A Wichita attorney was disciplined by the Kansas Supreme Court on Friday for the way he handled his clients’ case in a fatal hit-and-run case in Ellis County.
The court ordered Michael J. Studtmann to be disciplined by a published censure, to revise the proposed engagement letter he gives clients and to fully cooperate with a disciplinary administrator’s audit of his trust account for scope of representation, fees, conflict of interest, accepting compensation for representation of a client from a third-party without the party’s consent and termination of representation.
In July of 2015, a man and woman became potential suspects in a fatal hit-and-run case in Ellis County. The sheriff’s office in that county contacted the man, identified as “T.C.” in the court documents, to ask him about his truck, which matched the description of the newer-model Dodge Ram that had hit a pedestrian and fled the scene.
Investigators eventually contacted T.C.’s girlfriend, identified in court documents as “H.S.,” who told investigators she had been driving his truck when it hit the pedestrian. Before she was arrested, she called her boyfriend to tell him she was being arrested.
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That’s when T.C. called Studtmann. He was working out of town and wanted an attorney in case he was arrested when he got back to his home in Hays.
Studtmann agreed to represent both T.C. and H.S., without discussing with T.C. the potential for conflict of interest presented by being the attorney for both of them, according to court documents. He told others he had agreed to represent T.C. in a limited scope, but did not obtain T.C.’s written permission to limit the scope of his representation.
Studtmann charged a $10,000 retainer fee to represent H.S. while she was in jail, which he accepted from one of H.S.’s parents. Half of that money came from T.C.. Studtmann did not get H.S.’s informed consent to accept compensation from a third party for her representation, court documents show.
One of the woman’s parents said it became apparent that Studtmann was “focusing on the idea that T.C. may have been to blame for the situation and that H.S. was covering for him,” court documents show.
After less than a week, both T.C. and H.S. had hired different attorneys and were no longer represented by Studtmann. When they tried to recover unearned costs from the $10,000 retainer, he failed to return that money in a timely fashion, a hearing panel that investigated his conduct concluded.
The panel concluded, based on American Bar Association standards, that Studtmann knowingly violated his duty to his client to refrain from engaging in conflicts of interest and to charge reasonable fees. It also found his conduct caused potential injury to his clients and the legal system.
The panel found aggravating factors in Studtmann’s conduct, including prior disciplinary offenses, acting selfishly, multiple offenses and submission of “deceptive, inconsistent and misleading” testimony.
Based on Studtmann’s behavior, a disciplinary administrator of the panel recommended suspending his law license for 90 days. The Kansas Supreme Court chose not to follow that recommendation.