Concealed Complaints: How lawyers under investigation continue to practice law

If you need an attorney you’d probably like to know whether they’re under investigation for wrongdoing, ethics violations, or even criminal behavior. In North Carolina, that’s not possible due to state law preventing the North Carolina State Bar from making any grievance public, sometimes, for years.
Whether someone is facing criminal charges or seeking restitution in a civil matter, chances are they will need the help of an attorney.
Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 3:50 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Whether someone is facing criminal charges or seeking restitution in a civil matter, chances are they will need the help of an attorney to navigate the complexities of the American justice system.

While attorneys are supposed to represent their clients’ best interests and maintain the standards set by the North Carolina State Bar (NCSB), that doesn’t always happen. When misconduct is suspected or reported, the NCSB is tasked with investigating the allegations and any subsequent disciplinary actions.

The NCSB follows a set process when handling lawyer complaints, that begins with the filings of a grievance.

“Grievances come to the State Bar from many sources: clients of the lawyer who is the subject of the grievance, other parties to a controversy, lawyers, judges, or members of the public. The Office of Counsel (the State Bar’s legal department) also initiates grievances based upon information available from the press or other sources,” according to the NCSB.

The purpose of discipline by the NCSB isn’t to punish but to protect — at least — that’s what the NCSB says.

“Discipline for misconduct is not intended as punishment for wrongdoing but is for the protection of the public, the courts, and the legal profession,” according to the State Bar’s Governing Rules.

In theory, these disciplinary processes do serve to protect the courts and the public from attorneys committing misconduct, but the way the NCSB goes about enforcing disciplinary actions can cause harm to those very entities it claims to protect.

It’s a process that can take months, if not years to conclude.

It’s also a process that is also shrouded in secrecy — that can have very real consequences for people in need of legal assistance.

A potential client could unknowingly hire a lawyer already under investigation and could end up paying the price for their lawyer’s misdeeds.

So why is it so difficult to find out if an attorney is under investigation or to see complaints filed against them? It comes down to the authority of the NCSB, a governmental entity created by the General Assembly.

State law prohibits the NCSB from even acknowledging a complaint against an attorney unless the complaint is sustained and disciplinary action is initiated. Even then, unless a client searches the state’s database of disciplinary actions it’s unlikely they would ever know that the lawyer they’re considering is facing allegations.

The secrecy isn’t because the NCSB decided to keep this information from the public, instead, it’s because of state laws created by the North Carolina General Assembly shielding grievances from the public eye.

“The existence and substance of a grievance are confidential unless and until one of several things happens, most commonly that the Grievance Committee imposes public discipline or the State Bar files a complaint in the Disciplinary Hearing Commission. 27 N.C.A.C. §1B .0133 and N.C.G.S. §84-32.1 clarify that documents in the State Bar’s possession relating to grievances are not public records,” the NCSB’s website explains.

The explanation continues, “[a]s a result, Grievance Committee members and State Bar employees cannot discuss pending or completed grievances with members of the public or with anyone who is not a member of the Grievance Committee or an employee in the State Bar’s Office of Counsel.”

State Representative Deb Butler is also an attorney, she said part of the reason for the confidentiality is because lawyers often deal with disgruntled clients who might file a complaint without merit.

“It must be a very deliberative process … attorneys, this is their livelihood and the vast majority of these accusations are not actionable,” Butler said.

That is true, according to reports from the state bar the number of dismissed grievances outnumbers sustained complaints.

  • “During 2018, the Grievance Committee opened 1,252 grievance files, compared with 1,305 files opened in 2017. Of those, 948 were dismissed.
  • During 2019, the Grievance Committee opened 1,258 grievance files of those, 962 were dismissed.
  • During 2020, the Grievance Committee opened 927 grievance files of those, 538 were dismissed.”

But when it comes to safeguards in place to protect potential new clients or existing ones the secrecy can lead to more harm for more people while the NCSB takes months if not years to complete their investigations.

Right now there are more than 30 pending disciplinary hearings listed by the NCSB. But these are all cases where the NSCB has already started the disciplinary-action process; many stem from complaints that are years old, involving amended complaints, appeals, or motions for reinstatement.

In short, they represent just a fraction of the ongoing investigations into complaints that have been filed but aren’t currently public.

Real world impacts

When Gary Holyfield hired his former attorney, Julia Olson-Boseman, he trusted she would complete the work she promised him. That work was filing a lawsuit against the State of North Carolina to petition the NCDOT to install a guardrail along a section of I-140.

Holyfield wanted it installed after the death of his daughter and stepson in a car crash.

After representing Holyfield in an insurance settlement claim where Olson-Boseman got him $30,000, of which she was paid $10,000, she then told him in order to continue her work she’d need the remaining $20,000.

That was in 2020 and more than one year later, in July of 2021, Holyfield filed a complaint with the NCSB as well as a police report with the Wilmington Police Department.

Now, nearly 20 months later Holyfield still doesn’t know where his grievance stands at the NCSB. Largely because even though he filed the initial grievance, the NCSB can’t share any information with him.

An email chain provided by Holyfield between him and attorney for the NCSB Robert Weston show the prolonged process that has been ongoing for nearly two years.

In March of 2022, Weston updated Holyfield telling him that normally the NCSB would try and complete an investigation into a grievance in six months — but that didn’t happen.

“While our goal would typically be to complete the investigation of a grievance opened in June by the end of December, some investigations take longer than others to complete … The confidentiality of the grievance process limits my ability to share what factors may be impacting this case. But the additional time should in no way be read to reflect on the merits of a case, one way or the other,” Weston said.

Three months later Holyfield once again tried to get answers. Again, he wasn’t told much — but he was given some hope that things were moving along.

“While I can’t provide you with updates of our specific actions, I can assure you we’ve made progress in recent weeks … Although I cannot commit to a deadline, I can share that it is my hope to have this investigation completed in time for the Grievance Committee’s October quarterly meeting. As we get closer to that date, I will try to update you on whether that continues to be the case,” Weston said in his email.

Not a new problem

In 2001, Robert Dorsey sued New Hanover County Schools. After over a decade working for the school district as a painting contractor, Dorsey said he discovered that another painter had underbid him for a contract – but took significant shortcuts, including failing to paint entire rooms that were part of the bid.

Dorsey felt he had solid evidence of bid-rigging and hired Wilmington-based attorney Terry Zick to take his case to federal court in the Eastern District of North Carolina.

But Dorsey’s lawsuit was dismissed in early 2002 because Zick failed to perform her duties as his attorney. NHCS made a motion to dismiss the case, a basic legal maneuver common to almost any case against a government body – but Zick didn’t respond.

“She asked the judge for 30 days to respond to the motion to dismiss. Within those 30 days, she did not respond. She asked for another 15 days, Judge [James Carroll] Fox granted her another 15 days. So those 15 days went by, she still didn’t respond … that’s what my case got thrown out of court, because she’d never responded to their motion to dismiss,” Dorsey said in an interview this week.

Dorsey was frustrated that he would never get redemption in his case against NHCS – not because his case lacked merit, but because of Zick’s alleged malpractice. He filed a complaint and, about six months later, traveled to Raleigh for a NCSB hearing.

He wasn’t alone.

“It was surprising to me how many people she had just taken money from and and just let their cases go. There had to be about 25 to 30 people up there for trial that have complained against her for malpractice, etc. And there was one lady, she came from Virginia, and she stated that, and looked Zick in the face, she was on the stand and stated that, ‘because of you, I will never hire another attorney as long as I live, I’d rather file a lawsuit myself,’” Dorsey told WHQR and WECT.

Dorsey also noted that he was frustrated that not ever person who showed up to the NCSB hearing got a chance to speak. Not only because it was there only chance to have their voice heard after their cases were mishandled, but because he felt NCSB might have taken stronger action.

Zick’s license was suspended for five year after the 2004 hearing but NCSB had to hold an additional hearing the following year to handle nearly 20 additional complaints, many of them dating back years. NCSB censured Zick since she was already suspended.

The whole thing left Dorsey with a bad taste in his mouth.

“Oh, even before that, I just felt that it wasn’t fair. The legal system wasn’t fair. But after dealing with Terry Zick, attorney Zick, I know it’s not fair, you know…to this day, I still really don’t have faith,” he said.

No changes on the horizon

For now the process remains a cloak-and-dagger process without many safeguards in place to warn potential clients of allegations of wrongdoing. In fact, the NCSB still hasn’t confirmed any investigation into Olson-Boseman or Holyfield’s grievance to WECT or WHQR because no disciplinary hearing is pending yet, but the correspondence between Holyfield and the NCSB reveal it is an ongoing investigation.

Holyfield just hopes that he’ll have some sort of closure sooner, rather than later.

NOTE: Multiple requests for interviews to the North Carolina State Bar were declined. NSCB has not responded to written questions sent earlier this week.

Olson-Boseman provided a brief statement saying, “[m]y focus is on the work I’m doing locally and statewide for the recovery community.”