Washington’s highest court has ordered that Spokane attorney Steve Eugster be suspended from practicing law for 18 months.
But a divided state Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Eugster, a former city councilman who’s again running for a seat, should not be disbarred.
“We conclude that Eugster’s misconduct does not merit disbarment but suspend him for 18 months and impose additional conditions,” Justice Tom Chambers wrote for the majority.
Four of the justices said that the penalty should be harsher.
“The only conclusion that can be drawn from our well-settled sanction analysis and precedent is that Eugster should be disbarred,” wrote Justice Mary Fairhurst.
The state bar association had sought to have Eugster disbarred because of the way he handled the case of Marion Stead, an 87-year-old Colville widow who hired him in 2004.
Stead was upset and suspicious of how her only child, Roger Samuels, was handling her financial affairs. But Eugster said she also badly wanted to see her son and wanted to include Samuels’ daughter in her will.
Eugster, a longtime acquaintance, concluded that nothing was amiss. But when he tried to reconcile the family, his relationship with Stead soured. She hired another attorney, Andrew Braff.
By then, Eugster says, he felt she couldn’t handle her own affairs. Trying to protect Stead, he says, he asked a court to appoint someone as guardian.
Stead was furious. The bar association says she spent $13,500 successfully staving off Eugster’s effort to have her found incompetent. Friends, health care workers, her investment broker and others all said she didn’t need a court-appointed guardian. She died in November 2006, two days after signing a new will. It left most of Stead’s $273,342 estate to her son’s ex-wife and an animal shelter. Braff, according to Eugster’s attorney Shawn Newman, filed a complaint with the state bar association.
In January, a bar association board unanimously recommended disbarment. It said Eugster failed to abide by his client’s wishes, used her secrets against her and filed the court case without asking experts about her mental capacity.
Eugster “put his own financial interests above that of a sick, elderly client to gain access to her money,” the bar association wrote to the high court. “He betrayed his client by exploiting the difficult relationship she had with her son, leaving her and her estate isolated from family oversight, and manipulated the judicial system for his own benefit.”
Eugster’s attorneys argued that he did not seek to gain financially over the deal. Eugster says he was just trying to protect a client whom he though was losing her mental faculties and vulnerable.
“They want to typecast Eugster as this stereotypical greedy attorney out to rip off this poor widow,” one of Eugster’s attorneys, Shawn Newman said last year. But Eugster reduced his fee for Stead, withdrew as a trustee of her estate and didn’t want to be appointed guardian, Newman said.
Lawyers have continuing obligations to clients and special responsibilities to take protective action on behalf of vulnerable adults and others,” Eugster’s attorneys wrote to the court. “…To sanction Eugster would chill other attorneys who may feel their client or former client is being taken advantage of.”
The high court ruled Thursday that “Eugster acted knowingly and with intent with respect to the
consequences when he refused to turn over his client’s files and important papers as requested and when he filed a guardianship petition to have his client or former client declared incompetent.”
“In so doing he violated seven ethical duties causing actual and potential harm to his client and the profession for which he is suspended from the practice of law for 18 months and ordered to pay restitution to the estate of Mrs. Stead in the sum of $13,500.”