Two seasoned attorneys faced off at the Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City on Wednesday morning.
Alan Pratzel, acting in the role of prosecutor, spoke first and told the judges that attorney John K. Sheehan of Kirkwood had violated rules of professional conduct and should have his law license suspended indefinitely with no leave to reapply for two years.
Richard Wuestling, acting in the role of defense attorney, then said the same thing, that Sheehan had violated rules of professional conduct and should have his law license suspended indefinitely with no leave to reapply for two years.
The judges seemed to listen intently. Hmm. This was a tough one. And actually, it is. The real dispute has to do with a few words. How do you define a lawyer who has gone off the rails?
No one disputes that Sheehan has. He was the family lawyer for Carl and Geraldine Weber and their son Scott.
Carl, who died in 2014, had been a traveling salesman. Women’s wear. He was long retired at the time of his death. Geraldine, who died less than a year after her husband, stayed home and reared their three children. Scott was the youngest of those kids. He had cerebral palsy and lived at home with his parents. He died in 2011 at the age of 49. He never married and had no children.
Sheehan had prepared Scott’s will. He also served as the personal representative for his estate. Sheehan also prepared trusts for Carl and Geraldine. He was trustee for both estates.
From the beginning — that is, the time of Scott’s death — there were problems. Surviving family members were unable to get any information. The problems worsened with the deaths of Carl and Geraldine.
Litigation followed. In September 2017, a probate court in St. Louis County entered a judgment against Sheehan for $46,620 for “unaccounted for/and unauthorized expenditures” regarding Scott’s estate. In January 2018, a similar judgment was entered against Sheehan for $224,734 in regards to the estates of Carl and Geraldine.
Also, a bar complaint. That’s a layperson’s term. In Missouri, complaints against attorneys are directed to the Supreme Court’s Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. If the OCDC substantiates the complaint, it goes to a three-person Disciplinary Hearing Panel for a trial. Not surprisingly, the complaint against Sheehan was substantiated.
Pratzel heads the OCDC. He investigates lawyers. It’s a tough job, like a cop working in internal affairs. People in your world don’t quite trust you, and outsiders question your zeal.
Wuestling defends lawyers. That’s a joking matter unless you’re a lawyer in distress.
They worked out a pretrial agreement in which both sides agreed — stipulated — that Sheehan had been guilty of professional misconduct, but not misconduct involving dishonesty, fraud or deceit. After all, the judgments cited only unaccounted or unauthorized expenditures. The agreement also included the indefinite suspension.
But at the subsequent trial, the panel chairperson, Elizabeth McCarter, said, “To me, as a probate attorney, when you pay yourself an excessive fee without the consent of the heirs, you have misappropriated funds from the estate. That’s like stealing money.”
So she unstipulated the stipulated facts. She accepted the deal, but included the part about dishonesty and fraud and deceit.
That is what the hearing Wednesday was about. Should her override of the deal stand? Pratzel and Wuestling agreed it should not. The agreement was reached before the trial.
I am not sure what to think. What I mean is, what happened? Sheehan has been practicing law since 1979. Apparently, he has never had a complaint lodged against him. And then suddenly this.
I tried unsuccessfully to reach him, and he was not at the hearing Wednesday.
As far as I can tell, his defense seems to be that he just quit keeping track of things. I can imagine that. Life has a certain momentum, and it’s downhill. You miss a few things and pretty soon it’s hopeless. Then you let go. I remember when I quit going to class in college.
Under that admittedly charitable view, the expenditures were valid, just undocumented, and there was no fraud or dishonesty or deceit. Or just a little.
By the way, Sheehan could have accepted the verdict. The penalty is the same: Indefinite suspension with no leave to reapply for two years. This case seems far too vague to ever get to criminal court. Why then the challenge? What’s the point? I asked Wuestling. He looked at me in disbelief, like I had asked a really dumb question.