The Tennessee Supreme Court has upheld a 30-day suspension for Nashville attorney William Caldwell Hancock for his conduct in a bankruptcy case, which included sending an email to the judge calling him “a bully and clown.”
The disciplinary action against Mr. Hancock was originated by the Board of Professional Responsibility (BPR) in 2010 in connection with Mr. Hancock’s representation of a commercial client in a bankruptcy action. After several months of contentious litigation, Mr. Hancock withdrew from the case in 2008 and sought attorney’s fees totaling more than $350,000. The court ultimately refused the fees and described his behavior throughout the case as, among other things, “unprofessional.”
Mr. Hancock appealed the decision denying his fees in federal court and, after seeking two extensions and filing paperwork outside the deadline that did not conform to standards, was again denied attorney’s fees. He then sent an email in late 2009 to the judge in the original bankruptcy case that said “… if you have a decent bone in your body you will get down off your high horse and act like a man instead of a bully and clown … .”
In 2011, a BPR hearing panel found that Mr. Hancock had violated five of the Rules of Professional Conduct and the panel concluded, when taking into account all the circumstances, the penalty should be a 30-day suspension of Mr. Hancock’s law license. The BPR and Mr. Hancock appealed the decision to the Chancery Court for Davidson County, which found three additional rule violations and upheld the 30-day suspension.
Mr. Hancock then appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which addressed each of the violations found in rulings by the hearing panel and chancery court.
The Court determined that Mr. Hancock was in violation of the rule that prohibits ex parte communications with a judge – that is communication that does not extend to all parties in a case – and that his conduct was indeed intended to disrupt a proceeding.
The Court disagreed with the hearing panel’s conclusion that Mr. Hancock was in violation of the ethical rule that prohibits attorneys from making false statements about the qualifications or integrity of a judge because his statements, while “extremely disrespectful,” were contained in an email addressed only to the judge and not shared by Mr. Hancock with any third party.
The Court reversed the chancery court’s modification of the hearing panel’s judgment based on Mr. Hancock’s late and noncompliant briefs in the federal court. Finally, the Court concurred with the hearing panel’s conclusion that Mr. Hancock’s acts, along with the aggravating and mitigating circumstances in the specific case, justify a 30-day suspension.
Justice Cornelia A. Clark concurred with the Court’s decision, but wrote in a separate opinion that the record contained “substantial … evidence” that Mr. Hancock sent an email disparaging the judge to third parties, which would be a sanctionable offense. She agreed that the 30-day suspension was appropriate.
Chief Justice Gary R. Wade disagreed with a portion of the Court’s decision, concluding in a separate opinion that Mr. Hancock’s misbehavior, although offensive, did not disrupt or interfere with the proceedings in the bankruptcy court because the email was sent more than nine months after the bankruptcy judge issued his ruling. Based on the plain language of the rules governing attorney discipline, Chief Justice Wade thought that these circumstances warranted a public reprimand rather than a suspension.