Disciplinary board pursuing case against N.O. City Councilman James Gray

In a case that has been quietly developing behind the scenes, the state office that polices the legal profession last week began making its case for sanctions against New Orleans City Councilman James Gray, who is accused of violating a raft of professional-conduct rules during his representation of four different clients.

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel wants the state’s Attorney Disciplinary Board to suspend Gray from practicing law for up to three years for various alleged sins, including overcharging and failing to provide competent representation. In a memorandum, the office cites similar punishments in cases that it argues have a similar pattern of facts.

On June 19, the board heard a day’s worth of testimony in Gray’s case, which the Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed in August. The trial will continue for at least one more day, but the second day of testimony has yet to be scheduled, according to Charles Plattsmier, chief disciplinary counsel.

In an interview this week, Gray said the charges are all unfounded, and that he expects to be cleared. His attorney, Ernest Jones, did not return a phone call from The Advocate.

“The short answer is these are mere allegations,” Gray said. “There’s been no proof provided. I am confident a determination will be made in my case that the complaint is without basis.”

Plattsmier said the case has only gone as far as it has because his office looked into the various complaints and found they had merit.

The four complaints against Gray involve cases that go as far back as 2003. In the oldest case, Barbara Ann Roberts alleged that she hired Gray to pursue a wrongful death claim. She claimed she met with him in 2008 and he said he was still pursuing the case, but that he failed to do so. In 2010, the case was dismissed “due to abandonment.”

Gray failed to alert Roberts of the case’s dismissal, she said.

The disciplinary counsel’s brief says Gray violated several professional-conduct rules, such as failing to consult with a client and failing to keep a client “reasonably informed.”

Gray disputed those assertions, saying Roberts was one of many co-plaintiffs in that case, all of them siblings of the person who died.

“I had numerous conversations and consultations with them,” he said. “There were at least six or seven (siblings). I talked to them individually, and on a number of occasions, as a group.”

Roberts could not be reached.

The second case dates to 2004. Gloria Frith alleges that she hired Gray for a medical malpractice case, and later switched lawyers after Gray failed to take any action. She complained that Gray did not forward a copy of her file upon request.

The disciplinary brief against Gray again lists a number of violations of the rules of professional conduct, such as failing to keep a client informed and failing to promptly comply with “reasonable requests for information.”

Gray again disputed those allegations. He said the case simply didn’t go anywhere because of a lack of evidence. “We just didn’t have the evidence necessary to prove there was a basis for it,” he said. “I did what I needed to do, and I let her know.” Frith could not be reached Wednesday.

In the third case, Gray was hired to represent Frederick Reed, who was convicted of murder, in his post-conviction appeals. He received $18,750 in advance payments on a total fee of $25,000, the brief says. After Gray twice visited Reed, Reed opted to switch lawyers, and Gray returned $14,000 of the fee. Reed complained that the entire amount should be refunded, and the brief charges that Gray violated rules prohibiting unreasonable fees, among others.

Gray said Reed’s father told him how much of the fee to keep for his trouble.

Reed “killed his wife and pled guilty to it,” Gray said. “They paid me; I performed some services. Then they decided they wanted another lawyer. His daddy said to me, ‘You’ve made an all-day trip to (a prison in) north Louisiana. You spent another day at (Elayn) Hunt (Correctional Facility). He said I owe you the amount I ended up keeping.”

The fourth case also involves a fee dispute. Peggy Small Burns complained that she hired Gray to handle a succession matter for a fee of $5,000, with Burns making $500 monthly payments toward that amount. After she had paid $3,900, she stopped paying and tried to terminate Gray. She asked for her file and her money back; when Gray produced the file, she said some documents were missing.

The brief charges that Gray violated professional conduct rules by failing to provide competent representation and by charging an unreasonable fee, among other failures.

Gray said it’s Burns who is unreasonable.

“She never paid the fee promised,” he said. “The service I promised to render was an administration of estate. I performed those services despite not being paid the entire fee.”

Burns, he said, was a lawyer-shopper who was never happy with her counsel.

“I’m about the fifth attorney she’s had, and she has filed complaints against each of them,” he said. “They were all unfounded as I think mine will be. I did nothing wrong in that case.”

Burns could not be reached.

A three-member committee is hearing the case against Gray and will make a ruling on the matter, Plattsmier said. That ruling is automatically appealed to a second board, which does not hear evidence but simply reviews the record and the ruling. Ultimately, it is up to the state Supreme Court to make a final ruling and mete out any discipline.

Gray has held the City Council’s District E seat since December. He prevailed in a special election held to fill the remainder of the term of Jon Johnson, who resigned after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges.