White Plains lawyer Richard A. Roberts did not dispute that he mishandled cases for several clients, but he attributed many of his troubles to the illness and death of his beloved office manager and paralegal.
In suspending Roberts from the practice of law for two years, a state appellate court panel agreed that the illness and death of Kathleen Jones from lung cancer in October 2015 mitigated how Roberts handled cases during that period.
Roberts’ grief, the Second Appellate Division ruled on Aug. 29, “caused him to lose focus.”
“Kathy was there almost at the beginning,” Roberts said in a telephone interview, referring to 1985, the year after he opened an office in Mount Vernon.
Roberts, a Brooklyn Law School graduate, served mostly low-income clients in and around Mount Vernon and Yonkers. In 2010, he moved the office to White Plains.
Jones had grown up in Mount Vernon and worked as a paralegal for Legal Services of the Hudson Valley.
“And so, she was just instrumental in keeping my office together,” Roberts said. “I can’t laud her too much. She just did so many things for me.”
Roberts consented to the suspension and acknowledged that he had engaged in professional misconduct. The legal grievance committee for the Hudson Valley district cited seven client matters.
Roberts took more than three years to disburse estate funds. He rented an apartment to a homeless client and used some of the $250,000 settlement he won for her to pay the rent. He failed to file a bankruptcy petition. He failed to appear at a bankruptcy hearing. He delayed refunding a retainer fee. He improperly included a nonrefundable fee provision in a retainer agreement. He failed to provide a statement of client rights in a family court proceeding.
The court also found that Roberts did not regularly reconcile escrow accounts and did not promptly or fully comply with the committee’s requests for documents.
The five justices also considered his prior disciplinary record: 10 admonitions and six cautions involving “similar misconduct of neglect, failure to promptly refund unearned fees and a failure to cooperate with grievance investigations.”
Justices Alan D. Scheinkman, Mark C. Dillon, William F. Mastro, Robert J. Miller and Reinaldo E. Rivera concurred that Roberts should be suspended for two years.
“It speaks pretty much for itself, what the court decided,” said Roberts, who turns 65 on Sept. 10. “So I will find some other things to do. I have an MBA and a law degree, so I will work it out.”
He said he is working on doing things differently and better for when he is readmitted to the practice of law.
“Odd as it may seem, I’m a better attorney coming out of this process, even though I’m suspended,” he said. “It just becomes a question of making the changes, to not fall into some of the traps that I fell into previously.”
His thoughts kept returning to Jones, who worked for him for 30 years and whose illness and death devastated him.
“When Kathy was very very sick and not able to function, I should have picked up the slack in ways I wasn’t able to at the time. I wasn’t thinking clearly enough.”
“I always knew,” he said, “if I missed something, she had my back.
“She was a great great woman, a great great friend and a great great paralegal.”