JUNE 13, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 21
Richard J. Murphy was first admitted to practice law in 1964. He was a fixture in local political and legal circles in Osceola, Iowa, for nearly fifty years. He was the attorney for the City of Osceola, and he had been the County Attorney years earlier. His private practice, which he shared with his son, focused on real estate, probate and tax issues.
Helen Doss had been the County Auditor at the same time Mr. Murphy was County Attorney, and their friendship continued after they both left office. Ms. Doss, who had no children, came to rely on Mr. Murphy and his wife for assistance with errands and legal matters. Mr. Murphy prepared her will, which named his wife as executor. He helped her set up bank accounts, including one that named Mrs. Murphy as co-owner. He was named as one of the beneficiaries of her life insurance policy.
When Ms. Doss, at 92, experienced several falls in her home, Mr. Murphy filed a voluntary guardianship and conservatorship petition. Ms. Doss acknowledged that she needed help, and agreed that Mrs. Murphy should be appointed as her guardian and conservator.
For the next four years, Mr. Murphy and his wife took care of Ms. Doss and her finances. He arranged to cash in over $125,000 worth of Series E Bonds, and placed the proceeds in an account jointly held between Ms. Doss and Mrs. Murphy. He arranged the sale of her home and represented his wife at the closing; his son represented the buyers in the transaction. He prepared a new will, naming Mrs. Murphy as executor again.
During the conservatorship, Mr. Murphy prepared annual accountings for his wife to sign and file with the local court. He left off at least one account, one which he said he considered to be Ms. Doss’ own account and not part of the conservatorship. That account named Mrs. Murphy as co-owner, and Mrs. Murphy wrote various checks on it during the conservatorship years — including at least one, for $1,427.96 for a new vacuum cleaner for herself. Other checks on the undisclosed account were for $500 or $1,000 and payable to either Mrs. Murphy or to Mr. Murphy himself.
When Ms. Doss died in 2004, Mr. Murphy represented his wife in filing and administering the probate proceedings. Her will (which he had prepared) left the bulk of her estate to nephews and nieces. However, considering the joint accounts and life insurance proceeds, almost a third of Ms. Doss’ estate went to Mr. and Mrs. Murphy rather than the relatives.
One of the nephews complained, and after negotiations a portion of Ms. Doss’ estate was returned for distribution to family. But the matter did not end there. The Disciplinary Board of the Iowa Supreme Court, which regulates lawyers, got involved.
The Disciplinary Board conducted hearings and ultimately recommended a public reprimand for Mr. Murphy’s multiple violations of legal ethics rules. Mr. Murphy appealed, and the matter was considered again — this time by the Iowa Supreme Court.
In its ruling last month, the Court decided that public reprimand was not the right sanction. Instead, Mr. Murphy was suspended from the practice of law indefinitely, with no ability to reapply for admission for at least eighteen months.
After the fact, violations like Mr. Murphy’s always seem obvious. It is hard to imagine what he thought was defensible about filing a petition against his own client (even with her consent), and then representing the guardian and conservator. It seems even more obviously wrong when the guardian and conservator is his own wife. Add to that the transactions giving an increasing share of Ms. Doss’ estate to his wife, his failure to include all of Ms. Doss’ assets in the conservatorship accountings, and then the multiple representations in the sale of her home.
What was Mr. Murphy’s explanation for his actions? The Iowa Supreme Court characterizes his response as arguing that he was just following Ms. Doss’ instructions. She was strong-willed and had a generous nature, he argued. He denied that he had influenced her in any way in the exercise of her generosity. Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board v. Murphy, May 27, 2011.