LUMBERTON — The North Carolina State Bar has revoked the license of a longtime Lumberton attorney after determining he misappropriated thousands in client money and signed a client’s name on checks.
William S. Britt was disbarred on April 22 and notified Tuesday. He has 30 days to turn in his license, according to the bar’s Disciplinary Hearing Committee. He earned his license in 1981.
Britt says he plans to ask for another hearing, admitting to discrepancies in his account but saying he did not forge the client’s signature. Britt said a hearing was originally called on Jan. 17 to determine if he had intended to commit embezzlement or fraud, and that the client was called to the stand unexpectedly.
“I objected because that’s not what the order stated and we were not prepared on that,” he said.
In a 17-page order for discipline, the committee accuses Britt of disbursing to himself at least $78,257.07 from a trust account being used for his legal practice. He also gave about $23,700 from that account to employees who were unaware of where the money came from to cover costs owed to them, including a nurse hired to review clients’ medical records, the document said.
According to the order, Britt misappropriated the money from an RBC Bank trust account open from January 2009 to May 2011. A lawyer’s trust account is used to store fees and other money from clients for ongoing legal matters before it is moved into an operating fund when the case has been disposed. In addition to payment for future legal services, trust accounts may also hold settlement money or money from a client’s estate that needs to be distributed.
Britt is also accused of collecting more money than he was entitled to and disbursing more money on behalf of a client than they had in the trust account on several occasions, the order said. On May 20, 2011, the trust account’s balance was $42,315.59. At the time, Britt was supposed to be holding settlements amounting to $177,056.90 in the trust account for one client.
According to the document, he forged one client’s signature on three checks before depositing them in the trust account. Britt said the client was in and out of the hospital at the time and gave him permission to sign the checks as her attorney. He said she later claimed he did not have her permission and did not keep her informed of her settlement.
Britt said a trust account he had been using was frozen by the state about three years ago and he was put under an order not to handle money.
“I had admitted that there were discrepancies in the trust account and any shortage we had made up and deposited in a separate trust account and notified the state bar that the monies were there and we needed direction as to what to do,” he said, explaining the discrepancies.
Saying he committed embezzlement and forgery, the committee claims Britt “engaged in criminal conduct reflecting adversely on his honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as lawyer.”
District Attorney Johnson Britt, who is distantly related to Britt, said currently no criminal charges have been filed against him. Any criminal charges will be handled by the North Carolina Attorney General’s office.
Erich Hackney, an investigator for the District Attorney’s Office, began looking into the claims at Johnson Britt’s request in July 2012. The 325-page investigation was turned over to the state bar in January 2013.
According to the document, while Britt was taking money from the trust account, he had “personal financial difficulties, including significant IRS and Department of Revenue tax liens, several civil judgments of record, and foreclosure proceeding against his residence.”
The committee said Britt “was motivated by his desire to prevent the IRS from seizing the funds from his operating account” and that “several of (his) colleagues and his pastor believe (he) is truthful, trustworthy and a good attorney.”
Britt said he will file today for a rehearing, adding that the state bar had objected to an expert witness he had called to the stand. Bob Norman is a forensic CPA based in Fayetteville.
“Basically, what he told me was, “Bill, you’re a lousy bookkeeper but you’re no thief,” Britt said.
Britt said the state bar attorney called Norman without his knowledge before the trial. Britt said he has affidavits from four attorneys present at the bar hearings.
Britt said he is prepared to take the case to the state Court of Appeals.
“This is like The Twilight Zone, frankly,” he said.