Lawyer's Harassing Emails Warrant More Than a Public Reprimand, Court Rules

By William Vogeler, Esq. on March 07, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Calling for tougher discipline, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected a proposed reprimand for a lawyer who was convicted of sending harassing and stalking email to opposing counsel.

John Michael Spain faces discipline after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of sending harassing and stalking messages, which resulted in one-year probation sentence. Spain and the State Bar had agreed on a reprimand as discipline, although Spain wanted it to be private.

Proposed Deal Rejected

The Supreme Court rejected the proposed deal, noting Spain's communications included "inappropriate threatening language, intimidation and personal attacks directed to opposing counsel, including inappropriate remarks about counsel and members of her family." Not even a public reprimand, the court signaled, is sufficient discipline.

"Neither Spain nor the State Bar has identified a case in which we have imposed only a reprimand for such a serious violation, even when the attorney presented significant mitigating favors," the court said.

Good Old Boys No More

The high court, with three new members elevated to the panel this year, did not quote the specific statements Spain made. But Catherine Sanderson, who received the email from Spain, said they were very inappropriate.

"They were definitely beyond the pale," Sanderson said. "I've been practicing law a long time. I've never had anybody behave the way he behaved."

Sanderson said she reported the emails to get Spain to stop sending them. After a sheriff's investigator saw them, authorities got a warrant to arrest him.

Lawyers Need Lawyers, Too

Spain's problems stemmed from his efforts to represent himself in a divorce case (which is almost never a good idea, as we've seen before). He is a bankruptcy attorney, but he thought that he could handle the case because of a prenuptial agreement.

After his actions that led to the criminal charges, he retained an attorney. He told the State Bar that he pleaded no contest because he acknowledged his mistakes.

In the disciplinary case, he also said he sought professional help to deal with emotional problems. The State Bar, in recommending a public reprimand, noted that he had no record of prior discipline.

The Supreme Court, rejecting the recommendation, called Spain's threats a "serious violation." The court cited a case that showed an attorney was suspended for 18 months for a misdemeanor fraud -- even with mitigating factors.

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