Updated 1:25 p.m.
In a split decision, a hearing committee of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals Board on Professional Responsibility found that longtime local solo practitioner Stephen Yelverton did not commit ethics violations.
Yelverton's client, Michael Snow, claimed to have been assaulted by a woman named Mary Carrick. After a District of Columbia Superior Court judge acquitted the woman accused of the assault in a criminal proceeding, Yelverton moved for a mistrial (the prosecutor wasn't involved). The judge denied the request, citing double jeopardy. In a flood of post-trial filings, Yelverton and Carrick's lawyer traded allegations of ethical violations.
The Office of Bar Counsel charged Yelverton with failing to provide competent representation, failing to serve his client with skill and care, filing frivolous motions and interfering with the administration of justice. In a report (PDF) issued on Friday, the hearing committee found that while Yelverton "had no basis in law" for filing the motions in Carrick's case, there was no harm done to his client or the judicial system.
"The question presented, however, is whether a degree of ineptitude alone, absent any otherwise inappropriate actions and no evidence of actual harm to his client or to the judicial system, warrants a permanent blot on a lawyer’s career after that lawyer has been in practice for more than 30 years without having exhibited ethical lapses," committee Chairman Eric Fox and member Deniece Fields said in their report.
The third committee member, David Bernstein, wrote a dissenting statement. He recommended a 30-day suspension, finding that Yelverton failed to provide competent representation by pursuing claims "that a reasonable attorney would have concluded had 'not even a faint hope of success on the legal merits'" and interfering with the administration of justice by "making repeated, meritless filings" with the local courts.
Yelverton said in an email today that he is "pleased that the Ad Hoc Committee agreed that there was no factual and legal basis for the Specification of Charges." Washington Bar Counsel Wallace Shipp Jr. declined to comment. Assistant Bar Counsel Hamilton Fox III, who is not related to the committee chairman, prosecuted the case.
The committee’s report and recommendations will go to the Board on Professional Responsibility, which will review the case and issue its own report and recommendations to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. The court will make the final decision.
Yelverton, a D.C. Bar member since 1979 with no previous disciplinary history, maintained in previous interviews that his pleadings were legally sound and that the judge did have authority to order a mistrial. He accused Carrick's lawyer of engaging in an unethical "character assassination" against Snow. The hearing committee noted that there was no evidence that Snow was dissatisfied with Yelverton's representation and that, while his efforts were unsuccessful, "they were sincere and deeply felt."
"Simply being wrong, even unquestionably wrong, is not enough to warrant discipline without something more," Fox and Fields wrote. "If it were, disciplinary proceedings would inundate the judicial system."