The Wyoming State Bar, working to maintain high ethical standards in the legal profession, has established a system of reviewing complaints against lawyers for unethical conduct. The Wyoming Supreme Court has jurisdiction over all attorneys licensed in Wyoming, attorneys admitted pro hac vice, and any attorney practicing law in Wyoming. The lawyer discipline process is codified in two sets of rules adopted by the Court, the Wyoming Rules of Professional Conduct and the Wyoming Rules of Disciplinary Procedure.
The Rule of Law requires that attorneys who violate a Rule of Professional Conduct are accountable for their actions regardless of the lawyer’s gender, race, religion, national origin, age, sexual orientation, protected characteristic, socioeconomic status, geographical location, employment, or elected or appointed position. An attorney may not engage in violations of Professional Conduct but escape liability based upon any of the preceding factors.
Why are disciplinary proceedings important?
Members of the Wyoming State Bar, having taken an oath to support the Constitution and laws of this state and of the United States, are charged with obedience to those laws at all times. Attorneys must observe the highest standards of professional conduct as adopted by the Wyoming Supreme Court and described in the Wyoming Rules of Professional Conduct. Attorneys who have demonstrated that they are unable, or are likely to be unable, to discharge their professional responsibilities shall be subject to appropriate disciplinary or disability proceedings pursuant to the Wyoming Rules of Disciplinary Procedure.
The purposes of discipline proceedings are:
- to protect the public
- to protect the integrity of the legal system
- to ensure the administration of justice
- to deter further unethical conduct
- to rehabilitate the offending lawyer
- to deter unethical behavior by educating other lawyers and the public
How are disciplinary procedures commenced?
This process usually begins with the filing of a written complaint, although the Office of Bar Counsel (“OBC”) may request authority to investigate an attorney where no written complaint has been received. The complainant must “swear or affirm, under penalty of perjury, that the information contained [within the complaint] is a true, accurate and complete statement of the facts supporting [the] complaint.”
When a complaint is received, it is reviewed by the OBC to determine if a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct may exist. If not, the complaint is rejected, though the complainant may be asked to provide additional information. If the complaint provides prima facie evidence of a Rules violation, the OBC will initiate an investigation into the alleged violations. The investigation usually begins by providing the attorney with a copy of the complaint and requesting a written response. The letter from the OBC will identify the possible Rules violations identified. The OBC allows several weeks to respond to letters from the complainant and the attorneys. Several rounds of correspondence may take place. The OBC may perform additional investigation. It is not uncommon for investigations to take several months to resolve.
The OBC cannot initiate formal disciplinary proceedings unless: (1) clear and convincing evidence of a Rules violation exists; and (2) the Review and Oversight Committee authorizes the OBC to file a Formal Charge or, in the case of a diversion agreement or private reprimand, affirms proposed discipline (see below).
Unless and until a Formal Charge is filed, the complaint and investigation remain confidential. The complainant is advised of the confidentiality requirement and informed that the complaint may be dismissed if s/he does not abide by this requirement.
If a Formal Charge is filed, all documents and information in a disciplinary proceeding on file with the Board of Professional Responsibility are available to the public. The public may attend the disciplinary hearing.
Should/must a person file a complaint?
Charges that a lawyer has acted unethically are serious. A complaint should not be made lightly or to try to gain an advantage in your dealings with a lawyer. We usually will delay action on a complaint if there is pending litigation to ensure the integrity of the disciplinary process.
An attorney has an ethical obligation to report an attorney who violated a Rule of Professional Conduct that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects. Wyo.R.Prof.Cond. Rule 8.3. The Office of Bar Counsel routinely receives inquiries from attorneys asking whether s/he must report conduct. If you have questions about a mandatory report, please contact Mark Gifford or Melinda McCorkle.
To file a complaint, a person must complete the Ethical Violations Complaint Form. The complainant must “swear or affirm, under penalty of perjury, that the information contained [within the complaint] is a true, accurate and complete statement of the facts supporting [the] complaint.” Anonymous complaints are not accepted. A complainant does not need to have “standing” to file a complaint.
After completing the complaint form, mail the original complaint form, signed and dated, along with copies of any supporting documents. Do not send original documents, as they cannot be returned. Mail to:
Office of Bar Counsel
Wyoming State Bar
P.O. Box 109
Cheyenne, WY 82003-0109
What are the possible outcomes of the complaint?
- The complaint may be dismissed without further action; or
- The complaint may be dismissed after investigation; or
- The lawyer may enter a diversion program, a non-disciplinary resolution aimed at assisting attorneys who have engaged in minor acts of misconduct linked to poor law office management, chemical dependency, or other behavioral health problems; or
- The lawyer could receive a private reprimand, which means the lawyer is told he or she has broken a rule, a notation remains on the lawyer’s record for five years and a notice is published to all Wyoming lawyers which describes the misconduct but does not disclose the lawyer’s name; or
- The lawyer could receive a public censure which means that the violation of a rule by the lawyer is made public; or
- The lawyer’s license to practice law could be suspended for up to three years, during which time the lawyer may not practice law; or
- The lawyer’s license could be revoked, which means the lawyer is disbarred from the practice of law. After five years, the lawyer could seek reinstatement.
In rare circumstances, the seriousness of the allegations contained within the complaint may result in the Office of Bar Counsel (“OBC”) filing a petition with the Wyoming Supreme Court requesting an immediate suspension from the practice of law while the disciplinary proceedings are ongoing. If the Court grants the petition, the OBC is required to file a Formal Charge within 14 days of the Order. If the Court does not grant the petition, the OBC may file the Formal Charge at any point.
The Court’s decision to grant or deny the petition is based solely upon the limited factors identified in Rule 17 of the Wyo.R.Disc.Proc. The Court’s Order does not adjudicate the Rules violations that have or will be alleged in a Formal Charge. The Court makes no finding about whether the attorney should or should not be disciplined. Those matters must be resolved by the Board of Professional Responsibility Hearing Panel. After the Hearing Panel determines whether Rules violations occurred, and if so, the appropriate disposition, the Wyoming Supreme Court will decide whether to accept the Hearing Panel’s Report and Recommendation.
If discipline was imposed, how did it happen?
There are several stages in this process. The short version is this: (1) the Office of Bar Counsel (“OBC”) decided that there was clear and convincing evidence of a Rules violation; (2) the Review and Oversight Committee determined there was probable cause to grant authority to file a Formal Charge; (3) a Hearing Panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility (“BPR”) decided discipline was necessary, whether through a hearing or stipulation; and (4) the Wyoming Supreme Court enters an Order disciplining an attorney.
Most complaints are resolved without a hearing. However, if the OBC finds that an attorney violated a Rule but cannot reach an agreement with the attorney about the appropriate discipline, a hearing will be held before the BPR.
What is the Review and Oversight Committee?
The OBC Review and Oversight Committee (“ROC”) is a Court-appointed committee of three lawyers charged with overseeing the Office of Bar Counsel (“OBC”). The committee’s duties include preparing the OBC’s annual budget and, in consultation with the Wyoming State Bar’s Board of Officers and Commissioners, making decisions regarding the hiring, compensation and termination of Bar Counsel. In cases where the OBC deems it appropriate to engage outside counsel to handle a matter, the ROC must approve the hiring of Special Bar Counsel.
The ROC provides important oversight over the investigation and proper disposition of lawyer discipline matters. Before the OBC may investigate an attorney when no written complaint or report of misconduct has been submitted, the ROC must give approval to initiate an investigation. Such approval will be given only when the OBC has presented sufficiently credible or verifiable information to warrant an investigation. Before the OBC may file a Formal Charge against a lawyer, the ROC must determine that probable cause exists to justify the charge. In cases where the OBC has decided to dismiss a complaint following an investigation, the complaining party may ask the ROC to review the dismissal decision. In appropriate cases, the ROC may issue a private reprimand to a lawyer who has engaged in professional misconduct not sufficient to warrant public discipline.
What is the Board of Professional Responsibility?
The Board of Professional Responsibility (“BPR”) is a Court-appointed board comprised of six lawyers and three nonlawyers that serves as the hearing tribunal for lawyer discipline cases. It is the function of the BPR to recommend public discipline of lawyers upon a showing of clear and convincing evidence that ethical rules have been violated.