A Waterville attorney faces a six-month suspension from law practice for violating rules of professional conduct in litigation involving a divorce in Waterville District Court.
The suspension, ordered last week by a state Supreme Court justice, is the latest in a series of problems Charles T. “Tom” Ferris has encountered over the past year.
His difficulties include a charge in federal court of failure to repay a federal education loan of almost $107,000 and a lawsuit pending against him in state court by a former client dissatisfied with his handling of her motor vehicle accident case.
Ferris, who has been practicing civil and criminal law in Waterville for more than 20 years, is to begin serving the suspension March 3.
The order by Supreme Court Associate Justice Donald Alexander follows a Jan. 21 hearing as well as a previous, failed attempt to resolve complaints against Ferris by the issuance of a public reprimand.
“Tom has admitted he clearly had made some mistakes in terms of the rules that govern subpoenas,” said Peter DeTroy, the attorney who represented Ferris in the grievance proceedings. DeTroy said Ferris’s mistakes were “unfortunate and inadvertent,” and he and his client are discussing how to react to the order and in particular the length of the suspension. “We are disappointed with what was decided by way of the suspension.” He said they could ask the court to reconsider.
“Family law cases are the most challenging for lawyers,” DeTroy said. “That was a case, for a number of reasons, where he just sort of got knocked off balance and couldn’t get back on balance. He’s basically a good, solid lawyer who basically got in a blind spot.”
DeTroy also said that he anticipated Ferris’s law partners would step up to handle his cases during the suspension.
Ferris has recently handled a particularly high profile criminal case in Kennebec County Superior Court where he represented Mark P. Murphy, who was convicted of elevated aggravated assault for attacking a mental health worker while he was a patient at Riverview Psychiatric Center.
In the civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Bangor, documents show that U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen signed off on a consent judgment March 14, ordering Ferris to pay to the government almost $107,000 for the education loan taken out in September 2008, plus almost $39,000 in interest, in monthly installments. The judgment was ordered to be secured with liens on any real estate or personal property he owns.
In the state court case pending in Kennebec County, Angela Larrabee of Oakland accuses Ferris of failing to pursue her claim against the City of Waterville stemming from injuries she says she suffered in an Aug. 3, 2007, collision with a city-owned garbage truck at 1st Rangeway and Kennedy Memorial Drive.
Larrabee maintains Ferris failed to send a notice of claim to the city within the required 180 days after the crash.
The lawsuit says any claim she has is now extinguished as a result and that he was negligent and failed to provide competent representation. Larrabbee, through her attorneys, Daniel Kagan and Timothy Kenlan, seeks compensatory damages.
DeTroy, who represents Ferris in that case as well, said Tuesday that the issues are mostly undisputed, and they are hoping to resolve the case in mediation.
The divorce case that resulted in the suspension began in late 2010 when Ferris represented a cousin identified in Alexander’s order as Mr. B.
As part of it, Ferris sent multiple subpoenas to U.S. Cellular for records of messages of his client’s estranged wife, and allowed his client to handle some of them.
“This subpoena … encompassed all of Mrs. A’s text message communications during that time, including privileged communications between Ms. A. and her attorney and privileged communication between Ms. A. and her health care providers,” Alexander wrote about one of those subpoenas. He also noted that the other people involved in the case were not given proper notice of the subpoenas. A footnote in Alexander’s order says the original purpose for seeking the records was to assist Ferris’s client with a defense if against any domestic abuse or violence charge were lodged against him.
Alexander said the subpoenas were honored, and Ferris at one point said he had “over 50,000 text messages” between his client’s former wife and the man she later married.
“That U.S. Cellular would voluntarily provide to Ferris and (his client) copes of text messages containing sensitive and privileged material appears extraordinary in light of the ongoing debate about the propriety of government agencies, supported by court orders, reviewing cell phone call logs that do not even include the actual text of messages such as were freely provided in response to the subpoenas here,” Alexander wrote.
Because of that case, two attorneys, Julian Sweet and Sarah Mitchell, filed grievance complaints against Ferris with the Board of Overseers of the Bar, which regulates attorney conduct.
In the divorce case itself, District Judge Charles Dow issued sanctions against Ferris, concluding he violated rules of civil procedure,”generally prohibited Ferris from using any of the wrongfully obtained text messages in the divorce matter,” and ordering him to personally pay $500 to Sweet and $1,000 to Mitchell.
Alexander’s order says that Ferris’s cousin’s ex-wife and her current husband have been embarrassed because they believe others in the Waterville community might have read the contents of those text messages.
He said Ferris was wrong in allowing his client to deal directly with U.S. Cellular and to copy the text messages sent and received by his ex-wife.
“The discipline imposed in this matter must include a plan to identify and remove from Ferris’ and (his client’s) access and control the more than 50,000 text messages that Ferris claimed to have obtained from U.S. Cellular,” Alexander wrote.
Alexander said Ferris violated a rule requiring fairness to opposing parties and counsel and by allowing his client to handle the message when he was prohibited by a court order from contact with his ex-wife.
Ferris cannot return to practice until an attorney for the Board of Overseers of the Bar has certified that the text messages were purged.