China Grove attorney Keith Booker suspended for five years

Published 3:20 pm Tuesday, September 20, 2016

By Shavonne Walker

CHINA GROVE — A China Grove attorney was suspended following a disciplinary hearing and has been ordered not to practice law for five years. According to the N.C. State Bar, Attorney Keith C. Booker transferred money from an attorney trust account to his operating and/or personal accounts.

The records show Booker — and sometimes his office manager, who is not named — would transfer money received from clients for court fees and court costs to the other accounts. The records go on to say Booker did not review the trust account and “failed to provide sufficient instruction to ensure his officer manager could carry out her assigned duties.”

“I look forward to coming back to practice law when the suspension is over. Mistakes were made, but there was nothing nefarious or dishonest on my part,” Booker said. He declined to comment further.

The transfers occurred between May 2013 and May 2014. Booker, along with his attorney, appeared before the hearing commission on June 3. Booker was admitted to the state bar Aug. 24, 1996. The suspension took effect July 3, or 30 days after the order.

He waived a formal hearing and agreed to the findings and conclusions. He also gave consent to the discipline imposed, according to the disciplinary order. Booker also waived a right to appeal the order.

The order said there was no evidence that he knowingly or intentionally misused entrusted clients’ funds. He fully cooperated with the state bar throughout the disciplinary process. The documents say Booker was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“It is the opinion of defendant’s evaluating mental health professional … that these conditions contributed to the misconduct described in this order,” the documents said.

The evidence did show that despite his neglect, Booker did make efforts to “rectify the consequences of his misconduct to ensure his clients’ cases were ultimately properly resolved.”

The conduct does not warrant disbarment, the order said.

The order said on multiple occasions, Booker and/or his officer manager electronically disbursed funds from his trust account to his operating account and personal account without maintaining any record in the bank documents identifying the client against whose balance in the trust account the disbursements were being made.

He disbursed more funds from his trust account for particular clients than he had in the trust account for those clients. He also routinely deposited and disbursed entrusted client funds into and from his business operating account.

The order says Booker and/or his office manager co-mingled his funds with client funds by depositing his personal funds into the trust account. He also did not conduct monthly and quarterly reports of his trust account to make sure they were accurate and balanced.

He did not timely and accurately track each client, the funds received and disbursed per client. The order specifically lists deposit dates and amounts made to Booker’s trust account from money given to him from clients who paid court costs for traffic tickets, divorce proceedings and a domestic case. In some of those cases, Booker used those court costs and funds for people other than those who paid him.

The documents said he failed to keep his clients reasonably informed about the status of their cases by not telling them he had not paid the court costs when he promised. In some of the cases, the clients’ driver licenses were suspended because Booker had not paid the fees.

In one case, a man retained Booker for divorce proceedings and paid Booker $990 for representation. Booker never filed a complaint for divorce on his client’s behalf, the order said. He never refunded any of the money paid for work he did not do.

By failing to supervise his office manager, Booker failed to make “reasonable efforts to ensure a non-lawyer’s conduct was compatible with his professional obligation,” the order said.

In all, Booker and/or his office manager moved around over $11,000 in a year’s time.

Booker was also reprimanded in 2011 by the state bar’s grievance committee for his neglect of four separate client matters including the failure to appear on behalf of a client for a traffic case. He was also reprimanded for failing to adequately communicate with his clients and failure to respond in a timely way to the state bar during the grievance process.

Although it was not a discipline, in 2013 Booker was issued a letter of warning by the grievance committee for failure to appear on behalf of his client in a traffic case.

Booker would have to provide the state bar with an address and telephone number for clients seeking return of files. He was ordered to pay any court costs and fees associated with the disciplinary hearing.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.