The Missouri Supreme Court has ordered the license of an attorney with offices in Joplin and Neosho suspended for at least three years after she mismanaged client fees and trust accounts.
The court ruled Tuesday that Elizabeth Lea Turner violated six provisions of two rules of professional conduct related to transactions from trust accounts and charging fees to at least one client. The court suspended her license indefinitely and said she could not apply for reinstatement for at least three years.
Before the court’s assessment of punishment, a regional attorney disciplinary committee had investigated complaints that included allegations that Turner wrongfully took $97,000 from the trust accounts over two to three years and that she kept another $12,000 more than she was owed in fees and expenses from a particular client.
Turner, according to information in a brief filed by her attorney, Bill Fleischaker of Joplin, was using a software program to account for the trust balances and transactions along with hours billed for client cases. She had hired an administrator and an accountant to keep the firm’s financial records, according to that document.
That brief alleges that an associate on her staff told Turner in 2018 that other staff attorneys were using those records to access client balances so that they could drain the trust accounts. As a result, she changed the software so that others could not see the trust account balances. Two associates left the practice and started their own, demanding that the trust account balances of clients who moved to their firm be transferred.
When an inquiry was launched after that by the disciplinary committee, Turner used the records of the former software system for the trust accounts and client transactions. According to the defense brief, after that inquiry, Turner realized there were problems with those records and then learned that there were unopened bank statements in an employee’s desk and no spreadsheets reconciling the accounts.
Turner contended that she did not take any money or personally profit from the funds in the trust accounts. However, when she did determine that $97,000 was missing from the accounts, she did ask a relative for the money, which she deposited into the accounts.
After the inquiry, she took a class on the proper management of the funds and settled with the client who was owed $12,000.
Fleischaker said Wednesday the regional disciplinary committee, a panel of two lawyers and one lay person, “found no dishonesty, just poor bookkeeping,” in regard to Turner’s trust accounts. That panel recommended that Turner be placed on probation. Fleischaker said that the court’s chief disciplinary counsel, a different investigatory arm of the bar, disagreed with that recommendation.
“I think the punishment is way out of line,” he said of the indefinite suspension of Turner’s license to practice. “The accounts were all audited and all straightened out” before the regional disciplinary committee heard the case, he said. He noted the Missouri Supreme Court did not issue an opinion along with its order on punishment.
“I think the local committee had it right, and because we have no opinion from the Supreme Court, we don’t know the basis of that decision. The idea of punishment is to make the sure the problem is corrected.”