Tennessee Supreme Court Suspends Attorney’s Law License For Two Years

October 2, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court today suspended the law license of a Morristown attorney for two years. The Court held that the attorney made false representations in a child custody case, exploited a client with a disability in an estate case, and engaged in dishonest conduct in order to get an exorbitant fee from the estate without court oversight.    

Douglas Ralph Beier has been licensed to practice law in Tennessee since 1977.  He maintains a general law practice in Hamblen County.

In 2015, Mr. Beier represented a father who sought to change the custody arrangement for his daughter. Mr. Beier asked the child’s paternal grandmother to sign an affidavit to file with the court. When the grandmother didn’t sign the affidavit, Mr. Beier signed it for her, falsely notarized the signature, and filed the affidavit without disclosing to the court or the mother’s attorney that he had signed the affidavit for the grandmother. Relying in part on the affidavit, the court changed the daughter’s custody arrangement. 

In another matter, Mr. Beier agreed to represent an older man in probate court on the estate of his deceased aunt. Mr. Beier’s client had received disability benefits all of his life, and the benefits were paid to a fiduciary because of the man’s condition. Mr. Beier proposed a contingency fee arrangement; instead of paying him a set fee, Mr. Beier would receive a percentage of what the client received from the aunt’s estate. The client agreed.

Meanwhile, Mr. Beier learned that the client’s deceased aunt had other relatives who would inherit from her estate. Instead of telling the probate court about the other relatives, Mr. Beier told the court that his client was the aunt’s sole heir and asked the court to close the aunt’s estate without a detailed accounting or court scrutiny of his fee. Relying on Mr. Beier’s false representation, the court closed the estate. Mr. Beier received a contingency fee over $78,000, a fee far greater than the normal fee for an estate of similar size.

In both cases, the Board of Professional Responsibility, the entity created by the Tennessee Supreme Court to oversee ethics for Tennessee attorneys, brought ethics charges against Mr. Beier. The matter was heard by an independent panel of attorneys appointed to hear disciplinary charges against lawyers.

After hearing the evidence, the panel found that Mr. Beier violated the ethics rules governing Tennessee lawyers. In the child custody case, it found that he engaged in dishonest conduct by signing the witness’s name to the affidavit and falsely notarizing her signature without disclosing it to the court or the mother’s attorney. In the estate case, it found that Mr. Beier took advantage of a vulnerable client by arranging to receive an unreasonable, outsized contingency fee. It also found that he engaged in dishonest conduct by telling the court his client was the only heir to the estate, by not telling the court about the other heirs to the estate, and by asking the court to close the estate without an accounting in order to avoid having the court review his unreasonable fee.

As a penalty for his actions, the hearing panel concluded that Mr. Beier’s law license should be suspended for two years, with three months active suspension and the rest on probation. Mr. Beier and the Board of Professional Responsibility both appealed to the chancery court.

After a hearing, the chancery court affirmed the hearing panel’s findings on Mr. Beier’s violations of the ethics rules. The chancery court concluded, however, that the penalty to Mr. Beier should be increased to two years active suspension of his law license.

Mr. Beier appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. He argued he had not been dishonest, he did not take advantage of a vulnerable client, and that his fee arrangement in the estate case was not unreasonable.

The Court disagreed with Mr. Beier. It held that the evidence fully supported the hearing panel’s findings: that Mr. Beier engaged in dishonest conduct, that he took advantage of a client with a disability, and that his fee arrangement in the estate case was intended to result in an unreasonably large and unethical fee. In addition, the Court pointed out, Mr. Beier refused to acknowledge the wrongfulness of his conduct. Emphasizing his serious breach of the ethics rules, the Court agreed with the chancery court that Mr. Beier should be suspended from the practice of law for a full two years.

To read the unanimous opinion in Douglas Ralph Beier v. Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, authored by Justice Holly Kirby, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.