per cent. In the Judge case, the new mortgage was $324,000 and the equity was $133,635. In order to pay the mortgage off, the five year return would have to be 242 per cent. These are rough calculations, and do not include any reduction in the mortgage from payments made during the five year period, or RYM's expenses and profits, which would affect the return. Nevertheless, these calculations are sufficient to show that the completion of the program was far from a financial certainty. All this is to refute Respondent's argument that this was a simple breach of contract situation. Instead, we find the program was financial scheme that was destine to fail, and intended to take the equity of homeowners who were having financial problems.Respondent engaged in overreaching, breached her fiduciary duty to these clients and engaged in a conflict of interest. As stated above, an attorney commits overreaching when she takes undue advantage of or abuses the position of influence she holds in relation to a client. Rinella, 175 Ill. 2d at 516. Additionally, the attorney owes her client a duty of loyalty, a duty of care, and a duty to avoid conflicts of interest. Vrdolyak, 137 Ill. 2d at 422. Respondent breached the fiduciary duties she owed Judge, Howard and Shakeela by failing to exercise an adequate duty of care when representing them. She also breached her fiduciary duties and engaged in a conflict of interest because she had a referral relationship with RYM, and had an interest in maintaining that relationship. Respondent had received 22 referrals from RYM to represent individuals in real estate transactions. This breach and conflict is evident by Respondent's conduct which was focused on closing the deal for the benefit of RYM, rather than protecting her clients' interests. Respondent overreached when she used her position as an attorney to take advantage of vulnerable individuals who were having serious financial problems. These individuals relied on Respondent and she failed to protect them. Respondent's conduct involved dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation, was prejudicial to the administration of justice, and brought the legal profession into disrepute. Respondent led Judge, Howard and Shakeela to believe she was representing their interests in the transactions, when she was not. She failed to adequately represent them, which resulted in adverse consequences to them. Further, when an attorney fails to adequately represent a client, to the client's detriment, as Respondent did here, the legal profession is brought into disrepute.Importantly, Respondent admitted she now realizes the RYM program was a Ponzi scheme. We believe that had Respondent complied with her ethical obligations and fiduciary duties, and properly represented her clients, she would have come to that realization before her clients were taken advantage of and suffered such significant losses. Respondent had an obligation to protect her clients and failed to do so.
We find the Administrator proved that Respondent engaged in all of the misconduct alleged in Count V of the Complaint, including breaching her fiduciary duties, failing to adequately represent a client in real estate transactions, and entering into a business transaction with a client without obtaining the client's consent to a conflict of interest. As discussed above, an attorney commits overreaching when she takes undue advantage of or abuses the position of influence she holds in relation to a client. Rinella, 175 Ill. 2d at 516. Additionally, the attorney owes her client a duty of loyalty, a duty of care, and a duty to avoid conflicts of interest. Vrdolyak, 137 Ill. 2d at 422. Respondent breached the fiduciary duties she owed Davis by failing to exercise an adequate duty of care when representing her. Respondent also breached her fiduciary duties and engaged in a conflict of interest because she had a direct financial interest in IJCN. Respondent's misconduct in this Count is related to her ownership and involvement in IJCN. Respondent and Ross owned and managed IJCN, a company with similar programs to RYM's programs. IJCN was purportedly established to assist individuals who were having difficulty paying their mortgages. It provided two mortgage elimination programs, a "sale option" and "re-purchase option." Under both programs, a homeowner would sell his property to an IJCN investor, and title to the property would be put in a trust with IJCN as the beneficiary. The investor would obtain a new mortgage on the property. The homeowner's equity would be deposited into an escrow account and used to pay the new mortgage. The excess of the equity would be allocated between the investor, a risk fund, and program fees. The homeowner could live in the property for up to 12 months without making any rent payments. Under the re-purchase option, the homeowner could buy back his property for five percent more than the previous sales price.Based on the evidence presented, we find that the IJCN program, as applied to Davis, was nothing more than a scheme to take the equity in Davis's house and to defraud the mortgage lender. Respondent represented Davis, and as such, was required to adequately represent her and protect her interests. Instead, Respondent put her own interests before her client's interests. As noted, Respondent was one of the owners of IJCN and profited from those who participated in the programs, including Davis. Further, she failed to adequately explain any of the documents to Davis. At their first meeting, Respondent had Davis sign numerous documents including a blank real estate contract, and a quit claim deed transferring title of her property into a land trust. Although Respondent might have given Davis some explanation of these documents, we find that explanation was inadequate for Davis to understand the transaction. Davis testified Respondent never told her the most fundamental requirement of the program. Most importantly, Respondent never explained that Davis would be selling her property. In fact, Davis never believed she sold it. However, the documents Respondent told Davis to sign clearly divested Davis of her ownership interest in her house. The closing on the property occurred five weeks after Davis's initial meeting with Respondent. Davis did not attend the closing, and Respondent failed to tell her when it would take place. Davis was entitled to $31,553.52 from the proceeds of the sale; however she did not receive any of the proceeds. The check was made payable to Davis, but was deposited into the IJCN business account without Davis's endorsement. Moreover, even if Respondent could have properly deposited the check, it should have been deposited into an escrow account and used to effectuate the goals of the program. Instead, the proceeds from the sale were used to pay Respondent's and IJCN's personal and business expenses.Importantly, the buyer in this transaction was Betts, Respondent's father. He obtained the mortgage to purchase Davis's property. Betts admitted that significant portions of his mortgage application contained false information, including an exaggerated statement of his income and the false statement that the property would be his primary residence. Betts paid none of the costs or fees involved in the closing, and made no mortgage payments. He received $10,000 for his participation in the program.In August 2006, the month following the closing, Davis signed a residential lease agreement providing that she would pay monthly rent to IJCN. Davis did not understand the agreement, and thought she was making mortgage payments. In December 2006, five months after the closing, the mortgage was in default.Therefore, based on these facts, we find the IJCN program was nothing more than a scheme to take the equity in Davis's house and defraud the mortgage company. The program appears to have had no reasonable chance of working as it was explained to Davis. IJCN received all of Davis's equity, and was supposed to use it to pay the mortgage and other expenses, but used it for Respondent's personal expenses. Respondent was an owner of and attorney for IJCN, and Davis's attorney. It is clearly established that Respondent, her father and Ross benefited from the program, at the expense of Respondent's client, Davis.It appears that the program had little, if any, chance of helping Davis. She sold her house for $225,000. At the time of the closing, she owed $168,183 on her mortgage, and had $56,817 in equity. After the costs of the IJCN program, her equity was reduced to $31,553. Within months, all the equity had been spent by Respondent and IJCN. Under the lease agreement, Davis had to pay rent to IJCN. After one year, Davis had the option of repurchasing the house for $236,250. However, she would have had no equity and, even if she could obtain a mortgage, it would be significantly higher than her original mortgage, which she had been unable to pay. It is impossible to consider these facts and envision a scenario where Davis was benefited from the IJCN program.We also find Respondent entered into a business transaction with her client without obtaining the client's consent to a conflict of interest. It is undisputed that Respondent represented Davis. Respondent was one of two owners of IJCN. She also provided legal and title services to IJCN. On June 21, 2006, Respondent met with Davis and advised her to transfer title in her property into an IJCN land trust and to participate in the IJCN program. As an owner of IJCN, Respondent had a financial interest in having individuals participate in the programs. In fact, the evidence reveals that Respondent used proceeds from the programs for her personal expenses. Although Davis signed a disclosure state-controlled business arrangement form and a controlled business arrangement disclosure form, Respondent did not explain these documents to Davis, and Davis did not understand them. Also, Respondent never advised Davis that she could seek independent legal counsel. Accordingly, we find that Davis did not give informed consent to waive the conflicts of interest created by this business transaction.Respondent's conduct involved dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation, was prejudicial to the administration of justice, and brought the legal profession into disrepute. Respondent led Davis to believe she was representing their interests in the transactions, when she was not. She failed to adequately represent her, which resulted in adverse consequences to her. Further, when an attorney fails to adequately represent a client, to the client's detriment, as Respondent did here, the legal profession is brought into disrepute. This is especially true where, as here, Respondent received a direct financial benefit from the transaction.We reject Respondent's claim that she was unaware of Ross's actions and that Ross took advantage of her. There is ample evidence to show that Respondent was fully aware of how IJCN operated. Most importantly, Respondent established the business and was the company's attorney. Also, Respondent's father was the buyer in the Davis transaction. She knew his financial situation and living circumstances. She would have known that he could not qualify for the mortgage and that he had no intention of living in the property. She would have also had full access to his fraudulent mortgage application. Further, she used the proceeds from the IJCN transactions for her personal expenses. We find that Ross did not take advantage of Respondent, and Respondent was a full and willing participant in the IJCN scheme.
We find Respondent engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation, and engaged in conduct which tends to defeat the administration of justice and brought the legal profession into disrepute in regard to the Charles matter. Charles was Respondent's client, and a participant in the IJCN program. The closing on Charles property occurred on August 30, 2006. According to the closing documents, Charles was entitled to $83,955 in proceeds from the sale. Charles died the next day. He was survived by his mother, Helen, and sister, Michelle. On September 1, 2006, Michelle learned of the sale and the proceeds and contacted Respondent. Respondent told Michelle that Charles had agreed to participate in the program, and the fee was $30,000. Michelle said she did not want to participate in the program, and requested the proceeds.Respondent did nothing until Michelle sent her a letter in January 2007, again requesting the proceeds. Respondent sent Michelle a letter stating that Michelle could: 1) repurchase the property for $414,750 and receive the remaining proceeds of $21,876; 2) repurchase the property for $420,000 and receive the remaining proceeds of $2,458; or 3) allow the current tenant to remain in the property until June 30, 2007, and allow IJCN to sell the property. In February 2007, Respondent informed Michelle that it was Charles's final wish to participate in the program, but said she would disburse $18,769 to Michelle and Helen. Although Michelle again requested the funds, she never received any money from Respondent. The property was foreclosed on, and is no longer habitable.Because Charles died, Respondent was not charged with misconduct similar to the misconduct charged in Count V. Nevertheless, we find Respondent engaged in misconduct in her dealings with Michelle and Helen. Respondent was informed of Charles's death the day after it occurred. At that time, she had $83,000 in proceeds from the sale of Charles's house. We have insufficient evidence to determine who was entitled to those proceeds. However, we have sufficient evidence to prove Respondent acted dishonestly and in a manner to bring the legal profession into disrepute. Rather than attempt to resolve the matter, she delayed any action and continued to spend the proceeds. Even after she agreed to give Michelle some of the proceeds, she failed to give her any money. As of the date of this hearing, nearly four years later, Respondent has failed to give Michelle or Helen any money. Respondent's conduct casts attorneys in a negative light.
The purpose of the disciplinary system is to protect the public, maintain the integrity of the legal system and safeguard the administration of justice. See In re Gorecki, 208 Ill. 2d 350, 802 N.E.2d 1194 (2003); In re Howard, 188 Ill. 2d 423, 721 N.E.2d 1126 (1999). "The Rules of Professional Conduct recognize that the practice of law is a public trust and lawyers are the trustees of the judicial system." In re Smith, 168 Ill. 2d 269, 287, 659 N.E.2d 896 (1995). The objective of a disciplinary inquiry is not punishment, but to protect the public from incompetent or unscrupulous attorneys, maintain the integrity of the profession, and protect the administration of justice from reproach. See In re Twohey, 191 Ill. 2d 75, 727 N.E.2d 1028 (2000). In determining the appropriate sanction for an attorney's misconduct, the purpose of the disciplinary system and the facts surrounding the misconduct must be considered. See In re Chernois, 114 Ill. 2d 527, 502 N.E.2d 722 (1986). Also, "it is important to recognize the deterrent value of a sanction and the need to impress upon others the seriousness of the misconduct at issue." Twohey, 191 Ill. 2d at 85. The discipline imposed on an attorney who has engaged in misconduct also depends on the aggravating and mitigating factors presented during that attorney's disciplinary proceedings. See Gorecki, 208 Ill. 2d at 360-61. In the present case, there are several aggravating and mitigating factors.Respondent's misconduct is aggravated by the fact that she failed to acknowledge her misconduct and is not remorseful. Failing to recognize the seriousness of misconduct and the lack of remorse are aggravating factors that must be considered. In re Lewis, 138 Ill. 2d 310, 562 N.E.2d 198 (1990). Respondent refused to acknowledge she did anything wrong or give any indication of remorse. We find this omission surprising, given the clearly established facts of this case. Several of Respondent's clients lost their homes because of her misconduct. In Davis's matter, Respondent was not only Davis's attorney, but directly profited from the equity in Davis's house. Instead of acknowledging any wrongdoing, Respondent attempted to blame others. We believe that without an acknowledgment of her misconduct and expression of remorse, Respondent is likely to repeat the misconduct. In re Samuels, 126 Ill. 2d 509, 535 N.E.2d 808 (1989).Respondent further aggravated her misconduct by causing significant harm to her clients. See Cutright, 910 N.E.2d at 588. Respondent caused harm to her clients because each one of them lost a significant amount of money and, all but one, lost their houses. Based on the schemes her clients were involved in, they lost all of the equity in their houses and in at least five cases, their property was foreclosed on. Additionally, some of her clients have been involved in protracted litigation in an effort to regain ownership of their houses. See also In re Saladino, 71 Ill. 2d 263, 375 N.E.2d 102 (1978) (discipline should be "closely linked to the harm caused or the unreasonable risk created by the [attorney's] lack of care"). Moreover, Respondent took advantage of clients who were vulnerable and experiencing serious financial problems.Further, Respondent caused harm to the banks who gave loans to the buyers. Respondent was part of several schemes that not only caused her clients to lose their homes, but also caused the banks to lose money. In all of the cases, the buyer of the properties obtained a mortgage and defaulted on it within a short period of time. In addition to the banks losing money, it is reasonable to infer that the foreclosures had a negative impact on the neighborhoods. For example, Howard was evicted from her house and the property remains vacate.Respondent's misconduct is also aggravated by the fact that this was not an isolated incident, but a pattern of misconduct occurring over a three year period. Respondent's misconduct started when she received referrals for W2X in 2004. Subsequently, she became involved in a similar program with RYM. After witnessing how these programs worked, and how much money was being made, she started IJCN, and developed a similar scheme in which she would directly profit. Not only does this establish a pattern of misconduct, but a progression of misconduct. With W2X and RYM, Respondent played a supporting role. With IJCN, she played a principal and instrumental role. We find this is a significant aggravating factor. See Lewis, 138 Ill. 2d at 345-46.Respondent's misconduct is mitigated by the fact she has received no prior discipline. Generally, the lack of a prior discipline is a mitigating factor. See In re Lewis, 138 Ill. 2d 310, 562 N.E.2d 198 (1990). Respondent has been practicing law for 10 years, and began engaging in misconduct in 2005, just five years after receiving her law license. In some cases, an attorney's lack of experience can be considered as a mitigating factor. However, where the misconduct is so obviously wrong, and any attorney regardless of experience would recognize it as wrong, lack of experience is not considered. In the present case, any attorney should know it is misconduct to fail to explain to a client the nature of a real estate transaction, especially where that failure is based on a conflict of interest and leads to the client losing their property and equity. Accordingly, we do not give Respondent's lack of prior discipline significant weight. Respondent also presented the testimony of four character witnesses and evidence that she performed volunteer and charitable work. The character witnesses stated Respondent is honest. Evidence of good character is a factor we will consider in mitigation. However, based on Respondent's misconduct in this case, including her lack of honesty with her clients, we also give this factor little weight. In re Lenz, 108 Ill. 2d 445, 484 N.E.2d 1093 (1985). Similarly, Respondent generally stated that she has performed volunteer and charitable work for numerous years. Although we give that evidence some weight, Respondent's lack of specific facts to support her general statements reduces the weight of that evidence.Having considered the mitigating and aggravating factors, we must now recommend the appropriate sanction. The Administrator recommends Respondent be disbarred. He bases his recommendation on several cases. See In re Jacobs, 08 CH 21, M.R. 23030 (May 18, 2009); In re Colon, 03 CH 121, M.R. 20094 (May 20, 2005); In re Voltl, 03 DC 1009, M.R. 18934 (Sept. 22, 2003). Respondent believes the Administrator failed to prove any misconduct and no discipline should be imposed.After reviewing the cases cited by the Administrator, and other relevant cases, we believe Respondent should be disbarred. We find the cases cited by the Administrator instructive. However, two of the cases, Jacobs and Voltl, involve attorneys who voluntarily struck their names from the Master Roll of attorneys. Those cases were not decided by an adjudicative body, and they do not cite any precedent. Although those cases have similar facts as the present case, and the Supreme Court accepted their petitions to strike their names, they are not entitled to as much weight as other cases. Colon involves misconduct similar to the misconduct in this case. Four of the six counts charged in this case involved Colon's representation of two clients in real estate matters. Colon had a law firm and owned a real estate investment and management company called Adonis. In one matter, Colon convinced Tilzell Smith to purchase two apartment buildings as an investment. He agreed to represent Smith in the transaction, and have Adonis manage the property after the sale. Colon prepared and submitted loan applications on behalf of Smith which contained false information and documents. At the closing, Colon instructed Smith to sign the necessary documents without explaining them. He also told her to sign an agreement allowing Adonis to manage the properties.In a second matter, Colon represented Valencia Johnson in a foreclosure action. He suggested a plan in which Johnson would sell her house to a third person. After paying rent for six to twelve months, Johnson could repurchase her house. Adonis would hold escrow funds, and receive a fee for its involvement. Respondent represented Johnson at the closing, and instructed her to sign documents without explaining them to her. After Johnson failed to make required payments, Respondent attempted to settle the matter by sending Johnson a letter stating that if she vacated the property, she would receive the remainder of the escrow funds, which were substantially less than the initial amountThe Hearing Board found Colon engaged in pattern of misconduct including breaching his fiduciary duties by advancing his own interests, overreaching, failing to adequately represent his clients, entering into a business transaction with a client without obtaining his client's consent, committing a criminal act when submitting false loan applications, and conversion. Colon was disbarred. The misconduct involved in Colon is similar to the misconduct in the present case. This is especially true when examining Count V of this case. In both cases, the attorney owned a business and represented a client in a transaction with that business. In both cases, the attorney failed to fully explain the conflict of interest, failed to adequately represent their clients, and directly benefited from the transaction. The Johnson matter in Colon, involved similar facts to the Davis matter in this case. Both involved the sale of property in foreclosure, with a promise of allowing the client to re-purchase the property after a short period of time. In both cases, the businesses owned by the attorneys directly profited from the transaction.We acknowledge that Colon can be distinguished from this case because he also engaged in conversion and did not participate in the disciplinary proceedings; however, these facts are insufficient to warrant a lesser sanction in the present case. Here, Respondent engaged in a well-established pattern of misconduct involving more harm to more clients, which was not evident in Colon. Also, Respondent's participation in the disciplinary proceedings, while respectful, did little to mitigate her misconduct. She failed to present a convincing defense, failed to show any remorse or understanding of her misconduct, and failed to demonstrate any reason she should be allowed to continue practicing law.We also rely on cases where attorneys exhibited a pattern of serious misconduct, with few mitigating factors. Disbarment has been imposed in those types of cases. See In re Lewis, 138 Ill. 2d 310, 562 N.E.2d 198 (1990) (attorney disbarred after engaging in 18 acts of misconduct in violation of 11 disciplinary rules); In re White, 92 CH 115, M.R. 10959 (May 19, 1995) (attorney disbarred for representing conflicting interests in a real estate transaction, converting client funds and making false statements to clients and the ARDC); Disbarment is appropriate in cases involving a pattern of serious misconduct. Our Supreme Court has imposed disbarment where the attorney "has manifested a pattern of behavior which clearly tends to bring the legal profession into disrepute." In re Feldman, 89 Ill. 2d 7, 13, 431 N.E.2d 388 (1982). Additionally, the amount and seriousness of the misconduct are important factors when determining whether disbarment is the proper sanction. See Lewis, 138 Ill. 2d at 348. Moreover, the cumulative effect of an attorney's misconduct can demonstrate the attorney's unfitness to practice law and warrant disbarment. See In re Bell, 147 Ill. 2d 15, 588 N.E.2d 1093 (1992). Further, when selecting a sanction, we may properly consider the deterrent value of the discipline and the need to impress upon others the significant repercussions of similar misconduct. In re Discipio, 163 Ill. 2d 515, 528, 645 N.E.2d 906 (1995).In recommending Respondent be disbarred, we believe it is the best way to protect the public from Respondent's continued misconduct and to deter other attorneys from engaging in similar misconduct. Respondent's misconduct was extensive and calculated. She took advantage of vulnerable clients, and caused significant harm to them. She lacks any understanding of what she did wrong and has no remorse for her actions. We conclude that if Respondent is allowed to continue practicing law, there is no reason to believe she will comply with her ethical obligations. The public can only be protected if Respondent's is prohibited from practicing law. We agree with the Court's statement that we "cannot permit this Respondent to continue the practice of law, and thus invite the public to retain the purported services of one to whom the common obligations of [her] profession mean so little." Feldman, 89 Ill. 2d at 13-14. In order to safeguard the public from future abuse by Respondent, to preserve the integrity of the legal profession and to deter others from engaging in similar misconduct, we conclude the most severe sanction should be imposed upon Respondent. Therefore, in light of Respondent's misconduct, and considering the aggravating and mitigating factors, and the relevant case law, we recommend that Respondent be disbarred.
ANNOUNCEMENT OF DISCIPLINARY DECISIONSSeptember 27, 2011 10:00 am LAWYER DISCIPLINARY ORDERS http://www.state.il.us/court/
The Supreme Court of Illinois has announced the filing of lawyer disciplinary orders entered on September 20, 2011, and September 26, 2011, during the September 2011 Term of Court. Sanctions were imposed because the lawyers engaged in professional misconduct by violating state ethics law. The attached list contains the name of the disciplined lawyer, the address at which the lawyer last practiced, and a brief summary of the misconduct that led to the sanction. The announcement of the orders may be reviewed at the Supreme Court of Illinois website: www.state.il.us/court. Unless otherwise noted, the mandate of discipline is issued immediately. The Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC), an Illinois Supreme Court agency, investigates alleged wrongdoing by Illinois attorneys, holds hearings on specific charges, and recommends discipline where warranted. The Supreme Court is, however, the only authority that can discipline lawyers for misconduct. The Supreme Court generally announces lawyer sanction orders during each formal term of Court. The Court convenes in term every January, March, May, September and November.
In re AVALON E’LAN BETTS-GASTON, Attorney Number 6271949Post Office Box 1133
Matteson, Illinois 60443 File Number: M.R. 23704, 2008PR00005
(Order entered on June 29, 2011) http://www.iardc.org/ldetail.asp?id=318715328
Ms. Betts-Gaston, who was licensed in 2000, was suspended on an interim basis and until further order of Court. Earlier, the Hearing Board recommended her disbarment for engaging in six separate instances of mortgage fraud/equity stripping through lease-buyback agreements. She caused significant harm to her clients, all of whom were vulnerable and experiencing serious financial problems, because each one of them lost a significant amount of money, and all but one, lost their homes. Definition of Disposition:An interim suspension reflects the determination of the Supreme Court that a lawyer should be suspended during the pendency of a disciplinary proceeding. In imposing interim suspension, the Court orders that the lawyer is suspended until further order of the Court and may impose such conditions as the Court deems necessary. The lawyer is not authorized to practice law during the period of the interim suspension. The Court may terminate the interim suspension upon imposition of final discipline or under other circumstances as the Supreme Court deems just.
Section 3Filed July 18, 2012In re Avalon Elan Betts-GastonRespondent-AppellantCommission No. 08 CH 5Synopsis of Review Board Report and Recommendation(July 2012)
We further recommend that the Respondent,
Avalon Elan Betts-Gaston, be disbarred.
The case was before the Review Board on an appeal of a Hearing Board determination recommending disbarment and finding that Betts-Gaston participated in and orchestrated fraudulent schemes. Those schemes resulted
in the sale of her clients' homes (without their knowledge) and, ultimately,
in the loss of the home and any equity.Specifically, the Hearing Board found that Betts-Gaston engaged in the following misconduct: overreaching; breach of her fiduciary duty; failing to consult with a client about the objectives of the representation, in violation of Rule 1.2(a); failing to keep a client reasonably informed about the status of
her legal matter, in violation of Rule 1.4(a); failing to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions about the representation, in violation of Rule 1.4(b); representing a client
when the representation was materially limited by Betts-Gaston's own
interests or her obligations to third parties, in violation of Rule 1.7(b);
entering into a business transaction with a client without obtaining the client's consent to a conflict of interest after full disclosure, in violation of Rule 1.8(a); committing a criminal act in violation of the Illinois Notary Public Act that reflects
adversely on her honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer, in violation
of Rule 8.4(a)(3); engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, deceit, fraud, or misrepresentation, in violation of Rule 8.4(a)(4); and engaging in conduct
that tends to defeat the administration of justice or to bring the legal
profession into disrepute, in violation of Supreme Court Rule 770.Betts-Gaston raised 32 issues on review, including arguments that counsel for the Administrator engaged in misconduct, the Hearing Board was biased against
her, she was denied due process, and the Hearing Board's findings were
against the manifest weight of the evidence. Betts-Gaston contended that her misconduct warranted a reprimand, at most.The Review Board rejected Betts-Gaston's contentions of error and, while it recommended reversal of the findings related to Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(a)(3) and Supreme Court Rule 770, the Board recommended that Betts-Gaston be disbarred on the basis of the proven violations and due to her egregious misconduct, lack of remorse, and failure to accept responsibility for her misconduct.
BEFORE THE REVIEW BOARD
ILLINOIS ATTORNEY REGISTRATION
DISCIPLINARY COMMISSIONIn the Matter of: AVALON ELAN BETTS-GASTON,Respondent-Appellant,No. 6271949.Commission No. 08 CH 5REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE REVIEW BOARDThis matter comes before the Review Board on the exceptions of Respondent-Appellant, Avalon Elan Betts-Gaston (Respondent), to the Hearing Board's findings of misconduct and recommendation of disbarment.The allegations of misconduct arise from Respondent's involvement in real
estate transactions in which Respondent's clients unknowingly sold their
homes to straw buyers as part of programs that purported to help alleviate
their debt. In reality, the programs were fraudulent schemes that caused Respondent's clients to lose their homes and all of their equity.The Administrator filed a six-count complaint against Respondent that alleged overreaching, breach of fiduciary duty, failure to keep clients reasonably informed about the status of their legal matter, engaging in a conflict of
interest, fraudulent conduct, committing criminal conduct by violating the Illinois Notary Public Act, and engaging in conduct that tends to prejudice
the administration of justice or to bring the courts or the legal profession into disrepute. The Hearing Board found that the Administrator proved all of the charges of misconduct and recommended that Respondent be disbarred. Respondent raises 32 issues on review. She challenges all of the findings of misconduct and asserts numerous procedural errors as well discrimination and bias on the part of the Administrator and the Hearing Board. Respondent contends that her conduct warrants a reprimand at most. The Administrator
asks us to affirm the Hearing Board's findings and sanction recommendation.
We recommend that all but two of the Hearing Board's findings of misconduct be affirmed and that Respondent be disbarred.The voluminous facts of this case are set forth in detail in the Hearing Board's Report and Recommendation and need not be repeated in their entirety.
We summarize those facts relevant to the issues before us. BACKGROUNDRespondent received her Illinois license to practice law in 2000. At the time
of the misconduct at issue, she was a sole practitioner, an approved title agent for First American Title Insurance Company, and a notary public.The charges arise from Respondent's involvement with W2X, Inc. (W2X);
RYM Technology Holdings (RYM); and In Jesus Christ's Name Investments,
Inc. (IJCN). These three businesses targeted individuals who were facing foreclosure and advertised programs that would allow them to live in their
homes for varying periods of time without paying their mortgage so they
could get out of debt. The businesses used a sale-lease-buyback model in
which they engaged straw buyers or "third party investors" (hereinafter "third-party investors") with good credit to obtain loans to purchase the distressed properties. In several instances, the third-party investors' loan applications contained false information about their income and assets. The third-party investors contributed no money toward the purchase of the
properties and received compensation for their participation. The programs would then purportedly use the loan proceeds, closing cost credits, and the
equity in the properties to pay the mortgage for a certain period of time. The homeowners/sellers typically had a grace period during which they did not
have to make any housing payments. After the grace period ended, they were required to make rent payments for several years, which were sometimes described as "mortgage payments," and then had the option of regaining ownership of the property. The homeowners/sellers in this matter testified that they did not understand
that they were selling their homes. They believed that their property would be placed in trust for several years, their equity would be used to make mortgage payments during that time, and their mortgages would be paid in full by the
end of their participation in the programs. Unfortunately, not only were the homeowners/sellers unaware that their homes were being sold, but W2X,
RYM, and IJCN took the proceeds of the real estate transactions and failed to make the mortgage, property tax, and insurance payments for the properties
in question. All of the properties in this matter were foreclosed upon or sold
at tax sales, and several of the homeowners/sellers lost their homes.
Respondent represented the homeowner/seller in each of the transactions
at issue. Evidence and Findings as to W2X Inc. (Count I)Warren Jackson1 was the President of W2X. Between May 2004 and October 2005, W2X referred 11 cases to Respondent. In each case, Respondent acted
as the title agent and attorney for the homeowner/seller.Count I of the Complaint involves Respondent's representation of Helen Hatchett. Hatchett was 74 years old at the time of the hearing, had owned her home for over 40 years, and had approximately $120,000 in equity in it.
When she contacted W2X, she owed approximately $16,000 on her mortgage and a home equity loan. Hatchett decided to enroll in the W2X program and met with Jackson, who
told her that he would put his name on the deed to her property for one year
and would transfer the deed back to her after she was able to save some
money. Kendra Thomas was the third-party investor in the Hatchett
transaction. D'Mona Ross, a loan officer, filled out Thomas's loan application. The loan application falsely stated that Thomas earned $2600 per month at a
hair salon and had a bank account with a balance of $31,915.50. In fact,
Thomas was a student who worked as a front desk operator at DePaul
University, earning $7.50-$8.50 per hour. The bank account identified in the application belonged to Jackson, not Thomas. Thomas did not review the application before she signed it.Respondent prepared all of the closing documents. Jackson took various documents to Hatchett for her to sign prior to the closing. These included an Illinois Statutory Short Form Power of Attorney, authorizing Respondent to execute closing documents on Hatchett's behalf, and a "Disclosure Statement-Controlled Business Arrangement," indicating that Respondent had a financial interest in the title company and the parties were not required to use Respondent's title services. Although the latter document bore Hatchett's purported signature, Hatchett testified that Respondent never explained it to
her and never explained the possibility of a conflict arising as a result of her relationship with W2X or her interest as title agent.The closing on Hatchett's property took place on October 7, 2005. Respondent never met Hatchett, and Hatchett did not attend the closing. Nonetheless, Respondent notarized Hatchett's purported signature on a warranty deed transferring Hatchett's property to Thomas.Respondent testified that Jackson brought Hatchett's driver's license to her and that she compared the signature on the driver's license to the signatures on the documents. Respondent believed that this was allowed under the Illinois
Notary Public Act. Respondent certified on the warranty deed, however, that Hatchett personally appeared before her and acknowledged her signature. The Hearing Board found that Respondent's testimony that she verified Hatchett's signature by comparing it to her driver's license was not credible.Respondent received $1,186 in attorney fees and title fees from the Hatchett closing. At the closing, a check was issued to Hatchett in the amount of $117,959.50. Hatchett testified that she never saw or signed the check, which was deposited in W2X's bank account on October 11, 2005. Hatchett later received a $3000 check from Jackson.Thomas testified that in October 2005 Jackson gave her a check to pay the mortgage on the Hatchett property and other W2X properties for six months. After the six months ended, Thomas sent Hatchett a letter demanding monthly rent payments. Hatchett testified that she did not know that she had sold her house and never intended to do so. She never made any rent payments to Thomas, and the property went into foreclosure.Hatchett realized that something was amiss after she received the rent
demands from Thomas and sought legal representation. Attorney Michelle A. Weinberg of the Legal Assistance Foundation filed an action to quiet title on Hatchett's behalf against W2X, Warren Jackson, Thomas, Respondent, and others. At the time of Respondent's disciplinary hearing, Thomas still owned
the property and Hatchett's lawsuit remained pending.The Hearing Board found that the Administrator proved all of the charges in Count I, which included the following: overreaching; breach of Respondent's fiduciary duty; failing to consult with a client about the objectives of the representation, in violation of Rule 1.2(a); failing to keep a client reasonably informed about the status of her legal matter, in violation of Rule 1.4(a);
failing to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the
client to make informed decisions about the representation, in violation of
Rule 1.4(b); representing a client when the representation was materially
limited by Respondent's own interests or her obligations to third parties, in violation of Rule 1.7(b); committing a criminal act in violation of the Illinois Notary Public Act that reflects adversely on Respondent's honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer, in violation of Rule 8.4(a)(3); engaging
in conduct involving dishonesty, deceit, fraud, or misrepresentation, in
violation of Rule 8.4(a)(4); and engaging in conduct that tends to defeat the administration of justice or to bring the legal profession into disrepute, in violation of Supreme Court Rule 770.Evidence and Findings Pertaining to RYM (Counts II-IV)Respondent had a referral relationship with RYM and represented the homeowners/sellers in 22 RYM transactions between May 2004 and August 2005. Respondent's representation of Jacqueline Judge, Leatrice Howard, and Shakeela Muhammad is the subject of Counts II, III, and IV of the Administrator's complaint. Respondent prepared all of the closing documents
and provided title services in each transaction. Although her clients signed a disclosure statement-controlled business arrangement form, each testified that Respondent never explained this or any other document to them, nor did she advise them regarding conflicts that could potentially arise as a result of her interest as a title agent or her referral relationship with RYM.A. Judge TransactionThe closing on Judge's home took place on November 18, 2004. Judge
believed that her property was going to be placed in trust while she improved
her financial situation and that she would pay rent during that time. When
Judge was told about the closing for her property, she asked why a closing
was necessary and was told that the purpose of the closing was to record that
her property was being placed in trust. Judge testified that she did not read
any of the closing documents that identified her as "Seller." She was not told
and did not understand that she was selling her property. Respondent received $1400 for legal and title service fees from the sale of Judge's home. Despite the fact that Judge signed over to RYM the proceeds of the sale of her home, which totaled $133,635.15, neither RYM nor the third-party investor,
Eva Breckenridge, made mortgage payments or paid the 2004 real estate taxes.
In 2006, when Judge learned that her property was being sold at a tax sale,
she called Respondent. Judge testified that Respondent did not say anything about the real estate transaction but instead prayed over the telephone and told Judge that God would help them through this. At the time of Respondent's hearing, Judge had lost her home and was on the verge of eviction.B. Howard TransactionLeatrice Howard testified that she did not understand that she was selling her property. She believed that the equity in her home would be used to pay her mortgage for five years and, at the end of that period of time, the mortgage would be paid and she would get her home back. Respondent represented Howard at the closing on her property on February 7, 2005. Howard testified that she asked questions during the closing but was
told they would be answered later. At one point she asked Respondent directly
if she was selling her property. Respondent answered, "This is how we have
to do it for you to be in the program." Howard signed over the proceeds of the sale, which totaled $51,452.59, to RYM. Respondent received $1011 for legal and title fees.Following the closing, Howard made rental payments to RYM for several
months but stopped after she learned that RYM had not paid the property
taxes. Howard paid the property taxes herself but her home was foreclosed
upon in 2008. Howard testified that she had to move out of the home where
she had raised her family and lived for half of her life. An attorney from the Legal Assistance Foundation has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Howard and
others who lost their homes to RYM.C. Muhammad TransactionShakeela Muhammad decided to participate in the RYM program in July
2005. At that time, she had a pending Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition. Muhammad withdrew her bankruptcy petition at the direction of Respondent
and Felix Daniel, President of RYM, so that she could participate in the RYM program.Respondent represented Muhammad at a closing on July 14, 2005, and
received a $350 fee. Respondent directed Muhammad and her husband to
sign numerous documents, but did not explain any of them. Muhammad
testified that she did not understand that she was selling her home. She
believed that it would be placed in trust under her name and Felix Daniel's
name for five years. Muhammad's proceeds from the sale were $44,156.71. As directed by Respondent, Muhammad signed the proceeds of the sale over to RYM with
the expectation that RYM would pay the mortgage, taxes, and other costs associated with the property.Muhammad made rent payments to RYM from July 29, 2005 through May 1, 2006. In December 2005, Muhammad learned that RYM had not paid her
2004 property taxes or her homeowners insurance. Around that same time,
she received a foreclosure notice that was directed to the third-party investor, Onshelle Jackson. After learning that RYM was not making the mortgage payments, Ms. Jackson advised Muhammad to stop making rent payments
and quit claimed the property back to Muhammad. The lender filed a
foreclosure action on the property on May 18, 2006.Both Ms. Jackson and Muhammad asked Respondent for assistance.
Respondent told Ms. Jackson that she represented only the seller, despite the
fact that she had assisted Ms. Jackson during the closing. Muhammad tried to contact Respondent numerous times by phone and mail. Respondent agreed to refund to Muhammad the $350 in attorney fees she received from the closing, in exchange for Muhammad signing a release of liability and withdrawing the complaint she filed with the Commission. Muhammad retained an attorney
and, after four years, the lender returned her property to her.Respondent testified that she believed that RYM was a Christian organization that was trying to help people, but she now realizes it was a fraudulent
scheme.The Hearing Board found that the Administrator proved all of the misconduct charged in Counts II-IV. The charges of Counts II-IV mirror those of Count I, except that they do not include a charge of violating Rule 8.4(a)(3).Evidence and Findings Pertaining to IJCN (Counts V and VI)Respondent and D'Mona Ross, a loan officer who participated in the W2X
and RYM transactions, created In Jesus Christ's Name Investments, Inc.
(IJCN), in March 2006. Respondent testified that she created IJCN because
she had experienced a foreclosure herself and wanted to help people avoid
that experience. She had terminated her relationship with RYM in February
2006 after she learned that they had breached their lease and trust agreements. IJCN followed the same business model as RYM, i.e., purportedly using a homeowner's equity obtained through a sale-lease-buyback program to reduce the homeowner's expenses. IJCN created a land trust for the purpose of
holding the properties in the program. Respondent acted as IJCN's registered agent and corporate attorney and co-managed IJCN with Ross.Respondent's father and Ross's mother were third-party investors in IJCN transactions. For each transaction, they received a participation fee of $5,000
to $10,000.Counts V and VI involve Respondent's representation of Sandra Spikes-Davis and Charles Kmiec, respectively. A. Spikes-Davis TransactionSpikes-Davis enrolled in the IJCN program in 2006. She met with
Respondent in Respondent's office, where Respondent asked her to sign "a bunch" of blank documents. Respondent's father, James Betts, was the third-party investor in the Spikes-Davis transaction. He received $10,000 for his participation. Through Betts, IJCN obtained two mortgage loans for the Spikes-Davis property.
Betts admitted that his income was falsely represented on both loan
applications and that one of the applications falsely indicated that he intended for the Spikes-Davis property to be his primary residence.Respondent never discussed with Spikes-Davis the possibility that conflicts could arise as a result of her interest in IJCN, her interest as the title agent, or
her father's involvement in the transaction. At no time did she advise Spikes-Davis that she could seek advice from another attorney.Spikes-Davis testified that she did not attend the July 28, 2006, closing
because she was not advised of the closing date. Respondent testified that
there was no need for Spikes-Davis to attend, because she had already
executed the deed that transferred her property to the IJCN Trust.Respondent received $1507.50 in legal and title fees for the Spikes-Davis closing. The proceeds to Spikes-Davis totaled $31,533.48. Respondent, or someone acting at her direction, deposited the proceeds check into IJCN's account. The funds in the IJCN account were subsequently used for
Respondent's and Ross's personal and business expenses.Sometime during the summer of 2006, Spikes-Davis called Ross to inquire
when the closing on her property would take place. Spikes-Davis was
surprised to learn that not only had the closing already occurred but she would not have a grace period for her rental payments. Spikes-Davis signed a lease agreement because Ross told her she would be evicted if she did not do so. Spikes-Davis then consulted with another attorney, who filed suit against Respondent and Ross.In December 2006, Betts received a notice of foreclosure for the Spikes-Davis property. In September 2007, he received a notice of default for the second mortgage loan. Betts testified that he forwarded these notices to Respondent
and also called her when he received them. Respondent said that she would
talk to Ross about the notices.At the time of the disciplinary hearing, Betts still owned the Spikes-Davis property, and Spikes-Davis's action against Respondent was still pending.Respondent testified that her partner, Ross, handled the mortgage loans for
IJCN and took advantage of her.The Hearing Board found that the Administrator proved all of the charges in Count V, which mirror those of Counts II-IV and also include the charge of entering into a business transaction with a client without obtaining the client's consent to a conflict of interest after full disclosure, in violation of Rule 1.8(a).B. Kmiec TransactionCharles Kmiec enrolled in the IJCN program in July 2006. Ross's mother,
Betty Ross, was the third-party investor for Kmiec's property. The closing occurred
on August 30, 2006. Respondent received $1686 in attorney and title agent
fees. Kmiec's proceeds were $83,955.07, which were deposited in the IJCN
account without Kmiec's signature. Kmiec died the day after his closing, on August 31, 2006.Kmiec's sister, Mitchelle Kmiec, contacted Respondent shortly after Kmiec's death to inquire about IJCN. Respondent explained the program to Ms. Kmiec and told her that the program fee was $30,000. Ms. Kmiec indicated that she
was not interested in the program. Respondent told Ms. Kmiec that the
proceeds from the sale were held in escrow and would be used to make
mortgage payments on the property.On January 6, 2007, Ms. Kmiec, who is a paralegal, sent Respondent a letter requesting an accounting of the escrow funds, payment of any remaining
escrow funds, and a copy of any contracts Kmiec had executed. Respondent
sent a letter in response, setting forth the options of repurchasing the property or allowing IJCN to sell the property. Respondent's letter further stated that Ms. Kmiec would have to pay IJCN's program fees, which had increased to $41,101.67. Ms. Kmiec repeatedly advised Respondent that she did not want to participate
in the program and requested that the balance of the escrow account be
remitted to her. In March 2007, Respondent told Ross to turn over the funds
to Ms. Kmiec but Ross did not do so, purportedly because she did not have
the necessary documents. At that time, Respondent was having complications with her pregnancy and was not in the office.The lender filed a foreclosure action on the Kmiec property, and Ms. Kmiec retained an attorney who intervened in that action. Respondent agreed to
settle Ms. Kmiec's claims against her for $35,000. Respondent was to pay the settlement by February 19, 2010, but had not made any payments as of the
date of the disciplinary hearing in April 2010.The Hearing Board found that the Administrator proved all of the misconduct charged in Count VI, which included engaging in conduct involving
dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation, in violation of Rule 8.4(a)(4),
and engaging in conduct that tends to defeat the administration of justice or to bring the courts or the legal profession into disrepute, in violation of Supreme Court Rule 770.MitigationRespondent presented the testimony of two pastors, Arthurine Wilkinson and Earnest Ledbetter, Jr., who stated that Respondent is an honest person. Respondent has provided pro bono services to an organization from
Wilkinson's church and has represented Ledbetter in a real estate transaction. Suzanne Bolda and Marchette Turner, both of whom have known Respondent
for many years, also testified to her honesty. Neither Bolda nor Turner had
any knowledge of Respondent's reputation within the legal community.Respondent testified that she has performed charitable work for numerous organizations as part of a public service sorority. She has volunteered in her church and her community and has performed pro bono work for religious organizations. She has not kept track of the amount of time she has spent on
pro bono work. She has been an ordained minister since 2003.
Respondent raises 32 issues on review but fails to support many of her
arguments with relevant authority and citations to the record, as required by ARDC Rule 302(f)(5). Pursuant to ARDC Rule 302(i), we may decline to
review Respondent's arguments that are not supported by citation to the
record or legal precedent. In light of the severity of the charged misconduct and the recommended
sanction, to the extent that we are able, we will review Respondent's
arguments that are adequately developed. See In re Brooks, 05 CH 47
(Review Board, Dec. 12, 2008), petition for leave to file exceptions allowed, sanction modified, No. M.R. 22933 (March 16, 2009). Respondent asserts misconduct and discrimination by counsel for the Administrator and by the Hearing Board, as well as other procedural errors.
We address these issues before considering the findings of misconduct.Many of Respondent's arguments fall into the category of technical
procedural objections that had no impact on the fairness of the proceedings. Technical objections "generally will not provide grounds for altering the
Hearing Board' Report and Recommendation." In re Kozel, No. 96 CH 50 (Review Board, Dec. 30, 1999) at 10, petition for leave to file exceptions allowed, No. M.R. 16530 (June 30, 2000). Rulings pertaining to discovery, evidence, and other procedural issues such as a motion to continue the hearing date are reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. See, e.g., In re Blank, 145 Ill.2d 534, 553-54, 585 N.E.2d 105 (1992); In re Paden, No. 04 CH 116
(Review Board, Oct. 5, 2007), petition for leave to file exceptions denied,
M.R. 22068/22089 (May 18, 2007). To the extent that any of Respondent's arguments raise issues of law, we review them de novo. In re Winthrop, 219
Ill.2d 526, 544, 848 N.E.2d 961 (2006).
Respondent alleges that counsel for the Administrator engaged in misconduct by (1) filing a complaint in this matter that contained false statements and failed
to include statements from Respondent's clients; (2) attempting to improperly influence the Hearing Board by introducing hearsay testimony from another proceeding; (3) transporting witnesses to and from their depositions; (4) discriminating against Respondent by failing to depose certain witnesses; and
(5) engaging in improper nonverbal communication with the Hearing Board
Panel during the hearing. After carefully reviewing the record, we conclude that Respondent has not established any improper conduct by counsel for the Administrator. She did
not provide facts or law in support of her contentions to either the Hearing
Board or to this Board, nor has she demonstrated any prejudice. Absent any support, we cannot and do not find any error.
Respondent asserts that the Hearing Board was biased against her.
Specifically, she contends that (1) the Hearing Board Chair (Chair) failed to report the prosecutorial misconduct outlined above, and (2) the Chair's
issuance of an order making a general finding of misconduct the day after the hearing concluded demonstrated bias. The Hearing Board is presumed to be impartial, like any trier of fact. See
In re Ducey, 01 SH 118 (Review Board, Sept. 8, 2006) at 11, petition for leave to file exceptions allowed, No. M.R. 21234 (Sept. 18, 2007). The party asserting bias must present evidence to overcome the presumption. Ducey, 01 SH 118
at 11. Respondent has not done so here. We have carefully reviewed the
record and find no evidence of bias against Respondent. As we explained, Respondent did not establish any improper conduct that
would have required the Chair to report counsel for the Administrator. At a pretrial conference, Respondent complained to the Chair in a general way
about alleged problems with the complaint and the Administrator's
transportation of witnesses to depositions. The Chair advised Respondent that she could raise these issues at trial and present any relevant case law.
Respondent admitted that there was no case law that supported her position
and made no mention of the issues at trial. Respondent cannot complain now about issues she failed to preserve for review.Respondent's claim of bias based on the Chair's order of April 28, 2010 also
fails. The order, which was entered shortly after Respondent's hearing
concluded, stated generally that the Administrator established that
Respondent engaged in misconduct and directed counsel for the
Administrator to file orders or opinions imposing discipline on Respondent,
if any. According to Respondent, the general finding of misconduct set forth
in the order shows that the Hearing Board intended to find her guilty of misconduct without considering all of the evidence. Respondent misconstrues the Chair's order. The order in question was entered pursuant to ARDC Rule 277, which
provides in part that "[i]f the hearing panel concludes that the Administrator
has established that the respondent engaged in misconduct, the Chair shall
enter an order directing the Administrator to file within seven days copies of
any orders or opinions imposing discipline on the respondent, that are not
already in evidence." This Rule is "a mechanism for ensuring that evidence of prior discipline is considered only after there has been a finding of
misconduct," as required by Supreme Court Rule 753(c). In re Kirby, 07 CH 97 (Review Board, April 29, 2011) at 12,
petition for leave to file exceptions denied, No. M.R. 24715 (Nov. 22, 2011). Where, as here, the Hearing Panel concludes after a hearing that the Administrator has established misconduct, it is standard procedure for the
Chair to enter this type of order. It was entered for the purpose of facilitating
the disclosure of any prior orders of discipline and was not intended to
represent the Hearing Board's findings as to all of the charges at issue. Rather,
the Hearing Board issued its specific findings in a detailed Report and Recommendation issued on March 30, 2011. Accordingly, the entry of this
order does not establish any bias against Respondent.
Respondent makes much of the fact that some of the orders and the Report
and Recommendation of the Hearing Board issued in this matter were signed
and initialed by the Clerk of the Commission on behalf of the Chair.
Respondent questions whether "these documents were prepared or even read
by the Chairman." There is no evidence that the Clerk acted without the
Chair's authority and, more importantly, no evidence that Respondent was prejudiced in any way by the manner in which the orders were signed.
Moreover, Respondent has not presented any authority for her contention that
the orders were "void ab initio." Therefore, we reject this argument.
Respondent asserts, without any citation to authority, that the Hearing Board lacked subject matter jurisdiction over her hearing because of motions
pending before the supreme court relating to witness subpoenas. The record reveals that, in the months leading up to the hearing date, Respondent filed motions asserting technical objections to the Administrator's service of
hearing subpoenas upon witnesses. The Chair denied Respondent's motions,
and she then filed similar motions in the supreme court. The supreme court denied one of Respondent's motions prior to the hearing but one motion,
which was ultimately denied, remained pending when the hearing began.
In that motion, Respondent sought to quash the hearing subpoenas for all of
the Administrator's witnesses on the ground that they were served on the witnesses' counsel instead of on the witnesses personally. The Chair denied Respondent's motion to stay the hearing.Respondent has not established that she had standing to challenge the hearing subpoenas or that the Chair abused his discretion in denying her motion to
stay the hearing. Absent any legal authority for Respondent's contention that the Chair was required to stay the hearing, we decline to find any abuse of discretion.
In a two-sentence argument, Respondent argues that there was an improper taking of her license without due process between June 2009 and October or November 2009, because the ARDC website indicated on September 25, 2009 , that she was not authorized to practice law due to discipline. We disagree with Respondent's premise that a taking occurred. For constitutional purposes, a taking occurs "when government action directly interferes with or substantially disturbs the owner's use and enjoyment of the property." Black's Law Dictionary (9th Ed. 2009). There is no evidence in the record of a government act that was intended to or actually interfered with Respondent's practice of law from June through November 2009. Rather, this appears to have been mistake on the part of the Registrar that was corrected
once Respondent brought it to the Chair's attention. Respondent does not cite
and we are not aware of any authority that supports her assertion that this
error constituted a taking or affected her practice in any way, or that her due
process rights were violated.
We do not disturb the Hearing Board's findings of fact unless they are
against the manifest weight of the evidence. In re Winthrop, 219 Ill.2d 526, 542, 848 N.E.2d 961 (2006). A finding is against the manifest weight of the
evidence only when the opposite conclusion is clearly evident. Winthrop, 219 Ill.2d at 542, 848 N.E.2d 961. Because the Hearing Board is in the best
position to assess a witness's credibility, we defer to its credibility findings on review. In re Timpone, 208 Ill.2d 371, 380, 804 N.E.2d 560 (2004). Whether
the facts as found by the Hearing Board constitute misconduct is a question
of law that we review de novo. Winthrop, 219 Ill.2d at 542, 848 N.E.2d 961.
Overreaching occurs when an attorney takes undue advantage of or abuses her position of influence over a client. In re Rinella, 175 Ill.2d 504, 516, 677 N.E.2d 909 (1997). Respondent asserts that she did not overreach the attorney-client relationship because she did not become involved in the transactions at issue until after her clients had decided to enroll in the foreclosure assistance programs. We disagree.Once Respondent received referrals from W2X and RYM, she had plenty of
time to discuss the transactions with her clients. However, the record does not contain evidence of any effort to explain the transactions or to protect her
clients' interests. Respondent's actions were focused on advancing her own financial interests and those of W2X, RYM, and IJCN by completing all of
the matters assigned to her. She accomplished this by instructing her clients
to sign blank documents or to sign documents without reading them. Her
clients did so because they trusted her and mistakenly believed she was protecting their interests. In the rare instance when a client raised a question, Respondent replied that "this is the way it has to be done," instead of
providing any explanation. By withholding the most basic nature of the transactions, Respondent influenced her clients to act against their own
interests. She was able to accomplish this because her clients were financially vulnerable and legally unsophisticated and would not "rock the boat" because they did not want to lose their homes. This is sufficient evidence of
overreaching.Moreover, Respondent's argument overlooks the fact that she was directly involved in soliciting IJCN clients. She created IJCN, co-owned and
co-managed it, and met with potential clients, including Spikes-Davis. Her purported lack of involvement is not supported by the record.
Respondent's sole argument on this point is that her testimony that she was motivated by her religious faith to assist people overcomes the evidence that
she engaged in self-dealing and breached her fiduciary duty. It is undisputed
that an attorney-client relationship existed in the transactions at issue and, consequently, Respondent owed a fiduciary duty of fidelity, honesty, and good faith to her clients. See In re Winthrop, 219 Ill.2d 526, 543, 848 N.E.2d 961, 972-973 (2006); In re Gerard, 132 Ill.2d 507, 529, 548 N.E.2d 1051, 1059 (1989). Attorneys owe their clients "undivided fidelity" and "the basic obligations of agency: loyalty and obedience." In re Biagini, 07 SH 13
(Review Board, March 25, 2009) at 9-10, citing Winthrop, 219 Ill.2d at 543,
848 N.E.2d at 972-73, and cases cited therein; approved and confirmed, No. M.R. 23136 (Sept. 22, 2009).Respondent's motivations for her actions are neither dispositive of this issue
nor supported by the record. The Hearing Board considered all of the
evidence, including Respondent's testimony about her motivation, and found
her to be disloyal and motivated by her own interests. We defer to the
Hearing Board's factual findings on this issue and have no reason to disturb them.
Respondent argues that the Hearing Board disregarded certain evidence that demonstrated her clients' understanding of the nature of the real estate transactions, thereby rendering the finding that she failed to abide by their decisions against the manifest weight of the evidence.
Contrary to Respondent's assertion, there is no indication in the record that the Hearing Board disregarded any evidence. Rather, the Hearing Board weighed the evidence and found that Respondent's clients did not understand that they
were selling their homes. They testified that they did not read the documents
that were presented to them and that Respondent did not explain them.
The Hearing Board found credible their testimony that they believed they were refinancing or placing their homes in trust. Respondent's disagreement with
the Hearing Board's findings, without more, does not constitute reversible error.
Respondent's arguments pertaining to the findings that she engaged in
conflicts of interest misapprehend the Hearing Board's findings. Respondent argues that the evidence did not establish that she represented both the buyers and the sellers in the W2X and RYM transactions. While there was evidence that the buyers in those transactions believed that Respondent was acting as their attorney, the Hearing Board made no such findings. Rather, it found that Respondent engaged in misconduct by failing to advise her clients of
potential conflicts that could result from her interest in maintaining her
referral relationships with W2X and RYM. Respondent has not presented any reason to disturb the Hearing Board's findings that she engaged in a conflict
of interest by focusing on "closing the deal" for W2X and RYM instead of
focusing on her client's interests.
Moreover, the Hearing Board found that Respondent entered into a business transaction with Spikes-Davis without obtaining Spikes-Davis's consent to the conflict arising from Respondent's interest in IJCN. Respondent fails to address this obvious conflict of interest, and we conclude that the evidence supports the Hearing Board's findings on this issue. Respondent's contention that Spikes-Davis and other clients signed controlled business arrangement disclosure forms is not dispositive, as the Hearing Board found that the clients did not give informed consent due to Respondent's failure to explain the forms and to advise her clients that they could seek independent counsel.
Respondent summarily argues that there was no evidence of fraudulent intent
to support the finding that she engaged in dishonest, deceptive, or fraudulent conduct in violation of Rule 8.4(a)(4). We disagree. In order to establish a violation of Rule 8.4(a)(4), there must be "some act or circumstances that
[show] the respondent's conduct was purposeful." In re Cutright, 233 Ill.2d 474, 910 N.E.2d 581 (2009). The following evidence supports the Hearing Board's finding that Respondent acted dishonestly.Respondent withheld information from her clients when it suited her needs.
Not only did she fail to provide clients with basic information about the transactions they were executing and about her own interests in those transactions, she did not advise some clients of the dates of their closings and proceeded with the closings in their absence. Respondent's false notarization
of Hatchett's signature is another example of purposefully dishonest conduct. The Hearing Board did not find Respondent credible on this issue, and we have
no reason to disagree with that finding. With respect to the IJCN transactions, the Hearing Board found that
Respondent was a "full and willing participant" in the scheme to defraud both Spikes-Davis and the lenders in that transaction. Noting that Respondent
created IJCN and was IJCN's attorney, the Hearing Board rejected
Respondent's attempt to claim ignorance of IJCN's fraudulent activities and to place the blame on her business partner, Ross.
Moreover, the buyer in the Spikes-Davis transaction was Respondent's father. Respondent had access to her father's loan application and knew that the representations regarding her father's finances and living arrangements were
not true. All of the foregoing evidence supports the Hearing Board's finding
of fraudulent intent.
The Hearing Board found that Respondent violated Rule 8.4(a)(3) (now Rule 8.4(b)), which provides that it is misconduct for a lawyer to commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness
as a lawyer. The Hearing Board found that Respondent "engaged in criminal conduct when she notarized Hatchett's signature without witnessing it being signed or properly verifying the signature," in violation of the Illinois Notary Public Act, 5 ILCS sec.312/6-102, and sec.312/7-105 (Notary Public Act). Respondent argues that there can be no violation of Rule 8.4(a)(3) when she
has not been charged with or convicted of any criminal conduct. Pursuant to
the reasoning in In re Smith, 07 CH 71 (Review Board Oct. 14, 2010),
petition for leave to file exceptions allowed, No. M.R. 24275, we agree with Respondent. Like Respondent, Smith notarized signatures without properly verifying them and attested that signatories to warranty deeds personally appeared before him when they did not. He was not charged with any crime. The Review Board in Smith reversed the Hearing Board's finding that Smith committed a criminal
act by violating the Notary Public Act and explained its decision as follows:A Hearing or Review Board panel may find, based on clear and convincing evidence, that a lawyer violated a statute that has criminal penalties, and may sanction him based on that violation if his conduct was contrary to a
professional conduct rule or established precedent. But we conclude that it cannot take the additional step of finding him guilty of ?a criminal act' if there has been no court rendered conviction. The reasons for this conclusion are implicit in our system of justice. A criminal defendant is entitled to a trial by
jury and his guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, not by clear and convincing evidence. In re Smith, 07 CH 71, Review Board Report and Recommendation at 9.The Review Board concluded in Smith that "it simply cannot be known
whether? a criminal act' has been committed until there has been a conviction rendered by a court of law." Smith, 07 CH 71, Review Board Report and Recommendation at 9. In the case before us, there was no finding beyond a reasonable doubt that Respondent engaged in a criminal act. Therefore,
pursuant to Smith, we recommend that the Hearing Board's finding that Respondent violated Rule 8.4(a)(3) be reversed. Moreover, even if Rule 8.4(a)(3) does not require proof of a criminal
conviction, we believe that the Hearing Board's finding on this charge should
be reversed because the Administrator did not plead or prove the necessary elements of a criminal violation of the Notary Public Act. As the Review
Board noted in Smith, improper notarization is not necessarily a criminal act. Rather, "[a] finding of ?official misconduct' is a prerequisite under 5 ILCS 312/7-105(a) or (b) for establishing the commission of a crime by a notary public." Smith, 07 CH 71, Review Board Report at 10. The Review Board in Smith determined that there could be no violation of Rule 8.4(a)(3) when the Hearing Board expressly found insufficient evidence of official misconduct,
even though it found that Smith improperly notarized a document. Smith, 07
CH 71, Review Board Report and Recommendation at 10. In this case, there
was neither an allegation that Respondent committed official misconduct nor
a finding by the Hearing Board that she engaged in official misconduct under section 5 ILCS 312/7-105. Consequently, here, as in Smith, "there was necessarily no finding of ?a criminal act' to establish a violation of Rule 8.4(a)(3)." See Smith, 07 CH 71, Review Board Report and Recommendation at 10.Our recommendation that the finding that Respondent violated Rule 8.4(a)(3) be reversed does not change the finding that Respondent acted dishonestly in making the improper notarization, in violation of Rule 8.4(a)(4), nor does it
alter our sanction recommendation.
Respondent argues that the evidence did not establish that she violated the
Title Insurance Act, 215 ILCS 155/18, which required her to disclose that she was a title agent who would receive a fee from the title company as part of the real estate transactions. Respondent notes that her clients' signatures appear
on controlled business arrangement disclosure forms that set forth the information required by the Title Insurance Act. Although Respondent's failure to fulfill the requirements of the Title
Insurance Act was included in the allegations of Counts I-IV of the complaint,
it does not appear that her failure to comply was a specific charge of
misconduct. Rather, these allegations were part of the basis for the charges of conflict of interest, failing to keep clients reasonably informed about the
status of a matter, and/or failing to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions. The Hearing Board did not make a specific finding regarding Respondent's compliance with the
Title Insurance Act. As set forth above, we recommend that the findings that Respondent engaged in conflicts of interest, failed to keep her clients
reasonably informed, and failed to explain matters to her clients be affirmed regardless of whether Respondent violated the Title Insurance Act.
Therefore, we need not address this argument.
The Hearing Board found that Respondent violated Supreme Court Rule
770 by engaging in conduct which tends to defeat the administration of
justice or to bring the courts or the legal profession into disrepute. After the Hearing Board issued its Report and Recommendation in this matter the
Court in In re Thomas, 2012 IL 113035 (Jan. 20, 2012), clarified that
"Supreme Court Rule 770 is not itself a Rule of Professional Conduct ?
[r]ather, one becomes subject to discipline pursuant to Rule 770 upon proof of certain misconduct." Thomas, 2012 IL 113035. Thus, the finding that
Respondent violated Supreme Court Rule 770 cannot stand. This does not
affect the sanction recommendation, however, because Respondent is subject
to discipline based on her numerous violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
The Hearing Board recommended that Respondent be disbarred. This recommendation is advisory. In re Hopper, 85 Ill.2d 318, 325, 423 N.E.2d
900 (1981). When making our independent recommendation, we consider
that the purposes of the disciplinary process are to protect the public,
maintain the integrity of the legal system, and safeguard the administration of justice from reproach. In re Timpone, 157 Ill.2d 178, 197, 623 N.E.2d 300 (1993). We seek to recommend sanctions that are consistent with sanctions imposed for similar misconduct (Timpone, 157 Ill.2d at 197, 623 N.E.2d 300), but must base our recommendations on the particular facts of each case,
which include the nature of the misconduct as well as the factors in
mitigation and aggravation (In re Witt, 145 Ill.2d 380, 398, 583 N.E.2d 526 (1991)). For the following reasons, we conclude that disbarment is warranted.Respondent's argument that she should be reprimanded is not tenable in light
of her pattern of fraudulent misconduct. There are numerous cases in which respondents who knowingly participate in a series of fraudulent acts over a period of time have been disbarred. See In re Hook, 98 CH 50 at 9 (Review Board, May 16, 2006), petition for leave to file exceptions denied, No. M.R. 21025 (Sept. 21, 2006); In re Wick, 05 CH 66 (Review Board, May 7, 2010), petition for leave to file exceptions denied, No. M.R. 23942 (Sept. 22, 2010).
In addition to the nature of Respondent's misconduct, there are significant
factors in aggravation that convince us that disbarment is the appropriate recommendation.First, Respondent took advantage of and caused significant financial harm to
her clients at a time when they were financially vulnerable. See In re Cutright, 233 Ill. 2d 474, 910 N.E.2d 581 (2009). Respondent's clients sought her out
in an effort to prevent foreclosure and instead unknowingly surrendered title
to their homes, with several losing their homes as a result of their
participation in these fraudulent schemes. Many of Respondent's clients had
to seek additional representation and file suit against Respondent and the
other parties involved in an effort to save their homes or recoup some of their
losses. As the Hearing Board notes, Respondent's misconduct also harmed
the lenders in these transactions, who made hundreds of thousands of dollars
in loans that were not repaid.We also consider that Respondent violated her clients' trust for her own
financial gain. Despite her protestations to the contrary, the evidence is clear
that Respondent's actions were motivated by greed, not by a desire to help
others. Respondent's self-serving motives are additional factors in
aggravation.The commission of conduct involving dishonesty is yet another aggravating factor that applies in this case. We concur in the Hearing Board's assessment
of the progression of Respondent's fraudulent conduct. Respondent began by helping to facilitate the transactions orchestrated by W2X and RYM and
moved on to orchestrating similar schemes so that she could maximize her
gain. Both the pattern and the increasingly dishonest nature of this
misconduct are factors in aggravation. See In re Conner, 08 CH 119
(Review Board, Dec. 30, 2010), approved and confirmed, No. M.R. 24471
(May 18, 2011).We are also troubled by Respondent's lack of remorse and acceptance of responsibility for her wrongdoing. Despite Respondent's numerous clear violations of the ethical rules and the substantial harm she caused, she not
only fails to express remorse but maligns the integrity of the disciplinary
process, blaming "those affiliated with the Commission" for the predicament
in which she now finds herself. Consequently, we feel strongly that
Respondent is unable or unwilling to conform her conduct to the rules of
ethics and is likely to commit misconduct in the future. Our recommendation must protect the public from this likelihood.The mitigating evidence in this case is not substantial. Respondent has no
prior misconduct and cooperated in these proceedings. She presented four character witnesses who testified that she is an honest person. However, these witnesses are not attorneys and are not familiar with Respondent's reputation within the legal community. Respondent testified that she is very active in her church and community and has performed pro bono legal work for various churches and for some first-time home buyers. Although these contributions
are commendable, Respondent's very general testimony does not overcome
the extensive misconduct she committed.We disagree with Respondent that the Hearing Board did not give proper
weight to the mitigating evidence. In particular, she contends that the Hearing Board failed to consider that she suffered complications in her pregnancy
during the time she was participating in the investigation of this matter in late 2006 and early 2007. We do not see how health issues that occurred after
most the misconduct in question should have any effect on the sanction recommendation. Moreover, the Hearing Board considered Respondent's mitigating evidence but gave it little weight due to its generic nature and the severity of her misconduct. We are in agreement with the Hearing Board that
the mitigating evidence deserves little weight.The following cases support a recommendation of disbarment. In In re Colon, 03 CH 121 (Hearing Board, Jan. 25, 2005), approved and confirmed, No. M.R. 20094 (May 20, 2005), also relied upon by the Hearing Board; the respondent was disbarred for misconduct similar in nature to Respondent's. In addition to maintaining a law practice, Colon was president of Adonis Management and Investment Holding Company (Adonis). Through Adonis, Colon entered into three real estate transactions with two clients without advising them of his interests in the transactions. In two of the transactions, Colon or someone
acting at his direction prepared and submitted loan applications containing information that Colon knew to be false. Colon also converted approximately $20,000 in client funds, which he eventually repaid. Colon did not participate in his disciplinary proceedings. The Hearing Board concluded that Colon's misconduct was "so calculating and multifaceted that both future clients and members of the public would be at risk if [r]espondent were allowed to
practice law." Colon, 03 CH 121, Hearing Board Report and
Recommendation at 22.In In re Paden, 04 CH 116 (Review Board, Oct. 5, 2007),
petition for leave to file exceptions denied, No. M.R. 22089 (May 19, 2008),
the respondent falsely represented the purchase price of her client's property
to the client as $77,500, when it was in fact $245,000. Paden concealed the
truth about the sale from her client, did not deliver the proceeds of the sale to
her, and forged her client's signature on a Power of Attorney. Paden evaded service of the Administrator's complaint but eventually was served and participated in some prehearing proceedings. She did not attend her hearing. Because of the extent of Paden's deceptive conduct, the significant harm she caused to her client, and her failure to cooperate in her disciplinary
proceedings, the Hearing and Review Boards recommended disbarment and
the supreme court approved those recommendations.We recognize that neither Colon nor Paden participated in their disciplinary hearings, which is a significant factor in aggravation that is not present here. Nonetheless, Respondent's misconduct was more extensive than Colon's and Paden's. Paden was involved in one improper transaction and Colon was involved in three. Respondent, on the other hand, orchestrated two improper transactions through IJCN and participated in at least four others through
W2X and RYM. Moreover, although Respondent did not commit conversion
like Colon, she benefited financially from her misconduct. Based on the relevant case law, the egregious nature of the misconduct, and,
most significantly, Respondent's lack of acceptance of responsibility for and recognition of her misconduct, we are convinced that disbarment is the appropriate recommendation.
For the foregoing reasons, we recommend that the Hearing Board's findings
that Respondent violated Rule 8.4(a)(3) and Supreme Court Rule 77e reversed and the remaining findings of misconduct be affirmed.
We further recommend that the Respondent, Avalon Elan Betts-Gaston, be disbarred.
Respectfully Submitted, Richard A. Green
Jill W. Landsberg
Claire A. Manning
I, Kenneth G. Jablonski, Clerk of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois and keeper of the records,
hereby certifies that the foregoing is a true copy of the Report and Recommendation of the Review Board, approved by each Panel member,
entered in the above entitled cause of record filed in my office on
July 18, 2012.Kenneth G. Jablonski,
Clerk of the:
Attorney Registration and Disciplinary
Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois
1. Because there are two individuals in this matter with the surname Jackson, we refer to Warren Jackson as "Jackson," and to Onshelle Jackson as "Ms. Jackson."
http://www.iardc.org/rd_database/rulesdecisions.htmlhttp://www.iardc.org/RB_Filings.asp Review Board Report
Full Licensed Name: Avalon e'lan Betts-Gaston
Full Former name(s): None Date of Admission as Lawyer by Illinois Supreme Court: November 9, 2000 Registered Business Address: Avalon Betts-Gaston Po Box 1133 Matteson, IL 60443-4133 Registered Business Phone: (312) 275-0640
Illinois Registration Status: Not authorized to practice law due to discipline
Malpractice Insurance: (Current as of date of registration; consult attorney for further information) In annual registration, attorney reported that he/she does not have malpractice coverage. (Some attorneys, such as judges, government lawyers, and in-house corporate lawyers, may not carry coverage due to the nature of their practice setting.)
Disposition:Interim suspension until further order of Court during pendency of disciplinary proceedingsEffective Date of Disposition:June 29, 2011End Date of Disposition:Definition of Disposition:An interim suspension reflects the determination of the Supreme Court that a lawyer should be suspended during the pendency of a disciplinary proceeding. In imposing interim suspension, the Court orders that the lawyer be suspended until further order of the Court and may impose such conditions as the Court deems necessary. The lawyer is not authorized to practice law during the period of the interim suspension. The Court may terminate the interim suspension upon imposition of final discipline or under other circumstances as the Supreme Court deems just.
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