Solo practitioner Joseph Neill of St. Louis was before the Supreme Court of Missouri on Nov. 8, with his attorney urging the court to stay any suspension and put him on probation for alleged sexual harassment of a client.
Neill was first retained by the client, A.C., in 2003 to help her with a felony charge. In 2016, she again sought his help, this time about an outstanding warrant. In 2018, she was arrested due to that warrant when police conducted a traffic stop.
Neill got her probation terminated and also agreed to help her with the traffic charges. While they were pending, he invited A.C. to his office in the evening. He offered her beer, told her she was attractive and asked her how she felt about being with an older man.
In the following months, Neill sent A.C. 150 texts that he has described as flirting. Texts showed that Neill offered A.C. money and asked later if she wanted to get together. Neill gave A.C. a total of $2,000, but both he and A.C. denied that there was an exchange of sex for money.
At another meeting in Neill’s office, Neill twice grabbed A.C.’s hand and attempted to have her rub his genitals, according to A.C. Neill claimed it was brief and consensual. Neill later asked A.C. to meet with him and said his wife would be away one night. A.C. never again met with him in person and instead brought his conduct to the attention of the police.
Subsequently, Neill was charged with second-degree sexual harassment but was found not guilty in a Warren County bench trial. His attorney at the time, Scott Rosenblum, called it a “credibility case,” according to KSDK.
However, Neill admitted that he violated Rule 4-8.4(g), which states, in part, that it is misconduct for an attorney to engage in harassment based on sex; Rule 4-8.4(d), which concerns conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice; and Rule 4-1.7(a)(2), concerning creating a conflict of interest by putting his interests over his client’s.
The disciplinary hearing panel recommended a stayed suspension with probation, and Neill accepted that recommendation. The chief disciplinary counsel, however, argued probation is not appropriate and that Neill should be suspended. The Supreme Court is therefore considering the case de novo, and attorneys gave oral arguments Nov. 8.
According to Missouri rules, attorneys may only be put on probation under certain circumstances, which include being adequately supervised and being unlikely to do more harm to the public.
But adequately supervising Neill will not be easy to do, argued Sam Phillips, who represented the chief disciplinary counsel.
“And he already knew what he did was wrong, so there’s nothing for us to teach him,” Phillips said.
But the key issue, he said, is that probation is not permitted if a lawyer’s continued practice will hurt the reputation of the courts or the legal profession. The fact that Neill’s behavior continued for four months, Phillips argued, shows that he had many opportunities to choose to do the right thing but failed to do so.
Phillips described Neill as selfish and criticized him for blaming A.C. for his actions by noting that A.C. admitted to leading him on. A.C. was a vulnerable target for Neill’s behavior, Phillips argued, because she was in dire financial need, was a single mother of a young child and was afraid of going back to prison.
Rick Wuestling of Roberts Perryman, representing Neill, told the court that his client acknowledges that his actions were wrong and that he took responsibility by being the one to start the disciplinary process. Neill has, “with genuine remorse and total embarrassment,” agreed to accept the disciplinary hearing panel’s recommended discipline, Wuestling said.
Neill’s attorney said a stayed suspension is consistent with Supreme Court precedent set in three similar cases decided in the past eight years, including In re: Brady, In re: Gunter and In re: Bergman, all involving attorneys having inappropriate sexual relationships and all resulting in probation.
Wuestling claimed that Neill can continue to practice law without hurting the legal profession’s reputation. To back up that claim, Wuestling said Neill, throughout his career, has represented numerous women and had no other complaints, that Neill did produce excellent outcomes for A.C., and that his behavior in this case has caused a deep rift with his family.
“When you read the testimony from Mr. Neill, it leads to one conclusion: He would never again do something that would embarrass his family,” Wuestling said.