Suspended lawyer loses case

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Jimmy Clouette, a longtime Little Rock attorney, has accepted a sentence of five years of probation for methamphetamine possession and will have to surrender his law license.

When Bonnie Grace Kennedy hired an attorney in late August 2014, she had no way of knowing that 21 months later she would be sitting — alone — at plaintiff’s counsel table in Courtroom Eight of the Chester County Justice Center representing herself before a Common Pleas Court judge.

“Take a deep breath,” Judge Jeffrey Sommer advised her in a calm voice. “Try to be comfortable.”

“I don’t think that any of this is comfortable,” Kennedy told the judge at the hearing last Friday.

Kennedy, 45, of South Coventry, was in court to attempt to recover funds she had paid to attorney Joshua Janis in 2014 to handle a custody dispute with her ex-husband concerning her two children. Despite agreeing to handle her case for $5,000 and accepting $2,500 in cash that Kennedy had withdrawn from her IRA to pay him, Janis did little, if any, work on her behalf, according to her and court records. She is still waiting for the custody dispute to be resolved.

Instead, he told her repeatedly that various hearings were scheduled in her case before Family Court masters, only to later tell her that they had been postponed, or that she had the wrong date.

In an order issued in December by the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board, the agency which oversees attorneys and their ethical conduct in the state, the board wrote that what Janis had told her was false, and that he knew it was false because he had never filed anything in court on her behalf until she had already begun proceedings against him.

At the conclusion of the brief hearing on her suit to get Janis to return the money she had paid to retain him, Sommer granted Kennedy $2,500 plus 7 per cent annual interest, for a total of $2,675, plus court costs. (Kennedy had initially requested that the interest, which Janis had agreed to pay in a mediation through the county Bar Association, be compounded daily, for a total of $66,000. Sommer denied that.)

Janis did not appear at the hearing, scheduled for an arbitration panel for Friday. At the last minute on Thursday he had asked that the case, first scheduled earlier this year, be continued. That request was denied by Judge Edward Griffith. Janis could not be reached for comment.

“It has been over the top frustrating from the beginning,” Kennedy said of her experience with Janis. “It is disgusting.

“You expect that you can trust these people with the most important things in your life,” Kennedy, who appeared at the hearing with her boyfriend, Mario D’Orsaneo. (Also attending was an investigator from the Chester County Detective’s Office.) “I am just glad to have someone hear this today and have it be over.”

Kennedy was one of five former clients named in the Disciplinary Board’s case against Janis when it ordered that he be suspended from practicing law in the state for five years. The board found that he took money from clients and promised to help with their custody cases, divorce proceedings, and summary citation appeals but actually did little if any work on those matters.

Janis, who had offices in West Chester, Malvern, and Downingtown, agreed to surrender his law license beginning Dec. 25.

The ruling suspending his license came after several formal complaints were lodged against him, including one by his former law firm, the Ciccarelli Law Offices in West Chester. The main partner there, Lee Ciccarelli, accused him of taking money from clients in family law cases and not telling him or others in the firm.

Confronted by Ciccarelli in August 2013 about the money he had taken improperly, Janis allegedly acknowledged that he “was messing up at work,” and agreed to repay the funds. But he failed to do so.

The decision identified five separate clients who had hired Janis thinking he would help with their legal problems but later found out he did not actually file anything on their behalf, despite his assurances that their cases were moving along. From the narrative, Janis seemed busier trying to dodge his clients and their requests for information, making up stories about the progress of their cases, or misleading a Common Pleas Court judge about the status of one case, than actually working on the legal matters.

He was found to have violated 17 separate sections of the state Rules of Professional Conduct, including not providing competent representation, failing to consult with clients in case settlements, making false statements to clients, and mishandling client funds.

Speaking with a reporter at the end of her hearing Friday, Kennedy gave essentially the same recitation of events that she told investigators from the Disciplinary Board.

She had gone to Janis after researching his practice online in August 2014 to help with her custody dispute. He quoted her a fee of $5,000, and agreed to accept half in advance. But he did not provided her then, or until several months later, with a written fee agreement, standard in most civil cases.

He first told Kennedy that she had a hearing in court on the case on Nov. 22, 2014. When she questioned this, saying that date was a Saturday, he switched stories and said it was set for Nov. 21. “Won’t this be a great gift for the holidays?” she remembers him saying.

But he later called to tell her the matter had been continued by the master because of an emergency. He gave her a new date, Dec. 22. When she ran into him outside the Justice Center that day, he said he was surprised to see her because the hearing was for the following day.

On Dec. 23, he called and told her he had reached an agreement with her ex-husband’s attorney. But she had never given him any permission to make a settlement, and never got any documents from him about what the “agreement” was. The board found that the statement was false, and that Janis knew it was false.

Over the next few months, Kennedy tried to get more information from Janis about her case and was put off. Eventually, she went to a mediation over her fee at the Bar Association. On May 18, Janis signed a one-page legal agreement to pay her $1,250 by May 20.

“Did he do that?” Sommer asked Kennedy in the hearing.

“No,” she said.

The agreement stipulated that he would pay her $2,500 plus interest beginning May 21, 2015.

“Did he ever do that?” Sommer again asked.

“No,” she said.

Sommer’s order makes it difficult for Janis to appeal, which he could have done if the case had been heard by an arbitration panel. But it also does not guarantee that Janis will pay the judgment.


Original article can be viewed at Daily Local News.