Eastville Attorney Suspended for Two Years

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By Linda Cicoira — Eastville attorney Paul Watson’s license to practice law was suspended for two years by the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board effective Sept. 27, “for violating professional rules that govern diligence, communication, safekeeping property, declining or terminating representation, bar admission and disciplinary matters, and misconduct.”

It was not the first time that Watson, 49, was reprimanded by the state bar. In 2010, his license was revoked for 60 days. More recently, four people complained about Watson.

Aaron McNeil Taylor, of Eastville, was convicted of cocaine distribution in 2016 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. According to the bar’s subcommittee certification, Watson was appointed to represent Taylor on appeal. Watson filed a notice and petitioned an appeal to the court of appeals, which denied the request later that year. Watson then attempted to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court. But he failed to file a notice of appeal with the first court, which caused the higher court to dismiss the appeal in 2017. Watson didn’t tell his client what had happened.

Taylor filed a complaint alleging Watson failed to provide him with copies of the orders from his appeal and his file, as he requested, so he could pursue other remedies. 

Watson acknowledged to the bar that the Supreme Court had dismissed the appeal as a result of his failure and advised that he filed a motion for a delayed appeal. “He also provided a copy of a letter dated July 18, 2017, addressed to Mr. Taylor notifying him that he was refiling his appeal because the notice of appeal had been filed in the incorrect court. He did not address the file request nor provide a copy of a motion for a delayed appeal.”

In October 2017, the bar asked for proof Watson had filed a delayed appeal. Later that month, Watson told the bar that “he had not filed a motion for a delayed appeal in July, but had done so in October and had sent Mr. Taylor a copy of it. He provided copies of two different motions for a delayed appeal. One was dated July 25, 2017, and correctly premised on the failure to file a notice of appeal in the CAV. The other was dated Oct. 13, 2017, and erroneously premised on his filing a petition for appeal with the CAV instead of the SCV and failure to file the transcripts.”

The bar’s investigation confirmed the appeal was filed in October 2017. In late November the Supreme Court granted a delayed appeal “despite the erroneous grounds stated in the motion.” In late August 2018, “the appeal was refused on its merits.” Watson did not tell Taylor about the dismissal. He did not comply with Taylor’s multiple requests for his file, according to the subcommittee.

Robert A. Joynes, of Painter, hired Watson in September 2016 to represent him and his wife in a zoning dispute involving a hang gliding company and the Accomack Board of Zoning Appeals. Watson represented the Joynes before the board through correspondence and at meetings on July 19, Aug. 16, Sept. 6, and Oct. 18, 2017, “and engaged in settlement discussions with the Joyneses, the board, and counsel for the opposing party.” But he did not appear at the final board meeting on Nov. 1, 2017. Joynes had to represent himself. The board did not grant relief to Watson’s client. Watson did not respond to “numerous telephone calls, emails, and texts from Mr. Joynes throughout the representation, which frustrated Mr. Joynes’ ability to obtain advice, guidance, and information about his case.”

Watson represented Elaine M. Baseman in a civil matter in Accomack General District Court, which resulted in a March 2017 judgment for Baseman of $25,000. Baseman retained Watson to collect the money. He advised her “to pursue the partition and sale of real estate she owned jointly with one of the judgment debtors, and agreed to pursue that on her behalf for a fixed fee of $1,500.” Baseman paid Watson in advance in July 2017.

The next month, Watson told Baseman a hearing had been scheduled for October 2, 2017. She attempted to contact Watson “to discuss the nature and purpose of the hearing and to obtain his assistance in preparing for it, but was never able to reach him,” the committee reported. Baseman went to the courthouse for the hearing, “but no hearing took place.” 

For three months, she tried to contact Watson but he did not return her calls. Frustrated by the apparent lack of progress and her inability to reach Watson, Baseman contacted the court and learned Watson did not initiate a partition action. In mid-January 2018, she filed a complaint with the bar.

Seven months after she paid the fee and shortly after Watson was referred for a formal investigation, Watson filed the action in the circuit court. He “did not inform Ms. Baseman that he intended to file it or that he had done so, and did not send her a copy of the filing. She learned of it from the bar’s investigator. By that point, she no longer wished to pursue the partitioning and requested a refund.” 

Watson refunded the money in June 2018. He told the bar that he had kept the money in a trust and did not take the money out until he refunded it to her. But the committee said in early February 2018, he had “disbursed at least $1,431.69 of Ms. Baseman’s $1,500 advance fee monies out of the trust to himself and/or his law firm for his personal use and benefit. As the representation had not been completed and the advance fee had not been earned, respondent’s disbursement of Ms. Baseman’s advance fee monies out of trust constituted the misappropriation and conversion of those monies.” 

The committee found that Watson failed to comply with record-keeping requirements of the bar “by not maintaining cash receipts and disbursements journals or subsidiary ledgers, and did not perform reconciliations of his trust account as required.”

A copy of the complaint was mailed to Watson demanding an answer but he never filed one. The bar then demanded he produce a copy of the “entire file” for his representation of Baseman by March 20, 2018. Although he produced documents by that date, it was not a complete response. He did not provide the trust account and operating account records, including all paper and electronically stored records, canceled checks, cash receipts journals, cash disbursements journals, individual client subsidiary ledgers, bank statements, deposit tickets and evidence of reconciliations. 

The bar’s investigator asked for the missing documents on Aug. 2, 2018. Watson promised to provide them but didn’t nor did he respond to follow-up calls and emails. He eventually provided a printout showing deposits into and withdrawals from his trust account between May 1, 2017, and June 15, 2018. Eventually, the bar issued a Notice of Noncompliance and Request for Interim Suspension on Oct.18, 2018. By email dated October 25, 2018, Watson “finally admitted in writing that he did not have any further trust account documents to produce.”

Jamar Smith was represented by Watson in criminal and child support matters in 2017. Smith complained to the bar, in February 2018, that Watson failed to: return documents belonging to him, file a request for work release as promised, or respond to Smith’s telephone messages and letter. A copy of the complaint was mailed from the bar to Watson demanding that he answer within 21 days. Watson did not address Smith’s allegations until an interview with a bar investigator in November 2018.

In June 2007, Watson violated “rules that govern competence, diligence, and communication” when he filed an appeal in the wrong court. The act “caused the appeal to be dismissed without being considered on its merits.” Watson “failed in an attempt to file for reconsideration and failed altogether to seek an available delayed appeal for his client.” For 10 months he “did not communicate with his client about the status of his appeal.” The state bar required him to take four hours of continuing legal education courses in ethics and criminal appellate procedure.

In addition to those violations, in March 2009, he was cited for three violations and was publicly reprimanded. The cases involved a divorce representation, a criminal appeal, and criminal representation. All three times he was accused of failing to cooperate with a bar investigation. 

In 2010, the disciplinary board suspended Watson license for 60 days for violating disciplinary rules that govern diligence, communication, and failing to respond to a lawful demand from a disciplinary authority. The misconduct occurred in a court-appointed criminal appeal.

Calls for comment were not returned by Watson by press time Thursday.

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