Recent Supreme Court Opinions
The Tennessee Supreme Court has upheld the decision by a hearing panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility to suspend Anderson County lawyer Yarboro Sallee’s law license for one year. The Court held that the sanction was appropriate in light of the multiple ethical violations Ms. Sallee committed.
In 2010, Ms. Sallee was hired to file a wrongful death action arising out of the death of the clients’ daughter. They agreed to pay her an hourly rate, and she estimated to them that the litigation would cost no more than $100,000. Less than three months later, Ms. Sallee claimed that she had incurred hourly fees totaling over $140,000. For this, she had accomplished little more than filing the wrongful death complaint, filing related pleadings in probate and juvenile court, and gathering obvious records. When Ms. Sallee insisted that the clients agree to pay her contingency fees as well as the hourly fees, they discharged her.
After the clients discharged Ms. Sallee, she refused to return to them items key to the wrongful death litigation, such as brain tissue slides from their daughter’s autopsy. When the former clients sued Ms. Sallee to force her to return the withheld items, Ms. Sallee threatened to file criminal charges against them. Finally, the former clients filed a complaint against Ms. Sallee with Tennessee’s Board of Professional Responsibility.
The Board investigated Ms. Sallee, who insisted that her conduct had been reasonable and ethical. She gave the Board documentation of her hourly charges, which claimed that Ms. Sallee had worked as many as 23 hours of billable time in a single day and included fees for things such as watching many hours of reality crime television shows.
A hearing panel found that Ms. Sallee had violated a number of the Rules of Professional Responsibility by, among other things, charging the clients excessive fees, insisting that they agree to pay contingency fees in addition to hourly fees, failing to communicate with the clients about her fees, withholding items from the clients after they discharged her, and threatening to file criminal charges against the clients. As the sanction, the hearing panel recommended suspension of Ms. Sallee’s law license for one year.
Ms. Sallee filed for judicial review of the hearing panel’s decision, and the trial judge upheld the sanction. Ms. Sallee then appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. She insisted that there was no basis for finding ethical violations and that the one-year suspension was too severe a sanction.
After reviewing the record, the Supreme Court found ample support for the hearing panel’s finding that Ms. Sallee had violated multiple ethical rules. As for the one-year suspension, the Court found that the most disturbing factor was Ms. Sallee’s continued insistence that she did nothing wrong.
“At every turn in these proceedings, faced with findings at every level that her conduct breached numerous ethical rules, Attorney Sallee has been doggedly unrepentant. Indeed, her consistent response has bordered on righteous indignation,” wrote Justice Holly Kirby in the unanimous opinion.
The Court held that the one-year suspension of Ms. Sallee’s law license was well-founded and sustained the sanction.