NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Councilman James Gray proclaims his passion for the law on his city website, but he is now facing a second two-year suspension from practicing law on top of the two-year suspension he is currently serving.
A hearing committee of the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board recommended the sanction last month in response a complaint from a man who said he was neglected by Gray after hiring him in 2006.
But the board’s report does not dwell on Gray’s failure to respond to his client. Most of the findings concentrate on Gray’s failure to respond to the disciplinary board or participate in the disciplinary proceedings.
“The committee finds the respondent has violated the Rules of Professional Conduct by totally failing to cooperate with the ODC (Office of Disciplinary Counsel) in the handling of a complaint against the respondent,” the six-page report states.
Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino, an expert in legal ethics, says a lawyer's failure to respond to disciplinary findings is taken very seriously.
“What's particularly troubling about this disciplinary proceeding is that Mr. Gray apparently showed no respect whatsoever for the proceedings,” Ciolino said. “Ultimately, the Louisiana Supreme Court looks fairly harshly on lawyers who snub their noses at the process.”
If the recommended suspension is approved by the high court, as it is in most cases, Gray's will continue to be barred from practicing law until he goes through a potentially lengthy re-instatement process. Ciolino said the suspended attorney bears the burden of showing the character and competence to regain the ability to practice.
Gray’s council office said he would not answer questions about his disciplinary issues, but released the following statement:
“I'm not going to publicly sift through the details of 11-year-old cases. I get up every day and work on the problems of the people of my district,” the statement reads, “And I asked them to judge me on the work that I do for them.”
Gray is running for re-election for his District E seat, representing eastern New Orleans, in what is expected to be a contested race.
Ciolino said the fact that Gray is an elected official in addition to being a lawyer is a factor that is considered in attorney disciplinary cases.
“The Louisiana Supreme Court consistently counts as an aggravating factor that a lawyer is also a public servant,” he said “Whether his constituents care is a matter left to their consciences and I guess we'll see that at the ballot box.’
In the 2015 case for which Gray is currently sanctioned, the Supreme Court approved a two-year suspension for failing to do legal work for four clients, including a woman who him in 2011 to handle a succession.
That former client, Peggy Burns, then went to arbitration last year to recoup some of the money she had paid Gray. In January, Gray was ordered to pay Burns $3,000. He paid Burns in November after a WWL-TV story exposed Gray’s suspension and the fact that he was dragging his feet in paying the award.
Burns was forced to hire another attorney to help collect from Gray.
“Why not just pay her?” attorney Kevin Christensen said in an interview last year. “Why protract it? Why get all this bad press if you're a politician?”
Ciolino said Gray’s road to reinstatement could be steep given the nature of the findings against him.
“Competence, diligence, communication and cooperation with tribunals: in this case, there were problems on all those fronts,” Ciolino said. “The neglect of the client affairs and, then, the failure to cooperate with the current proceeding resulted in a two-year suspension recommendation. That, on top of his current suspension, means he's going to be out of the practice of law for a long time”