SEATTLE – Spokane attorney Stephen Eugster, accused of betraying an elderly client’s confidences and wishes, on Friday tried to persuade a disciplinary board not to recommend that he be banned from practicing law.
The client, an 88-year-old Colville widow, ended up spending $13,500 to fight off Eugster’s attempt to have her declared mentally incompetent.
“It’s hard to conceive of a more obvious example … of a lawyer’s disloyalty to his client,” said Jonathan Burke, a disciplinary lawyer for the state bar association.
At the association’s headquarters in Seattle Friday, Eugster repeatedly insisted he did nothing wrong. Faced with mixed messages from a client he felt was becoming delusional, he said, he tried his best to look after her interests and reconcile her with her only son.
“I really don’t know what to say,” Eugster said at one point Friday. “I did not try to take anything from this woman. I tried to protect her.”
The 14-member bar association disciplinary board made no recommendation Friday. If it settles on disbarment, the state Supreme Court will have the final word.
Earlier this year, a bar association hearing officer concluded after five days of testimony that Eugster should be disbarred.
Calling Eugster “a threat to the public,” hearing officer Jane Bremner Risley wrote in May that the attorney and former Spokane city councilman failed to grasp what she called the most fundamental tenet of law practice: “Serve your client, protect their confidences.”
The client was Marion R. Stead, a Colville woman who hired Eugster in 2004. Stead wanted Eugster to rewrite her will and related documents. She told him she wanted to distance her estranged son, Roger Samuels, from her financial affairs.
“She wanted everything cleared up so he couldn’t get any more of her assets,” the disciplinary report said. Samuels could not be reached for comment.
Eugster quickly drafted a new will, trust and other documents, including a durable power of attorney that gave him the ability to make decisions for her.
But he eventually concluded that Stead’s concerns about her son – whom she apparently missed – were baseless.
When he sent Stead a letter to that effect and tried to arrange a family reconciliation, Stead fired him and got another lawyer.
Eugster refused to be fired. He said Stead wasn’t mentally competent. He didn’t turn over her legal files for more than a month.
“There was only one reason for Mr. Eugster to be so vehement in his refusal to be terminated as Ms. Stead’s lawyer,” Risley wrote this spring. “He would lose access to her money.”
Eugster also went to court, asking a judge to declare Stead’s son her legal guardian, with control over her affairs. It ended up costing an infuriated Stead thousands of dollars to fight off the guardianship attempt. And she never spoke to her son again.
“Had Mr. Eugster been successful with the guardianship petition, Ms. Stead would have been completely isolated, the family bonds destroyed, and Mr. Eugster trustee over all of Ms. Stead’s assets,” Risley wrote in May. Eugster, she concluded, had betrayed his own client.
All told, Eugster faces discipline for seven alleged violations, including disclosing confidential information to Stead’s son, failing to abide by her decisions, failing to turn over his files, and for filing the guardianship case without having anyone examine Stead’s mental condition.
Eugster repeatedly insisted Friday that he was acting in Stead’s best interest. He said he was unsure whether she was mentally competent, and the whole point of the guardianship case was to have a judge look into the issue. He did think, however, that she was wrong about her son.
“I needed to protect her from her own delusion,” Eugster told the disciplinary board. “I was the only one she had.”
As a mitigating factor, Eugster – who famously sued several Spokane City Council members while serving on the council himself – provided the bar association with a list of 54 cases in which he felt he had defended the public interest. But he failed to impress Risley when he recounted copying anti-Vietnam War petitions secretly with the help of a staffer in U.S. Sen. Henry M. Jackson’s office decades ago.
“Respondent Eugster, during a hearing about his ethical conduct, testified to his … misuse of government resources,” Risley noted.
Outside the hearing room Friday, a subdued Eugster leaned heavily on his cane – he’s slated for hip surgery soon – and laid out potential arguments if he finds himself defending his actions to the Supreme Court.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “I’ve always tried to do good for people. I guess I stuck my neck out too far for my client.”