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In re Disciplinary Proceedings Against Morse

Supreme Court of Wisconsin

May 21, 2019

In the Matter of Disciplinary Proceedings Against Daniel W. Morse, Attorney at Law:
Daniel W. Morse, Respondent-Appellant. Office of Lawyer Regulation, Complainant-Respondent,

          ATTORNEY disciplinary proceeding. Attorney's license suspended.


          PER CURIAM.

         ¶1 Attorney Daniel W. Morse has appealed a report filed by Referee James W. Mohr, Jr., concluding that Attorney Morse committed four counts of professional misconduct and recommending that his license to practice law in Wisconsin be suspended for two years. In his appeal, Attorney Morse challenges only the referee's recommended sanction. Attorney Morse argues that his misconduct warrants a public reprimand or, at most, a 60-day suspension.

         ¶2 Upon careful review of this matter, we uphold the referee's findings of fact and conclusions of law. We conclude, however, that rather than the two-year suspension recommended by the referee, a one-year suspension of Attorney Morse's license to practice law is an appropriate sanction for the misconduct at issue. In addition, we find it appropriate to follow our usual custom of imposing the full costs of this proceeding, which are $11, 038.85 as of December 18, 2018, on Attorney Morse. The Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR) notes that Attorney Morse has already made restitution and it is not seeking an additional restitution award.

         ¶3 Attorney Morse was admitted to practice law in Wisconsin in 1979. He is also licensed to practice law in Florida and Pennsylvania. He has no prior disciplinary history.

         ¶4 On June 29, 2016, the OLR filed a complaint alleging six counts of misconduct with respect to Attorney Morse's handling of the estate of M.G. Attorney Morse filed an answer on July 28, 2016. Referee Mohr was appointed on October 8, 2016, following Attorney Morse's motion for substitution of a previously appointed referee. In May of 2017, the referee ordered the disciplinary proceeding stayed pending a criminal case filed against Attorney Morse arising out of the same fact situation that gave rise to this case. The stay was lifted in May of 2018.

         ¶5 On June 21, 2018, the parties filed a stipulation whereby Attorney Morse stipulated to four of the counts of misconduct alleged in the OLR's complaint. The OLR dismissed the remaining two counts. The parties agreed that the terms of the stipulation shall serve as the factual basis for the referee's determination of misconduct and, in addition to any evidence received in the disciplinary phase of the matter, the referee's recommendation as to discipline. The parties agreed that the scope of the hearing in this matter would be limited to taking additional evidence and argument to facilitate the referee's recommendation as to the appropriate sanction.

         ¶6 The hearing with respect to the sanction was held on July 2, 2018. The referee issued his report and recommendation on September 7, 2018. The referee adopted the facts as stated in the stipulation. The following recitation of facts is taken from the stipulation.

         ¶7 M.G. passed away on October 11, 2013. Approximately four days later, Attorney Morse met with the heirs of the estate. Since three of the four heirs resided outside of Wisconsin, and the fourth heir had physical limitations that prevented her from acting, it was agreed that Attorney Morse would be nominated as personal representative of the estate. Attorney Morse also served as attorney for the personal representative. No fee agreement was entered into between Attorney Morse and the estate's heirs, although it was reasonably feasible that the total cost of the representation would exceed $1, 000.

         ¶8 The estate was filed in Dodge County Circuit Court in November 2013. No bills for Attorney Morse's services were sent to the heirs during his representation of the estate.

         ¶9 The heirs eventually expressed to Attorney Morse their frustration at his lack of communication and his seeming neglect of the estate. On August 31, 2014, the heirs wrote to Attorney Morse expressing a general concern for his lack of communication and attention to the estate. The heirs' letter contained several specific requests for information about the estate, including but not limited to requests for an itemized bill for Attorney Morse's legal services, an accounting for all expenditures made on behalf of the estate, and the timing of payment of certain bills of the estate. The heirs requested a response to their letter within ten days. In a September 8, 2014 email to the heirs, Attorney Morse stated he would respond to the August 31 letter that week, but he failed to do so.

         ¶10 In October 2014, the heirs met with Attorney Allen Larson and requested that he replace Attorney Morse as personal representative for the estate. From October 2014 through January 2015, Attorney Larson tried to communicate with Attorney Morse about the estate. Attorney Larson told Attorney Morse that the heirs wanted Attorney Larson to replace Attorney Morse as personal representative. Attorney Larson requested from Attorney Morse, among other things, an accounting of the estate and copies of the estate's banking records. Attorney Morse was largely nonresponsive to Attorney Larson's communications and requests for information.

         ¶11 On November 18, 2014, the probate court entered an order granting the stipulated substitution of Attorney Larson in place of Attorney Morse as personal representative of the estate.

         ¶12 On December 19, 2014, Attorney Larson received a package from Attorney Morse containing a $3, 000 check made out to the estate drawn on Attorney Morse's law firm trust account along with unopened mail relating to the estate, including bills, some of which had arrived since Attorney Larson's substitution in place of Attorney Morse. No accounting for the estate was enclosed, nor was there any explanation of the purpose for the check or why it was drawn on Attorney Morse's law firm trust account.

         ¶13 Attorney Larson filed an inventory for the estate on January 23, 2015. The due date for filing the inventory had passed during the period in which Attorney Morse represented the estate, but Attorney Morse never filed an inventory.

         ¶14 As a result of his inability to obtain information about the estate from Attorney Morse, including an accounting and banking records, Attorney Larson filed an order to show cause on February 25, 2015 directed to Attorney Morse, along with an accompanying affidavit demonstrating over $26, 000 in estate funds were unaccounted for by Attorney Morse.

         ¶15 At a March 30, 2015 hearing on the order to show cause, Attorney Morse was ordered to make a payment to the estate in the amount of $26, 037.19 by April 9, 2015. This sum represented the amount of funds belonging to the estate for which Attorney Morse could not account. Attorney Morse was also ordered to provide to Attorney Larson all financial records and an accounting pertaining to the estate.

         ¶16 Attorney Morse timely made the payment ordered by the probate court, but he never produced the financial records relating to the estate.

         ¶17 At the March 30, 2015 hearing, Attorney Morse presented for the first time a billing statement for fees he claimed he incurred in representing the estate. The statement purported to show that the estate owed Attorney Morse over $7, 500 for legal services rendered in connection with the estate. In May of 2015, Attorney Larson asked Attorney Morse for substantiation of the various entries on ...

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