The S.C. Supreme Court has officially disbarred Williamston attorney Philip Earle Williams from practicing law after an investigation showed he was taking money from client estates. According to the disbarment agreement by the Supreme Court, Williams violated 13 different rules of Professional Conduct in addition to other actions taken after he was placed on interim suspension on Mar. 15, 2013.
According to the Supreme Court document, Williams has 30 days to enter into a restitution plan with the Commission on Lawyer Conduct to pay restitution of $344,000 to nine individuals and entities.
Williams must also hire a certified public accountant to perform a six year forensic accounting and audit on all trust accounts, operating account and estate accounts he had control of and identify everyone he misappropriated money from, the Supreme Court said. Once that is complete, Williams can reapply to practice law in SC.
In the primary case referred to by the Supreme Court finding, concerning a client only identified in the document as “Client A”, Williams named himself as personal representative of the client who was in the hospital and unable to speak or sign his name. He also named himself as both a witness and notary to the execution of the will.
According to the report, Williams did not explain to his client that he would collect a fee or commission for service as the personal representative and did not tell his client in writing the advisability of seeking independent legal counsel. The client died shortly after the execution of the will, which named a local church to receive $100,000 and four members of a family to share equally in the estate.
The estate had more than $1,253,960 in liquid assets. Williams placed the bulk of the estate’s funds into a dedicated trust account and paid himself $26,000 which is not at issue.
However the finding stated the first $300,000 he received in estate funds was largely “improper.”
A number of checks were issued including 73 checks to himself and one check made payable to cash, totaling $227,073.50.
Also a $4,448 check to his relative; two checks totaling $10,119.19 to an individual in connection with an unrelated estate; a $5,630.40 check to a bank for reasons not related to the Estate of client and two checks totaling $15,000 to an individual for reasons not related to the client.
There was also a $500 check to a beneficiary of the Estate of another client listed as Client D; two checks totaling $5,663.49 to one of the residuary devisees of the Estate of Client D; a $325 check for an expense of another client, listed as the Estate of Client B.
Williams also disbursed $32,444.96 for legitimate expenses of the Estate of the first client , Client A from the trust account. By the end of January 2012, the balance in the BB&T trust account fell to $16,499.04.
On February 1, 2012, Williams deposited $126,493.30 belonging to the Estate of Client B into the BB&T trust account.
According to the finding report, this was the first deposit since the original $300,000 deposit belonging to the Estate of Client A.
Williams continued to make improper payments, most to himself, without regard to proper handling or accounting of the funds of either estate.
During the investigation, Williams attempted to justify removal of funds from the trust account for various reason.
Four other cases were mentioned in which Williams was responsible for trust funds amounting to $126,493; $82,488; and $9,563 in which there were improper disbursements.
Williams also continued to meet with clients after being suspended in March of 2013 including one instance in which he backdated documents for a client who was to receive a large settlement from an insurance company and attempted to negotiate a higher fee with the client.
He also accepted paperwork and earnest money for a residential real estate closing from a realtor. When asked about it by the attorney handllng Williams’ accounts after the suspension, Williams returned the papers and check to the realtor rather than to attorney Stephen G. Potts who had been appointed to handle dealing for the suspended attorney.
Reports state Lee Coggiola, who heads the Supreme Court’s disciplinary arm, said the disbarment is independent of any criminal action that the S.C. Attorney General or a local prosecutor might bring.
If law officials want to get involved, Coggiola said, the evidence and findings of the disciplinary proceedings are available to them.