The Supreme Court of Virginia recently upheld the four-year suspension of attorney Richard Robol, who an Ohio federal court says concealed inventories of gold his former client recovered from a shipwreck.
(My colleague says lawyers should take it easy with the nerd references, so I’ll do my best not to make any jokes about Tolkien’s dragon, Smaug. Oops, I guess I just did.)
Inventory Harder to Find Than A Shipwreck
In 1857, 427 passengers and millions of dollars in gold were lost at sea when a hurricane hit the S.S. Central America off the coast of South Carolina. A salvage company run by treasure hunter Thomas G. Thompson found the ship more than a hundred years later in 1988. But Thompson’s investors had a hard time collecting their share of the loot, and decades of litigation followed.
Robol represented Thompson and his various salvage companies throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In 2012, a federal judge ordered Thompson to give up the location of 500 gold coins missing from the S.S. Central America. But instead of appearing in court, Thompson went on the run. U.S. Marshals caught up to him in Florida in 2015, where he was arrested and charged with criminal contempt of court. He’s been in federal prison ever since.
(Too bad he couldn’t rope himself a couple of sea turtles—look, I didn’t promise there would be no pirate jokes.)
Robol was sanctioned by an Ohio District Court in 2013 and ordered to pay nearly $225,000 for failing to produce inventories of the treasure throughout about seven years of litigation. Robol argued that he reasonably relied on Thompson’s claims that the documents the court wanted didn’t exist—but these documents were found a few hours after a creditor seized file cabinets belonging to one of Thompson’s business entities.
After withdrawing as Thompson’s counsel, Robol tried to get his hands on some of the gold as well. But an Ohio District Court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Robol could not claim a portion of the salvage award because he did not voluntarily turn over the inventory documents.
Robol’s Disciplinary Case
The Ohio District Court held that Robol knew or should have known that Thompson was withholding inventories of the gold and that he acted “willfully to blind himself from the truth.” On appeal, the Sixth Circuit held that Robol couldn’t have reasonably believed Thompson even if he believed “six impossible things before breakfast”—quoting a famous line from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.
The Virginia State Bar agreed, finding that Robol violated seven of Ohio’s Rules of Professional Conduct in his interactions with the Ohio District Court and the Sixth Circuit. Robol appealed to the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board.
Rule 8.5 of Virginia’s Rules of Professional Conduct contains a choice of law provision that, in disciplinary cases involving conduct in connection to a court proceeding, requires the Board to apply the rules of the jurisdiction where the court sits. The Board denied Robol’s appeal, and the Bar suspended his license for four years.
Clearly not one to go down without a fight, Robol appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that the state bar could not discipline him for violating attorney conduct rules because his “associate” status made him a non-lawyer. But the Supreme Court held that the plain language of the state’s rules establishes that associate members are attorneys subject to regulation by the state bar.
Read the Virginia Supreme Court’s opinion and thousands more with a free trial of Westlaw Edge.
“Associate members” of the Virginia State Bar are entitled to all the privileges of “active members” except that they cannot practice law, vote, or hold office. They can sit on state bar committees, they still must pay dues (though around half what active members pay), and may change their status to “active” at any time.
“A member of the Virginia Bar who has taken associate status has essentially taken a voluntary withdrawal, as opposed to a forced one, from certain privileges of a member of the Bar,” the court wrote.
If we follow Robol’s argument, the court concluded, any associate member could engage in bad faith or fraudulent conduct and the Bar would have no power to regulate them. They could then simply reactivate their membership and sail off into the sunset.