The attorney for former Supreme Court candidate Michelle MacDonald is once again in hot water with the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board and faces new sanctions.
Karlowba R. Adams Powell, who represents MacDonald in an ongoing defamation suit against writer Michael Brodkrob, is already on probation. A new Supreme Court petition seeks revocation of her 2017 reinstatement and additional punishment.
Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board Director Susan Humiston filed the petition on Dec. 4.
On Wednesday, Humiston declined to comment on the case. But she did say that whenever the Supreme Court is asked to publicly discipline an attorney, it means the board sees the misconduct as serious.
On July 19, 2017, Adams Powell was suspended for 45 days from practicing law in Minnesota. She had been accused of failing to appear in court on behalf of a client and then failing to cooperate with a board investigation into that matter. She was conditionally reinstated on Sept. 25, 2017.
However, according to Humiston’s three-count Supreme Court petition, Adams Powell’s alleged bad behavior continued after—and even during—her suspension.
Adams Powell was not quite two weeks into her two-year suspension when she acted as an attorney, representing a client at a 2017 review hearing before a family court referee, according to the filing.
At that Aug. 1, 2017, hearing, Adams Powell discussed possible future court dates with the case’s referee, the opposing counsel and a guardian ad litem, the petition says. That constitutes an “unauthorized practice of law,” the petition states. She also failed to tell anyone at that hearing that she was under suspension.
The petition says that while discussing future hearing dates, several options were suggested for the month of August 2017. But Adams Powell said she would not be available until Sept. 16 of that year. When the referee asked why, she said she had vacation time and two trials coming up, the petition states.
That wasn’t true, it says. Adams Powell had only a four-day trip planned for early August and no others planned until mid-September, according to the petition. The trials she mentioned were scheduled for Aug. 21 and Sept. 18, during her suspension. Therefore, they also could not be a genuine reason for her unavailability, the petition says.
Because Adams Powell alone knew she was suspended, the parties in that case agreed to schedule a follow-up Aug. 8 teleconference. Adams Powell again said she would be unavailable because of her vacation. It was likewise untrue, the petition says—she was unavailable because she knew she couldn’t legally practice law.
On Aug. 7, Adams Powell finally informed the parties by email that she was suspended. Yet even in that message, she advised that her client opposed a guardian ad litem’s proposal. That statement constituted yet another instance of practicing law on a suspended license, the petition said.
Finally, Adams Powell failed find a substitute attorney for the Aug. 8 teleconference as she had pledged. That forced a continuance to Aug. 28, over the strenuous objections of opposing counsel, according to the petition.
After the referee complained about her conduct, the petition says, Adams Powell told Humiston she didn’t think her suspension was “for public consumption.” She also said she didn’t think the suspension was “something that she would be in a position to disclose.”
The clear wording of her suspension order belies that stance, the Humiston petition says. Adams Powell knew she was obliged to immediately inform the parties, it says.
Adams further mispresented the facts by telling Humiston she found a substitute attorney for the Aug. 8 teleconference, according to the petition. In fact, no substitute was found and the call did not take place.
All of those actions violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, the petition states.
Counts two and three
According to the petition’s second count, Adams Powell was hired in June 2017 by a criminal defendant in a different case. She continued representing that client—and billing for services—while under suspension, the petition states.
Adams Powell consulted with the defendant on July 24, 26 and 31. She also contacted the Dakota County District Court clerk on Aug. 1, 2017, seeking a possible continuance—all while under suspension. She then invoiced for the unauthorized legal work, the petition says.
Adams Powell also accepted a $1,500 up front cash payment from that defendant’s mother. While she gave the mother a receipt, the petition says, she failed to have it countersigned by the payor, as required.
The petition’s third count alleges misdeeds that post-date her reinstatement. That count involves alleged misconduct in two cases. The first involved the same client from the family matter mentioned in count one. The second was an unrelated family law case.
The petition says Adams Powell charged flat fees of $2,500 to both clients. However, she neglected to tell either that their money wasn’t deposited in a trust account, as required. Instead, it went into Adams Powell’s personal bank account, the petition says.
When confronted Adams Powell claimed that deposits slips, which showed the money was placed in her personal account, weren’t made out in her handwriting. She also claimed the deposits were a bank teller’s error and that the teller had owned up to his mistake.
“Respondent made this statement knowing it was false,” the petition says.
An investigator contacted the named Wells Fargo teller, who said he had neither assisted her with the deposits nor told Adams Powell that he made the error.
Over the course of the count three investigation, Adams Powell was tardy offering up proof of her deposits, the petition says. It wasn’t until early March 2018 that she finally admitted the money was not properly deposited.
The attorney’s failure to reply promptly to queries and her failure to properly deposit funds are professional conduct breaches, the petition says. So was her false claim that she had properly deposited the money and her alternative claim that a bank teller blamed himself for the erroneous deposit, the petition said.
Adams Powell was given 20 days to respond to the petition.
Humiston said that any decision to punish Adams Powell is at the high court’s discretion. It has options ranging from no discipline up to disbarment, she said.
She said the case eventually will be turned over to an appointed senior judge, who will make findings of fact and recommend discipline. The Supreme Court will then hear the case and decide on appropriate punishment.
That process could take about five months, Humiston said. During that time, Adams Powell can continue to practice law.
State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, is the attorney representing Adams Powell in the matter. He could not be reached for comment by deadline.
Motions in MacDonald’s defamation suit against Brodkorb were heard on Nov. 1 in Ramsey County District Court; the matter was taken under advisement. Judge Richard H. Kyle, Jr., had yet to rule on competing motions in that case at press time.