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State ex rel. Oklahoma Bar Association v. Hastings

Supreme Court of Oklahoma

May 16, 2017

STATE OF OKLAHOMA, ex rel. OKLAHOMA BAR ASSOCIATION, Complainant,
v.
JOHN CHRISTOPHER HASTINGS, Respondent.

         ORIGINAL PROCEEDING FOR ATTORNEY DISCIPLINE PURSUANT TO RULES 7.1 AND 7.2, RULES GOVERNING DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDINGS

         ¶0 John Christopher Hastings, ("Respondent") entered a plea of "No Contest" on a misdemeanor charge of pointing a firearm. He received a 2 year deferred sentence to be supervised by the District Attorney's office and to include a Drug/Alcohol assessment. A disciplinary action was commenced by the Oklahoma Bar Association ("OBA") against Respondent. The panel issued a report recommending Hastings' license to practice law be suspended for a period of two years and one day. After reviewing the evidence and considering all mitigation factors we determine Respondent's license should be suspended for a period of two years.

         RESPONDENT IS SUSPENDED FROM THE PRACTICE OF LAW FOR TWO YEARS; ORDERED TO PAY COSTS;

         ORDERED TO COMPLETE CONTINUING LEGAL EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS

          Stephen L. Sullins, Assistant General Counsel, Oklahoma Bar Association, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Complainant,

          Respondent, John Christopher Hastings, Tulsa, Oklahoma, appearing pro se.

          OPINION

          WATT, J.

         ¶1 On April 1, 2015, the OBA initiated this summary disciplinary proceeding against Respondent, pursuant to Rules 7.1 [1] and 7.2 [2] of the Rules Governing Disciplinary Proceedings ("RGDP").

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2 On December 30, 2014, the police responded to a call at Respondent's residence after he pointed a gun at his ex-wife and threatened her life. Respondent's adult daughter and two adult sons also lived in his home. Earlier that day, at the request of his daughter, Respondent contacted his ex-wife to come and pick up their daughter from his home. The daughter was recovering from a medical procedure and wanted her mother to take care of her for a few days.

         ¶3 Respondent's twenty-seven year marriage to his ex-wife ended six months before this incident. [3] Prior to the divorce, there were years of prolonged domestic violence by the ex-wife against the Respondent. The ex-wife made an attempt on his life with a butcher knife in addition to other forms of abuse that included plots to end his life. [4] Although during the divorce process there were multiple allegations of violence by both parties, the only permanent protective order that was entered was against the ex-wife to protect Respondent. [5] This protective order was entered on February 8, 2012, for a three year period, until 2015. [6] Thus, this protective order would have been in effect on December 30, 2014, the day the ex-wife was inside of Respondent's home.

         ¶4 Respondent had been on an alcohol drinking binge that day and he was agitated and hostile by the time his ex-wife was inside of his home. The record is not clear how the ex-wife gained access inside of Respondent's home. [7] It is likewise unclear how this matter escalated between the parties. The record simply reflects that at some point, Respondent pointed a gun at his ex-wife and made threatening statements. [8]

         ¶5 The ex-wife and 3 adult children exited Respondent's home unharmed before the police arrived. A police officer went to Respondent's front door and asked him to come outside. He was uncooperative and resistive to multiple requests by the police, and he refused to come out. The Special Operation Team ("SOT") of the police force was eventually called in and they took over negotiations. There was a stand-off for several hours and the SOT eventually had to use tear gas to force Respondent out of his home. Respondent had slurred speech, a heavy odor of alcohol and was unsteady on his feet when he exited the house. [9] This incident was covered by local television stations and local newspapers.

         ¶6 Respondent was arrested on the night of the incident and he was initially charged with two separate felony counts: (1) pointing a firearm; and (2) resisting an officer. On April 10, 2015, Respondent entered into a plea agreement the terms of which included the dismissal of both felony counts. [10] In exchange, Respondent agreed to plea of "no contest" to a charge of misdemeanor of pointing a firearm and agreed to a drug and alcohol assessment with a two (2) year deferred sentence, set for hearing on April 6, 2017. [11] Respondent appeared for this hearing as ordered on April 6, 2017. The district court withdrew Respondent's previous guilty plea to the misdemeanor charge, dismissed the charge and granted an expungement. [12]

         ¶7 Respondent testified that shortly after this incident, he was hospitalized for approximately one month with serious medical issues unrelated to the events of this night. [13] He stopped drinking alcohol sometime in January, 2015. Respondent also began attending Alcoholics Anonymous ("AA") and he considers his official sobriety date in February, 2015. Since that time, he has been actively involved in substance abuse recovery. These efforts include professional treatment, becoming active with AA by attending multiple meetings each week and having frequent communication with his sponsor. Random drug and alcohol screens have all been negative. All evidence presented reflects Respondent has been compliant with his substance abuse recovery efforts. He completed the drug and alcohol assessment as ordered by the criminal court. At the request of the OBA, he was evaluated by a psychologist it selected. Respondent has followed all additional recommendations of this OBA expert.

         ¶8 At the time of this incident, Respondent was suffering from alcohol and opiate addictions, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") related in part from abuse in the marriage. The OBA expert testified the documentation she reviewed reflected there was tremendous abuse by the ex-wife that went on for some period of time during their marriage. [14] In her opinion, this deteriorating marital relationship contributed to Respondent's downward spiral. Before his marriage failed, Respondent had been sober for twenty-eight (28) years. [15]

         ¶9 In addition to substance abuse and PTSD, Respondent was diagnosed as having other mental health issues. He received follow up and treatment for all diagnosed conditions. The OBA expert testified that Respondent is considered to be in full remission with respect to his alcohol and opiate addictions and stable in all respects. [16] Another expert also testified that Respondent's prognosis is excellent with regard to his substance abuse recovery. The OBA expert and Respondent's treating provider both concluded that he is fit to practice law.

         ¶10 Respondent has expressed genuine regret and remorse over his actions of December 30, 2014 and its impact and disgrace to the legal profession. The record reflects that since the events of that day, Respondent has sought out treatment and demonstrated a commitment to recovery. Random drug and alcohol random tests have all been negative. There have been no other allegations raised against Respondent since this isolated incident.

         ¶11 After the resolution of the criminal matter, in April, 2015, the ex-wife again filed an application seeking a protective order against Respondent. The court dismissed her application. In that same month, Respondent filed for another protective order alleging the ex-wife was again harassing him and threatening harm. [17] On May 7, 2015, Respondent's application was granted by the same judge that denied the ex-wife's application. The protective order issued was for a term of five years and the judge ordered the ex-wife was to remain 100 yards from Respondent at all times. [18] By contrast, the initial protective order was granted against the ex-wife for a term of 3 years, expiring February, 2015.

         ¶12 During the hearing before the Professional Responsibility Tribunal ("PRT"), Respondent admitted he had a gun on the day in question. In fact, Respondent testified that he always had a gun nearby because of his fear about what his ex-wife had done to him. [19] On the day of the incident, Respondent had a gun inside of a pocket in his pajama pants. [20] He initially denied committing the act set forth in the criminal matter and attempted to explain why he entered the plea. However, with repeated questioning, he admitted that if his son said that Respondent pointed the gun at his ex-wife, he believes his son was telling the truth about the events. Respondent admitted that he was intoxicated and that he did not have full recall of the events from that day. He eventually admitted at the hearing that he did have the gun and that he pointed it at his ex-wife making a threatening statement.

         ¶13 In December, 2014, Respondent had a law firm with a staff of approximately 12 people. He described his law practice as "shaky" and he wanted to quit before this incident. [21] His practice was operational, but after this incident was reported in the newspapers, his clients requested all of their client files be transferred. [22] While he was in the hospital, his staff prepared the necessary paperwork to formally transfer the files to another attorney. He believes all case files were closed by early February, 2015. He had no open legal cases in April, 2015. The evidence reflects that Respondent has not practiced law during the period of his suspension. In fact, he ceased the practice of law more than two months prior to his interim suspension.

         ¶14 On April 16, 2015, the OBA filed a Notice and Transmittal of Criminal Record Relating to Plea of Guilty as a result of Respondent's plea. On April 27, 2015, this Court entered its order of immediate interim suspension. A hearing before the PRT was held on August 20, 2015 and August 10, 2016. After considering all of the testimony and exhibits, the PRT issued a report determining Respondent's conduct constituted a violation of RGDP 7.1 and 7.2. The PRT recommended that he be suspended for a period of two years and one day. [23]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶15 This Court has exclusive original jurisdiction in bar disciplinary matters to exercise its constitutional, non-delegable power to regulate the practice of law and ethics. State ex rel. Okla. Bar Ass'n v. Passmore, 2011 OK 90, 264 P.3d 1238, (hereinafter " Passmore"); State ex rel. Okla. Bar Ass'n v. Whitebook, 2010 OK 72. Protection of the public and purification of the Bar are the primary purposes of disciplinary proceedings rather than to punish the accused lawyer. State ex rel. Okla. Bar Ass'n v. Givens, 2014 OK 103, 343 P.3d 214, (herinafter, "Givens"). This Court will conduct a de novo review of the record and decide whether misconduct has occurred and the appropriate discipline. Passmore, 2011 OK 90, ¶15, 264 P.3d at 1243. We are not bound by the PRT's findings of fact, analysis of the evidence, view of the credibility of witnesses, or its recommendation of discipline. Id.

         ¶16 The record must be sufficient for this Court to conduct an inquiry into the essential facts. Givens, 2014 OK 103, ¶ 9, 343 P.3d at 217. On April 16, 2015, the OBA filed certified copies of the criminal information, plea of "no contest" to a misdemeanor, pointing a firearm, and the deferred sentence. Pursuant to Rule 7.2 RGDP, the judgment and sentence constitute conclusive evidence of the commission of the crime upon which the judgment and sentence was based and shall be the basis for discipline. The record consists of these certified copies, the briefs of the parties, attached exhibits and transcripts of proceedings held by the PRT. We find there is a sufficient record for our de novo review.

         ANALYSIS

         ¶17 In a summary disciplinary proceeding we address two issues: 1) whether the criminal conviction demonstrates the lawyer's unfitness to practice law, and if so, 2) determine the appropriate discipline to be imposed. Givens, 2014 OK 103, ¶10, 343 P.3d at 217.

         ¶18 We begin with examining Respondent's criminal conduct to determine if it reflects his unfitness to practice law. Respondent pointed a gun at his ex-wife and threatened her life when she was inside of his home. He pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of pointing a firearm. The Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct ("ORPC"), 5 O.S. 2011, ch. 1, app. 3-A, provide guidance at Rule 8.4 (b) which defines professional misconduct as follows:

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:
(b) commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a ...

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