By Diana Hefley Herald Writer
LYNNWOOD — A longtime Lynnwood lawyer is facing possible disbarment over allegations that he forged a client’s signature and kept money the woman was owed from an insurance settlement.
Stephen L. Conroy also is the subject of a criminal investigation in connection with his former client’s complaint. Lynnwood police detectives sought Conroy’s bank records last month, alleging that there was probable cause to believe the attorney committed first-degree theft. The search warrant, filed in Snohomish County Superior Court, relies heavily on the findings made by a hearing officer in December as part of a Washington State Bar Association investigation.
The hearing officer concluded that Conroy violated rules of professional conduct and recommended he be disbarred. No formal action has been taken against Conroy’s law license. No criminal charges have been filed.
Lynnwood detectives are continuing to investigate.
Conroy is appealing the hearing officer’s findings. He denies forging any documents, lying to state investigators or withholding money from the client. He also denies violating any rules.
“I totally disagree,” with the hearing officer’s findings, Conroy said Thursday. “There’s way too much to get into.”
In his appeal of the hearing officer’s findings, Conroy said that the client prepared false documents and misrepresented the agreement they had about his fees. Conroy argues that he didn’t receive a fair hearing and has been targeted by an unhappy client who was told repeatedly that the money from the insurance claim would only cover bills and legal fees.
“To disbar an attorney because of a vicious, vengeful client is wrong,” Conroy wrote in his appeal. “To conclude the attorney must be the one who is not speaking truth based on the totality of the facts presented is wrong and unfair.”
The bar’s disciplinary board is expected to review Conroy’s appeal at its meeting in May, said Debra Carnes, the bar’s chief communications officer. If the board upholds the recommendation, it will be up to the state Supreme Court to make a final ruling on whether he is disbarred.
Conroy has been licensed to practice law here since 1973. He hasn’t had any prior disciplinary actions against his license.
This isn’t his first time his legal practices have come under scrutiny.
Conroy was a longtime municipal court judge in Edmonds and Lynnwood but resigned in 2000 after being censured by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct for mixing his personal life with his public duties.
The censure came after Conroy dismissed, without legal reasons, a traffic citation for a person with whom he had an intimate personal relationship, according to documents released in 2000. The commission also found that Conroy had lied to state investigators.
At the time, Conroy said he was stepping down because of personal reasons. His departure, however, was negotiated as part of a settlement related to his censure.
His latest legal trouble arose in 2010 when a former client filed a grievance with the state bar association. More than a dozen instances of professional conduct violations were alleged.
The Lynnwood lawyer represented the woman on an insurance claim related to a traffic accident. Conroy had filed a lawsuit on her behalf in 2008 and negotiated a $25,000 settlement, according to court records. The woman didn’t receive any of the money directly. Instead, she was told that the entire amount went to pay bills, including Conroy’s fees.
The woman later was attempting to get receipts for tax purposes when she discovered that Conroy reportedly had overstated the amount of the bills. She also alleged that Conroy forged her signature on a fee agreement.
The woman said she agreed to pay Conroy $5,000 for his services. Detectives estimate that Conroy pocketed an additional $6,000.
The hearing officer also concluded that Conroy took more than what had been negotiated, and failed to communicate with the client the basis for his fees.
Conroy argued that the client agreed to pay him more for his work.
“She agreed that since I did significant extra work on her case that I should be compensated for my time and assistance,” he wrote.
The hearing officer also concluded that Conroy had signed the woman’s name without her consent on more than one document.
Conroy alleged that the former client tampered with the case file. He said original documents had been removed. He argued that his signature had been forged on some of the documents. He reported that the client had removed the file to take to another lawyer. He blames her for the documents being altered.
She “is the only person who had possession of the file beside myself and why would I turn the file and the damaging contents over to the bar association knowing they were in the file? I turned the file over because I was unaware of those documents,” he wrote.
The hearing officer, however, concluded that Conroy provided fabricated evidence to the bar “to better his position in the disciplinary process for his benefit,” court papers said.
In his recommendation, the hearing officer concluded that Conroy has not admitted or acknowledged the wrongful nature of his conduct, but instead blamed the client.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.