Judge Reprimanded in unlicensed attorney situation - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

UPDATE: Judge Reprimanded in Unlicensed Attorney Situation

Posted: Updated:

UPDATE 7/17/17 (4:00 PM)

Judge Eric O'Briant has been publically admonished by the Judicial Investigation Commission (JIC) for signing an Administrative Order allowing an unlicensed attorney to practice law. 

A complaint against Judge O'Briant was initially filed by state Senator Richard Ojeda alleging O'Briant went around the Supreme Court of Appeals by authorizing Joshua Thompson to act as a lawyer, when he was not actually licensed.

The JIC found that Joshua Thompson had graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law in May 2016, but has not yet passed the West Virginia Bar Exam. Thompson has worked as a paralegal for Wolfe, White and Associates since September of 2016. However, on September 12th, 2016 Judge O'Briant signed an Administrative Order stating Thompson was allowed to represent Wolfe, White & Associates clients in Logan County Magistrate Court.

Judge O'Briant told the JIC that Wolfe, White & Associates approached him about having Thompson appear in Magistrate Court. Judge O'Briant says he instructed the law firm to get special permission from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Judge O'Briant goes on to say the Administrative Order he signed was written by Thompson, reviewed by Wolfe and forwarded to his office. Judge O'Briant signed off, saying he believed Thompson had been approved by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, when he had not. Judge O'Briant told JIC he instructed the firm not to bill Public Defender Services for time Thompson spent appearing as an attorney in court.

During the months of September, October and November- Wolfe, White & Associates were assigned a number of public defender cases, which were in turn tried by Thompson. The JIC says Attorney Wolfe was present for most proceedings, but Thompson represented clients in at least two hearings by himself. One of those cases involved defendant Beth Earnest, who 13 News spoke to back in April. Earnest was shocked to hear the news.

Wolfe, White & Associates and Thompson gave sworn statements to the JIC saying there were never given the parameters that Judge O'Briant claims to have provided- including the billing issue, having another attorney present with Thompson, and limiting Thompson's clients to misdemeanor cases only. The firm and Thompson went on to state they never told Judge O'Briant they would be obtaining special permission from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals under Rule 10.0.

Judge O'Briant rescinded his order in early December 2016, and order Wolfe, White & Associates to notify all clients. Earnest told 13 News she was never notified. 

The JIC voted unanimously to determine that Judge O'Briant violated the Code of Judicial Conduct including- Compliance with the Law; Confidence in the Judiciary; Competence, Diligence and Cooperation; and Administrative Appointments. The JIC chose not to pursue ethical charges.

JIC went on to say on administrative orders, "...it is the judge who is ultimately responsible for its contents. The buck stops with the judge."

The public admonishment also says "Thus, it is evident to the Commission that Respondent failed to use due diligence when he failed to conduct an adequate research and analysis before signing the order. Respondent is a respected judge with 30 years experience on the bench and he should know better then to take such an order at face value."

Judge O'Briant is warned to refrain from engaging in similar behavior in the future. 

See the JIC's full public admonishment below. Scroll below the documents to see the first 13 News report on this situation:

_________________

LOGAN- A Logan County Judge and Law Firm under fire after allowing an unlicensed attorney to serve as Public Defender. 

Joshua Thompson is a paralegal at Wolfe, White and Associates. But just a few months ago he was trying cases as an attorney in Logan County Magistrate Court. The Magistrate Clerk has not been able to find all cases Thompson worked on, but 13 News has uncovered records for at least three cases.

"He said no my name is Josh Thompson I will be representing you. Told me he had my case continued and I had no clue I even had a court date. I feel like I was set up for failure from the beginning," Beth Earnest explained.

Earnest is one of several clients Joshua Thompson represented in Logan County Magistrate Court. But Thompson is not a licensed attorney.

Earnest was originally assigned to Steven Wolfe as her public defender, but Joshua Thompson was the one in court signing motions in the case.


"I was just shocked. I felt like I was violated. How do you even be defended by somebody that isn't even a lawyer. I'm going to be accused of something and he had no right to represent me," Earnest told 13 News.

Chief Circuit Judge Eric O'Briant signed an Administrative Order stating Thompson could represent clients, before passing the bar.

Judge O'Briant then issued a retraction four months later.

But in those four months, Thompson acted as a Public Defender to clients like Beth Earnest.

13 News asked the Executive Director of the Public Defender services if a person without a law license is allowed to represent clients in public defender cases. Dana Eddy replied, "It would not be allowed and in fact it would automatically ineffective assistance."

If local public defenders have too many cases, or there is a conflict in the case, it goes to a panel of local attorneys to stand in as a public defender. Those private lawyers will fill out a voucher when the case is over, and get paid by the main public defender office in Charleston.

"I reviewed the vouchers very generally and my recollection is there was no such reference in the statement of the attorney's legal services. But I saw nothing that they were billing Mr. Thompson as an attorney," Eddy told 13 News. That is because when Thompson was acting as an attorney for clients, he was listing the work as paralegal services, or billing the services under Wolfe or White's names.

"Now our guidelines generally provide that they are to inform us when they are billing for some other attorney's legal services. Now if they fail to do so, we're not going to necessary catch it."

While Thompson was in the courtroom for several cases, the Public Defenders Office was often receiving a bill under Wolfe and White's names.

13 News reached out to Judge Eric O'Briant to ask why he would sign an order allowing Joshua Thompson to act as an attorney. 13 News waited outside the courtroom and left repeated phone messages, but got no response.

13 News also reached out to Joshua Thompson to ask why he told his clients he was an attorney, when he in fact had not passed the bar. 13 News also reached out to Wolfe, White and Associates to ask why they would not instead assign cases to another legal attorney, who had passed the bar. Neither Thompson, nor Wolfe, White and Associates returned phone messages or messages left in-person.

The Public Defender Office does not have the authority to stop Wolfe, White and Associates from getting public defender cases in Logan County, even now that they are aware of improprieties. Instead the authority lies soley with Judge O'Briant.

13 News has not been able to get in contract with Thompson's other clients, but Earnest tells 13 News he plans to sue for legal malpractice.

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