The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday ordered that Atlanta City Councilman Lamar Willis be disbarred from practicing law because of ethical breaches.
The court said Willis violated a number of professional conduct rules that govern the legal profession. The most serious was Willis’ representation of a client in a personal injury case who was to be paid $30,000 as part of a settlement. Rather than distributing the funds to his client, Willis deposited the check into his personal or business account, the court said.
The court acted after an investigation by a court-appointed lawyer and a recommendation by a State Bar of Georgia review panel that Willis be disbarred.
“Having reviewed the record, we agree with the review panel that the facts in this case demonstrate Willis’s extreme disregard of his duty to safeguard the property of a client, which undermines the public trust,” the opinion said.
Willis has been a member of the State Bar since 2006 and a member of the Atlanta City Council since 2001. He faces a reelection challenge in November.
In a statement released by his campaign manager, Willis accepted responsibility for his conduct.
“Two years ago, during a time when I was facing tremendous personal challenges, I made a grievous professional error,” he said. “I acknowledge it, apologize for it and I accept the repercussions of it. Although the Supreme Court’s ruling comes down today, that time has passed. The defendants have been repaid contrary to the language in the Court’s opinion. … I am moving on with my life and my re-election to the Atlanta City Council.”
Andre Dickens, a Georgia Tech administrator who is running against Willis for the city-wide seat, issued a statement Monday calling for Willis to be disqualified from holding public office.
“It is abundantly clear that Mr. Willis operates without any ethical boundaries or even the bare minimum of care or concern for others,” read the statement from the Dickens campaign. “…We believe that people who have been barred from practicing law in the State of Georgia for unethical and immoral behavior should not be allowed to serve in a lawmaking capacity.”
The complaint stems from a 2009 personal injury lawsuit that Willis filed on behalf of a minor who was injured after a fence fell on and injured the young child. The parties settled the case for $30,000 and the defendants sent the check to Willis, made payable to him and his client. Instead, Willis deposited the check into his personal or business account, the ruling said.
Willis, who did not maintain an attorney trust account, converted the funds to his own use, the ruling said. When Willis failed to distribute the money, a judge ordered the defendants pay the plaintiff directly, thus requiring the defendants to pay twice, and to seek reimbursement from Willis, the ruling said.
“Despite requests to do so, Willis has not reimbursed the defendants,” the ruling said.
The ruling noted that Willis failed to answer the formal complaint filed against him by the State Bar.
The State Bar review panel found not credible Willis’ assertion that depression left him unable to respond. The panel also found no factors in mitigation of discipline and multiple offenses in aggravation, including obstructing the disciplinary process and indifference to making restitution, the ruling said.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed issued the following statement about his long-time friend and political ally Monday: “Lamar Willis has been a strong and capable member of the Atlanta City Council for more than a decade. It is unfortunate that he has made significant mistakes in his private law practice during a very difficult time in his personal life. While I have not reviewed the decision, I respect the ruling of the Georgia Supreme Court on this matter.”
AJC staff writer Katie Leslie contributed to this report.