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Supreme Court weighs discipline for attorney-client affair

Jessica Shumaker//March 10, 2020

Supreme Court weighs discipline for attorney-client affair

Jessica Shumaker//March 10, 2020

The Missouri Supreme Court is considering what discipline a Blue Springs attorney should receive for having an affair with a client while representing her in a child-custody dispute.

On March 3, Sam S. Phillips, deputy chief disciplinary counsel, told the court that the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel believes suspension without probation is warranted in the case of Michael Spiegel.

Spiegel has been a licensed attorney in Missouri since 2000. He is a solo practitioner at Spiegel Law and focuses on domestic relations. He is also assistant city attorney and prosecutor for the city of Buckner.

His discipline case stems from his representation of a woman identified in the record as C.D., beginning in early 2013.

C.D. was referred to Spiegel by staff at Hope House, a domestic violence shelter in which C.D. was temporarily residing at the time, according to OCDC’s brief. At the time, she was seeking custody of her child, and she alleged her child’s father, identified as J.Z., physically abused her.

C.D. and Spiegel previously knew each other, but they had had no prior relationship. The two went on to have a four-month sexual relationship while he represented her, OCDC’s brief said.

He admitted to a violation of Rule 4-1.8(j) — which prohibits a lawyer from having a sexual relationship with a client unless it existed before the attorney-client relationship began — before the disciplinary hearing panel.

In May 2013, C.D. informed Spiegel she wanted to stop sleeping with him, OCDC’s brief said. She expected he would continue to represent her zealously in the pending custody modification litigation, but he lost interest in the case, she testified later.

C.D. believed Spiegel’s representation of her led to her losing custody of her child from August 2013, when he withdrew as her attorney, until December 2013.

C.D. later sued Spiegel and his firm for legal malpractice. The case was dismissed by the parties in 2017.

In August 2019, the disciplinary hearing panel issued its decision in Spiegel’s case, finding that Spiegel violated Rule 4-1.7(a)(2), Rule 4-1.8(j), and Rule 4-8.4(d).

The panel recommended that Spiegel be suspended for at least a year, that the suspension be stayed and that he be placed on probation for a year. Spiegel accepted the recommendation, but OCDC rejected it, which brought the case before the high court.

During oral arguments, Phillips said there was a significant risk that Spiegel’s representation of C.D. would be materially limited by his personal interests. Phillips said that while Spiegel has accepted a violation of Rule 4-1.8(j), he denies that the relationship harmed C.D.’s case.

Judge Mary R. Russell asked about mitigating circumstances.

Phillips said Spiegel stopped responding to C.D.’s requests for information after they stopped having sex, and he hurt her bargaining position. Spiegel has not fully acknowledged the harm to C.D., he added.

“He talks at length about how the bench and bar have discussed his situation, but as I see it, by refusing to acknowledge that there’s a conflict, he’s not acknowledging that he did any harm to her,” Phillips said. “I think he accepts it’s a technical violation of 1.8(j) but doesn’t accept it’s a breach of fiduciary duty.”

James C. Morrow of Morrow Willnauer Church in Kansas City represented Spiegel. He told the court he believed that an attorney having a sexual relationship with a client creates a significant risk of materially limited representation.

“He has never shirked the fact that he made a horrendous error of judgment,” Morrow said of Spiegel.

Morrow denied, however, that the relationship caused actual legal harm for C.D. He said C.D.’s own actions created the problems in her case.

Discussing mitigating factors, Morrow noted Spiegel has no prior disciplinary history. He said his client has submitted 31 character letters to the court, which include letters from three retired Jackson County judges: Stephen Nixon, Robert Schieber and Michael Manners. Former Missouri Bar President Patrick Starke also wrote in support of Spiegel, Morrow said.

“The words that keep coming back are ‘honorable,’ ‘zealous advocate,’ ‘always well-prepared,’ ‘integrity,’ ‘honest’ and ‘remorseful,’” he said.

The case is In re: Michael M. Spiegel, SC98155.

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