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By Samson Habte
The Georgia Supreme Court Dec. 11 suspended the license of a partner at an AmLaw 100 firm for misconduct he engaged in with a former in-house counsel for chemical giant J.M. Huber Corp, a conglomerate that hasmadeperennialappearancesonForbes’ list of America’s largest private companies.
The sanction against John F. Meyers, a prominent labor and employment litigator at the 600-lawyer firm Barnes & Thornburg LLP, was tied to events that occurred in 2011, when he worked for Seyfarth Shaw LLP.
Bar authorities accused Meyers of helping Michael L. DiTano, a moonlighting in-house counsel for a corporate client, use the company’s coffers to enrich a private law practice that DiTano began without his employer’s knowledge.
Meyers has steadfastly denied knowing participation in the alleged scheme. “Instead, Meyers claims he was duped and misled by [DiTano], whom he reasonably trusted,” the court said in a per curiam opinion.
A special master who investigated Meyers’s case recommended disbarment, the same sanction DiTano received in 2013. But the court, adopting the recommendation of a disciplinary review panel, unanimously settled on a lesser penalty: a two-year suspension from practice.
DiTano testified in Meyer’s disciplinary case earlier this year. He died unexpectedly Oct. 2, according to an obituary.
Meyers, who made headlines as one of the attorneys who defended NFL quarterback Jameis Winston in a sexual battery suit, has practiced law since 1983. This case marked the first time he’s been disciplined in his 34-year career.
The order in this case doesn’t identify the firm Meyers worked for when the events that gave rise to his discipline occurred, or the corporate client he allegedly helped DiTano defraud.
But a news release announcing Meyers’s arrival at Barnes & Thornburg indicates that he worked at Seyfarth Shaw at the time. And details about DiTano’s scheme were disclosed in a $2.4 million lawsuit that an insurance carrier for his former employer, J.M. Huber, filed against him and his wife in 2013. According to the opinion and records from that related lawsuit, Meyers had billing responsibilities for many corporate clients at Seyfarth, including a J.M. Huber subsidiary where DiTano worked and served as Meyers’s in-house contact.
Bar authorities said DiTano told Meyers that his employer allowed its in-house attorneys to perform outside legal work so long as it wasn’t done on company time and didn’t raise conflicts. Meyers agreed to perform some of that work for DiTano—who, according to the 2013 lawsuit, had formed his own law practice without J.M. Huber’s knowledge.
The court said that when “difficulties arose collecting the fees” for the services DiTano had outsourced to Seyfarth, the amounts due “were rolled into” the bills the firm sent to J.M. Huber, “with the descriptions of the work that had been performed edited to eliminate information that would make clear that the work was not performed directly for the corporate client.”
Meyers admitted that he submitted the altered bills but maintained that he did so at the behest of DiTano. Meyers said DiTano “advised him the procedure was acceptable because much of the work performed ultimately would be beneficial to the corporate client and because in-house counsel would reimburse the corporate client for any work that was not beneficial to it,” the court said.
J.M. Huber’s general counsel discovered DiTano’s scheme in 2012 and fired him. The company then confronted Meyers, who resigned from Seyfarth shortly thereafter.
The court said Meyers “now acknowledges that the alterations to the bills could have helped conceal” DiTano’s fraud, but “nevertheless steadfastly denies any knowing participation in a scheme to defraud” J.M. Huber.
Seyfarth returned the money that it had billed the company for the work performed for DiTano’s private clients, and Meyers reimbursed the firm for those amounts as well as fees that had been billed but written off. A disciplinary panel identified that as a mitigating factor that justified departing from the special master’s recommendation to disbar Meyers.
The court adopted the disciplinary panel’s finding that Meyers violated ethics rules that govern client communication, fees and conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.
The court also adopted the panel’s recommendation to depart from the special master’s disbarment recommendation and instead suspend Meyers for two years.
“In particular, we agree with the Review Panel’s implicit conclusion that a lawyer’s decision to put up a defense in a disciplinary proceedings—whether by disputing evidence against him or refusing to concede whatever inferences the State Bar argues may be drawn therefrom—is not always an aggravating factor that counsels imposition of harsher discipline,” the justices said.
Akin & Tate P.C. represented Meyers. General Counsel Paula J. Frederick, Deputy General Counsel Jenny K. Mittelman and Senior Assistant General Counsel Jonathan W. Hewett, Atlanta, represented the state bar.
The case is In re Meyers , 2017 BL 441068, Ga., No. S17Y1593, 12/11/17 .
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