by Lee Davis
The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled to uphold a four year suspension of former Knox County Law Director and attorney Bill Lockett. Mr. Lockett is pictured (left) with his attorney Tom Dillard.
While working for Kennerly, Montgomery & Finley in which he was a shareholder, Bill Lockett performed legal services for clients and failed to remit fees owed to the law firm. Members of the law firm confronted the attorney about the misappropriated legal fees shortly after the attorney resigned his position at the law firm to assume elected public office as Law Director for Knox County. As a result of his conduct, Lockett pleaded guilty to theft and to willful failure to file income tax returns. Here is the plea agreement. During a subsequent investigation, the Board of Professional Responsibility discovered that the attorney had accepted loans from the law firm’s clients while he was employed at the law firm. A hearing panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility found that Lockett should be suspended for four years. Here is his letter of resignation as Knox County Law Director.
Lockett appealed, and Knox County chancery court applied additional mitigating factors to reduce the suspension to two years. The Tennessee Supreme Court holds that the chancery court erred in modifying the judgment without finding that any of the circumstances in Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, section 1.3 applied.
The Tennesse Supreme Court also holds that the hearing panel erred in imputing a conflict of interest to Lockett with respect to the loan from the law firm’s client and in misapplying aggravating and mitigating factors. Despite these errors, the Supreme Court concludes that the length of suspension imposed by the hearing panel is consistent with the sanctions imposed on attorneys for similar conduct.
The Supreme Court therefore reverses the chancery court’s reduction of the suspension to two years and affirm the hearing panel’s imposition of a four-year suspension.