Today, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed and increased the suspension of McMinn County attorney Joseph H. Crabtree, Jr. from the practice of law in the state.
After reviewing disciplinary proceedings filed against Mr. Crabtree, the Supreme Court concluded that the original suspension imposed by a Board of Professional Responsibility Hearing Panel was inconsistent with the serious nature of Mr. Crabtree’s conduct and the discipline ordered in similar cases. The Hearing Panel imposed a two-year suspension, with six months served on active suspension and the remainder on probation. The Court increased Mr. Crabtree’s suspension to three years, with one year served on active suspension and the remainder on probation.
Over a two-year period, four complaints were filed with the Board of Professional Responsibility (“the Board”) against Mr. Crabtree, who has been licensed as an attorney since 1985. While the facts varied, the complaints alleged a lack of communication and follow-up with clients, missed deadlines, and uncompleted work. One of his clients discovered her case had been dismissed when she went to the court clerk’s office seeking information. Costs were assessed to the client and she was not informed. In other cases, Mr. Crabtree allowed the statutes of limitations to expire on claims despite clients bringing their cases to Mr. Crabtree with sufficient time to file them.
The Hearing Panel held a disciplinary hearing, during which Mr. Crabtree and two clients testified. Mr. Crabtree generally tried to justify his actions but was unable to provide mitigating factors. The Hearing Panel concluded that Mr. Crabtree violated several Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct, including violations of the duties of diligence, communication, conflict of interest, and expediting litigation, among others. It identified four aggravating factors, including multiple offenses, prior disciplinary history, substantial experience in the practice of law, and refusal to acknowledge the wrongful nature of much of his conduct.
Mr. Crabtree filed an appeal to the McMinn County Chancery Court, but failed to file the transcript, his brief, or a response to the Board’s motion to dismiss. Mr. Crabtree filed an appeal with the Tennessee Supreme Court, but it was dismissed because of his failure to file a transcript and follow the Rules of Appellate Procedure.
As required, the Board filed a notice of submission and an order of enforcement with the Supreme Court. After reviewing the materials, the Supreme Court proposed, under the authority provided in Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, increasing the punishment in this case to ensure uniformity across the state. In its brief to the Court, the Board agreed that the punishment should be increased. Mr. Crabtree filed a motion seeking an extension to file his brief, but he ultimately failed to submit it.
The Supreme Court thoroughly reviewed the record and noted Mr. Crabtree’s apathetic and unconcerned attitude toward his professional obligations, including the proceedings against him. The Court agreed with the aggravating factors identified by the Hearing Panel and found a pattern of disregarding ethical obligations toward clients and neglecting court orders. After reviewing similar cases, the Court concluded that the initial suspension provided by the Hearing Panel was inadequate and increased Mr. Crabtree’s suspension to three years with one year of active suspension.
To read the unanimous opinion of the Court in In Re: Joseph H. Crabtree, Jr., authored by Chief Justice Roger A. Page, please visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.