The Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR), an agency of the Wisconsin
Supreme Court, provides these summaries. The OLR assists the
court in supervising the practice of law and protecting the public
from misconduct by lawyers. The OLR has offices at 110 E. Main
St., Suite 315, Madison, WI 53703; toll-free (877) 315-6941. Find
the full text of these summaries at www.wicourts.gov/olr.
Disciplinary Proceedings Against Benjamin J. Harris
On April 6, 2021, the Wisconsin Supreme Court suspended the law license of Benjamin J. Harris, Milwaukee, for 60 days, effective May 18, 2021, and ordered him to pay the full $1,616.83 cost of the disciplinary proceeding. Disciplinary Proc. Against Harris, 2021 WI 31.
Harris engaged in misconduct in two client matters.
In the first matter, Harris was hired to defend a client in three lawsuits. Harris’ conduct in two of those lawsuits formed the basis for the misconduct. The client hired Harris to defend him and a company he owned and operated in two small claims lawsuits. By failing to respond to multiple email and text messages from the client requesting information regarding the two cases, Harris violated SCR 20:1.4(a)(4). By failing to file a motion to reopen a default judgment until Feb. 20, 2018, in the first case, and failing to appear for mandatory mediation on April 9, 2018, or failing to confirm that mediation would be rescheduled, resulting in a default judgment in the second case, Harris in each instance violated SCR 20:1.3.
In the second matter, another individual hired Harris to file a lawsuit on his behalf against two former partners who had formed a company to own and operate a tavern in Milwaukee. On Sept. 23, 2013, Harris filed a summons and complaint. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss based on errors or omissions in the complaint. The court gave Harris 30 days to amend the complaint. Harris failed to timely file an amended complaint. The court dismissed the case. Harris later refiled the lawsuit. Harris never deposed any witnesses, and he conducted minimal or no discovery. On Nov. 20, 2017, the case settled on the first day of trial. By failing to timely file an amended complaint and by failing to adequately prepare for trial in the client’s cases, Harris in each instance violated SCR 20:1.3. By failing to keep the client reasonably informed regarding the status of the case, Harris violated SCR 20:1.4(a)(3).
Harris received a private reprimand in 2007, a public reprimand in 2008, a 60-day suspension in 2010, a private reprimand in 2012, a five-month suspension in 2013, and a public reprimand in 2018.
Public Reprimand of James Edgar Toran
The Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR) and James Edgar Toran, Milwaukee, entered into an agreement for imposition of a public reprimand pursuant to SCR 22.09(1). A supreme court-appointed referee thereafter approved the agreement and issued the public reprimand on April 19, 2021, in accordance with SCR 22.09(3).
In 2015, Toran was contacted by parents seeking representation for their son, who in 2009 had pleaded guilty to a felony and had been sentenced to 10 years in prison followed by 10 years’ extended supervision.
The day they contacted Toran, the parents advanced funds to Toran for his representation of their son. Soon thereafter, Toran deposited the funds into his trust account. Toran took a $100 cash withdrawal from the funds, in violation of former SCR 20:1.15(f)(2)a. (effective before July 1, 2016).
Toran made disbursements from his trust account for fees he earned performing work on the son’s behalf but failed to provide proper notice of such disbursements to the parents or the son, in violation of former SCR 20:1.15(g)(1) (effective before July 1, 2016) and current SCR 20:1.5(h)(1).
Approximately 16 months after receiving the advanced funds from the parents, Toran entered into a written fee agreement with the father related to Toran’s representation of the son. By failing to timely enter into a written fee agreement with regard to the representation of the son when the total cost of the representation exceeded $1,000, Toran violated SCR 20:1.5(b)(1) and (2).
Some of the advanced funds paid by the parents were for the purpose of paying costs related to the representation. Toran failed to hold those funds in trust, as evidenced by the balance in his trust account falling below the amount he should have been holding for the costs, in violation of former SCR 20:1.15(b)(4) (effective before July 1, 2016) and current SCR 20:1.5 (f).
Toran never incurred the anticipated costs. Despite not holding sufficient funds belonging to the parents to cover the check, Toran issued a refund to the father, thereby using funds belonging to another client, a third party, or himself to cover the check, in violation of SCR 20:1.15(b)(1).
During the investigation of this matter, Toran was twice asked to provide certain trust account records. Toran failed to produce the records, and the OLR eventually subpoenaed the records. By willfully failing to provide the OLR with trust account records, Toran violated SCR 20:1.15(g)(2) and SCR 22.03(6).
In 1989, Toran’s law license was suspended for six months. He received public reprimands in 1993 and 2012 and a private reprimand in 2007. In 2018, his license was suspended for 60 days.
Public Reprimand of Michael S. Murphy
The OLR and Michael S. Murphy, Janesville, entered into an agreement for imposition of a public reprimand, pursuant to SCR 22.09(1). A supreme court-appointed referee approved the agreement and issued the public reprimand on April 25, 2021, in accordance with SCR 22.09(3).
In late 2017, a defendant facing multiple criminal charges hired Murphy to provide legal representation. The client paid Murphy advanced fees totaling at least $1,500. There was no written fee agreement for Murphy’s representation, nor was the work Murphy was to perform clearly defined in writing.
In March 2018, Murphy provided the judgments of conviction to the client and described his calculations of sentence credits the client received. In one case, the client was sentenced to initial confinement followed by extended supervision. At sentencing, the judge stated, “I am going to find him eligible for the Challenge Incarceration Program, Mandatory Release Program, as well as the Substance Abuse Program, to the extent these are otherwise available to him.” However, in the judgment of conviction, the appropriate box for eligibility to participate in the Substance Abuse Program was not checked.
On June 29, 2018, the client filed a motion seeking sentence credit and an amended judgment of conviction in two cases. On July 23, 2018, Murphy filed a motion on the client’s behalf for sentence credit in three cases. On Aug. 10, 2018, the court amended the judgments of conviction regarding sentence credit in four cases.
During the representation, Murphy failed to respond to the client’s telephone calls and failed to call the prison for scheduled telephone calls. Early in 2019, the client hired new counsel. Shortly thereafter, a stipulation was filed stating “[h]ad the defendant been eligible to participate, the period of initial confinement would have been shortened and defendant likely would have been released several months prior to the date of this stipulation.” On Feb. 1, 2019, the day after successor counsel corrected the error, the client was released from confinement.
By failing to communicate to the client in writing the scope of his representation or the basis or rate of his fee or expenses for which the client would be responsible and by failing to communicate to the client in writing the purpose and effect of the advanced fees that were paid to him, Murphy violated SCR 20:1.5(b)(1) and (2).
By failing to take steps to accurately determine the sentence credit the client was entitled to receive in the cases and by failing to verify the accuracy of the judgment of conviction in a case, Murphy violated SCR 20:1.3. By failing to respond to the client’s telephone calls and failing to call the prison for scheduled telephone calls with the client, Murphy violated SCR 20:1.4(a)(4).
Murphy received a private reprimand in 2015.
Public Reprimand of Jonathan A. Olson
The OLR and Jonathan A. Olson, New Orleans, La., entered into an agreement for the imposition of a public reprimand, pursuant to SCR 22.09(1). A supreme court-appointed referee approved the agreement and issued the public reprimand on April 17, 2021, in accordance with SCR 22.09(3).
A married couple, nearing completion of their Chapter 13 bankruptcy repayment plan, hired Olson, then practicing in Green Bay. Olson understood the couple faced potential foreclosure after the bankruptcy, and he agreed to assist them in negotiating a resolution with their mortgage lender.
Before hiring Olson, the couple’s mortgage lender had filed a motion for relief from automatic stay and abandonment in the bankruptcy, alleging that mortgage payments had not been received as required by the plan’s terms.
The court granted the mortgage lender’s motion. The couple was discharged, and the bankruptcy closed. Counsel agreed that their clients could address alleged missing mortgage payments in state court. Olson asserted his representation in the bankruptcy ended at that time and he was unable to obtain an accounting from the mortgage lender. By failing to provide notice to the couple of the termination of his representation, and his inability up to that point to obtain an accounting from their mortgage lender, Olson violated SCR 20:1.16(d).
Approximately two years later, the mortgage lender filed a foreclosure action against the couple, who again hired Olson for representation. The mortgage lender filed a motion for summary judgment. Olson did not file a response on behalf of the couple or attend the oral arguments. The court thereafter granted the motion and entered a judgment.
By failing to inform the couple of the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, Olson violated SCR 20:1.4(a)(3). Without consulting with the couple, by electing not to file a response to the plaintiff’s summary judgment motion or make argument at the hearing on the motion, Olson violated SCR 20:1.4(a)(2).
Olson violated SCR 20:1.4(a)(3) and (b) by failing to inform the couple of the foreclosure judgment and failing to explain to the couple that even with an adverse foreclosure judgment there was a period during which they could redeem their property.
Six months after the foreclosure judgement was entered, and without notifying the clients, Olson closed his Green Bay law office and moved to New Orleans. The couple paid an amount to redeem their property before the sheriff’s sale. The court vacated the judgment and dismissed the foreclosure action, with prejudice. Olson also failed to timely return all portions of the couple’s client file, in violation of SCR 20:1.16(d).
In 1998, Olson’s license was suspended for one year for violating SCR 20:8.4(b) and (c).
Public Reprimand of Leah Poulos Mueller
The OLR and Leah Poulos Mueller, New Berlin, entered into an agreement for imposition of a public reprimand pursuant to SCR 22.09. A supreme court-appointed referee approved the agreement and issued the public reprimand on May 19, 2021.
The reprimand was based on Mueller’s misconduct in two matters. In the first matter, Mueller represented a client over many years regarding the client’s claim that the majority shareholders of a company in which he was a minority shareholder defrauded him. The client’s first lawsuit, which included both individual and derivative claims, was dismissed on summary judgment. The client’s individual claim was dismissed with prejudice and not appealed but the resolution of the derivative claims left open the possibility that a derivative action could be brought if there were sufficient votes from the minority shareholders.
Over the ensuing years, the client brought repeated, overlapping federal and state lawsuits alleging both individual and derivative claims. The client initiated some suits on his own, with Mueller later entering as counsel; in others, Mueller initiated suit on the client’s behalf. The client’s repeat individual claims were deemed frivolous on the basis of claim preclusion. By representing the client in lawsuits she should have known were barred by claim preclusion, Mueller violated SCR 20:3.1(a)(1). By filing a duplicate derivative lawsuit that named the defendants’ attorneys as additional defendants, Mueller violated SCR 20:3.1(a)(3). Mueller on several occasions failed to comply with court rules, violating SCR 20:3.4(c).
In the second matter, Mueller was also found to have engaged in frivolous litigation. Mueller represented a divorced woman in a lawsuit alleging that the woman’s ex-husband had caused her injury by filing a postjudgment contempt motion instead of adhering to the collaborative law process the couple had agreed to at the outset of the divorce. Mueller violated SCR 20:3.1(a)(1) by pursuing the lawsuit. Mueller filed motions that were not supported by the facts and that contained erroneous statements about the judge, in violation of SCR 20:3.3(a)(1),
the Attorney’s Oath enforced via SCR 20:8.4(g), and SCR 20:8.2(a). Finally, Mueller submitted a proposed order that she knew was inaccurate, violating SCR 20:8.4(c).
Mueller had no prior discipline.
Reinstatement of Christopher A. Mutschler
On May 25, 2021, the supreme court reinstated the law license of Christopher A. Mutschler and ordered him to pay the full $9,028.76 cost of the reinstatement proceeding. Reinstatement Proc. of Mutschler, 2021 WI 47.
Mutschler was admitted to practice law in Wisconsin in 1991. In 2011, the court granted Mutschler’s petition for consensual license revocation and ordered him to pay restitution totaling $246,723. Disciplinary Proc. Against Mutschler, 2011 WI 74.
At the time of his revocation, there were 59 grievances pending against Mutschler. In almost all the cases, Mutschler had obtained payment of an advanced fee to represent a client in a traffic, operating while intoxicated, or criminal case. Mutschler would frequently advise the client to enter a no-contest plea and promised that he would win the case on appeal.
In some cases, Mutschler never notified the client of the scheduled hearing on the pending charge or citation, so the client would fail to appear. Sometimes Mutschler himself would fail to appear at scheduled hearings and a default judgment was entered against the client. In other cases, the client would enter a guilty or no-contest plea, and Mutschler would either fail to file an appeal or would fail to prosecute the appeal properly, which would lead to the appeal being dismissed.
Mutschler filed his first petition for reinstatement in 2017. The OLR opposed the petition. The referee ultimately recommended that the court deny Mutschler’s petition for reinstatement because of Mutschler’s failure to have paid restitution or to have established a plan to do so. Mutschler appealed. The court affirmed the referee’s determination. Reinstatement Proc. of Mutschler, 2019 WI 92.
On July 17, 2020, Mutschler filed a second petition for reinstatement. The OLR opposed the second petition. By the time of the reinstatement hearing, Mutschler had paid restitution of $3,200 to the Wisconsin Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection. On March 9, 2021, the referee issued his report recommending the court grant Mutschler’s petition for reinstatement. The OLR did not appeal.
The court granted reinstatement, stating, “Since his first reinstatement petition was denied, Attorney Mutschler has made valiant efforts to begin paying restitution, and although his meager income and other financial obligations, including child support, have not allowed him to make much of a dent in the amount owed, he has made a start, and it appears he has done the best he could under the circumstances.” The court further determined “reinstatement of Attorney Mutschler’s license will give him the capacity to whittle down his restitution obligations in a way that would never be possible if he were precluded from resuming his profession as an attorney.”