Court Opinions: Disciplinary Opinions for Aug. 29, Oct. 23 and Oct. 25

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

People v. Benjamin William Hartford

According to the opinion, in January 2018, Benjamin Hartford filed a complaint on his client’s behalf after a store clerk injured the client when the client attempted to rob the store. During the case, Hartford moved for a guardian ad litem for his client, who was incarcerated, without advising his client about the legal consequences of guardianship and whether the client’s mother was an appropriate guardian.

The opinion added Hartford’s motion contained no legal or factual basis and the court denied it. During discovery in the case, Hartford didn’t diligently respond to the defendant’s discovery requests, according to the opinion. In addition, he didn’t timely and properly designate an expert witness or obtain and disclose the expert’s opinions. When the defendant moved to strike the expert designation, Hartford didn’t respond and the presiding court struck the expert designation. Hartford didn’t explain to his client or his client’s mother — who held a power of attorney for the client and had signed Hartford’s fee agreement for the representation, and who had been appointed as the client’s guardian in a separate case — the order striking the expert designation, the viability of the case without an expert and the settlement offer for $30,000 that was likely the negative result of Hartford’s failure to timely designate an expert. 

The opinion added during the case, Hartford failed to obey the presiding court’s case management order, including by not filing a proposed trial management order; not complying with two orders to set hearings; not filing exhibits and proposed jury instructions; and not complying with an order to produce the client’s file to the client’s mother. Hartford also failed to issue a writ for his client’s presence at trial. These failures resulted in the court holding three additional hearings and caused the defendants to incur attorney fees, the opinion explained.

The opinion added in 2018, Hartford agreed to represent another client in multiple criminal cases. Hartford accepted $2,000 from the client’s mother but didn’t provide the client or the mother with a basis for the fee in writing within a reasonable time after the representation began. Hartford didn’t retain a copy of any fee agreement in the cases. Between September 2018 and February 2020, the client’s mother paid Hartford $25,800 for the representation. But Hartford didn’t complete substantive legal work during that time, the opinion said. Even so, Hartford removed the unearned funds from his trust account and he didn’t keep the required records showing whether the funds were earned and when they were removed from his trust account. In June 2020, Hartford moved to withdraw from the cases, which were pending and not prepared for trial. 

The Presiding Officer approved the parties’ revised stipulation to discipline and suspended Hartford for one year and one day, effective Nov. 1. To be reinstated to the practice of law in Colorado, Hartford must prove by clear and convincing evidence he has been rehabilitated, has complied with all disciplinary orders and rules and is fit to practice law. 

People v. Kristin Marie Muscato

According to the opinion, in early August 2022, when Kristin Muscato should have been holding $2,100 of her client’s funds in her trust account, her trust account contained only $526.78. Muscato didn’t accurately track her trust account activity; instead, she transferred money from her trust account when she believed she earned the funds without concurrently running invoices that reflected the transfers. 

On Oct.14, 2022, in a different matter, a client asked Muscato to withdraw from his custody case and requested she provide an accounting of his $3,500 retainer. Over the next two days, the client twice repeated his request for an accounting. Between Oct. 16 and 18, 2022, Muscato transferred $3,500 from her trust account to her operating account. On Oct. 18, 2022, she told her client she would withdraw from the case that day. But Muscato didn’t move to withdraw until eight days later. 

The opinion explained in November 2022, the former client requested an accounting five more times. In early January 2023, he filed a request for investigation with disciplinary authorities. Later that month, Muscato provided an invoice showing a balance due of $2,508.86 and a simultaneous transfer of $3,500, even though the transfers occurred in October 2022. Around the time Muscato issued the invoice, she asked her former client during a telephone call to pay her immediately and threatened to add 18% interest. Muscato didn’t notify him she was recording the telephone call. 

In a third case, while hospitalized for a medical emergency in April 2023, Muscato failed to appear for a permanent orders hearing without notifying the court or moving to continue. She also failed to file prehearing materials in the case. Muscato’s client appeared at the hearing and asked for a continuance. The client knew Muscato had been hospitalized but was given few other details. The client didn’t know Muscato wouldn’t appear for the hearing. 

In 2023, in a fourth client matter, Muscato didn’t send her client an invoice until she had billed $9,266, more than double the $4,500 retainer. Muscato failed to inform the client of documents filed in the client’s case after Muscato moved to withdraw from the case.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ stipulation to discipline and suspended Muscato for six months, all to be stayed upon Muscato’s successful completion of a two-year period of probation, with conditions. The sanction took into account significant mitigating factors. Muscato’s probation took effect Oct. 23. 

People v. Catherine Snider Roberts

Catherine Roberts, a solo practitioner who employs a small support staff, hired a new employee to work as her paralegal and her bookkeeper in April 2022, after her longtime bookkeeper left her firm, according to the opinion. Roberts relied on the new paralegal to distribute bills and collect payments, but two months went by without any invoices going out or any money coming in. 

In July 2022, Roberts terminated the new paralegal’s employment. According to the paralegal, Roberts expressed concern she wouldn’t be able to make payroll and said she may need to dip into her trust account. Roberts admits she took funds from her trust account to fund the paralegal’s last paycheck without knowing whether she had earned that money, according to the opinion. 

Since then, Roberts took affirmative action to reconcile her accounts and compare her July 2022 trust account transfers with the amounts she earned over the course of that month. According to the reconciliation, Roberts recklessly converted $1,187.64 for approximately two weeks in mid-July 2022. Thereafter, Roberts voluntarily started working with a billing service, which identified a trust account shortfall of $4,480.75 in mid-November 2022. Roberts incurred this shortfall negligently, as it accrued during a period when Roberts engaged in poor recordkeeping, the opinion said. 

Roberts made up for this shortfall and rectified her mistakes by mid-December 2022 and she has accurately reconciled her trust account since then, the opinion added. None of her trust account checks cut between July 2022 and October 2023 have been rejected for insufficient funds.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge approved the parties’ amended stipulation to discipline and suspended Roberts for one year and one day, all to be stayed upon her successful completion of a two-year period of probation with conditions. The probation took effect Oct. 25. The sanction takes into account significant mitigating factors. 

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