JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) – An attorney will not be disbarred for misappropriating client’s fund during a manic bipolar episode that lasted for four years, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision.
Mark Belz was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1975 and had been on medication since 1981, until a doctor discontinued it because he felt Belz no longer needed it, the judges found. Belz then went on a four-year manic episode, which caused him to withdraw funds from a client’s trust account to pay his mortgage and law firm’s bills.
The court majority found that disbarment was not appropriate, given Belz’s illness, his self-reporting of the incidents, his extensive recordkeeping of the withdrawals, his voluntary repayment of the money, and the fact that his clients chose to remain with him after learning of his actions. The majority found an indefinite suspension of his license with no leave to apply for reinstatement for 3 years was a more suitable punishment. Belz sought a stayed suspension.
“Our profession relies intrinsically on the trust that clients are willing to place in their lawyers, and few acts of misconduct have the capacity to erode that trust more quickly and thoroughly than the conversion of a client’s funds to one’s own use,” Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith wrote for the majority. “Even when such conduct is recorded properly and undertaken in a manic state, as it was here, this Court condemns this conduct in the strongest possible terms. Mr. Belz acted with a dishonest and selfish motive in taking his clients’ funds, he did so multiple times, and he had substantial experience with the law. A stayed suspension is simply not appropriate for this type of misconduct.”
Three judges disagreed and voted for disbarment. In the minority opinion, Judge Michael A. Wolff wrote that stealing is stealing.
“If there are certain immutable rules, then surely this is one: Lawyers may not steal from their clients,” Wolff wrote. “Not even borrowing without permission with the intention of repaying – it is still stealing. A license to practice law is not a license to steal. We should not give cynics, who may believe otherwise, any support for their wrong-headed view – regardless of mitigating circumstances. There are in fact no mitigating circumstances: no medical or psychiatric excuse mitigates this behavior. Lawyers must be held to this standard of honesty despite their individual circumstances.”
(For definitive presentations of bipolar illness, see Kay Redfield Jamison’s autobiography, “An Unquiet Mind,” and her “Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.” Jamison, a psychiatrist, is also co-author of the standard reference work, “Manic Depressive Illness.”)