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Court split on 6-month suspension for Milwaukee-area attorney

Court split on 6-month suspension for Milwaukee-area attorney

A Milwaukee-area attorney’s misconduct case turned on Wednesday into an argument about mandatory minimums for lawyer misconduct. The Wisconsin Supreme Court was split on the appropriate punishment for Robert Moodie, a former senior partner at Hippenmeyer, Reilly, Moodie & Blum in Waukesha.

On Wednesday, the majority ordered a six-month law license suspension for Attorney Robert Moodie, who was admitted to practice law in 1982. The Office of Lawyer Regulation accused Moodie of violating two attorney-ethics rules when he was a senior partner at his former firm.

While Moodie was in the hospital for a heart attack in 2016, his colleagues discovered he had collected money from clients and deposited it into his personal bank account. The OLR estimated he converted at least $8,665 worth of fees.

Court documents said Moodie would have received 50% to 60% of the fees under the terms of the firm’s compensation system, had he not converted them. At his hearing, Moodie didn’t know how to explain his actions, other than saying they were “just wrong and dumb.”

Moodie stipulated to the two counts of misconduct, but he reserved his right to be heard on the matter of sanctions.

The referee in the case recommended a six-month suspension, but Moodie argued that was excessive. Moodie said he’d have to go through the reinstatement process if he lost his license for six months, which he called an “effective suspension” of two years that “may well be the equivalent of revocation” given his age and health.

The majority agreed with the recommended six-month suspension, finding it fit within case law for similar instances of misappropriation. The justices said Moodie’s inability to explain his behavior also favored a longer suspension.

“We decline to establish a precedent whereby the lack of a rational explanation for a lawyer’s misconduct serves to mitigate the sanction owed for it,” the majority wrote. “A shrug of the shoulders is not a defense.”

The majority decided not to impose a condition of reinstatement that would have required Moodie to practice as a sole proprietor or as an employee, rather than a partner or shareholder, at a law firm for three years following reinstatement.

Moodie also must pay the full costs of the proceeding, which totaled $6,081.63 as of January. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Chief Justice Pat Roggensack and Justice Annette Ziegler dissented, saying the majority defaulted to a mandatory minimum set in another case based on other facts.

“When this court ties its own hands by instead of providing individualized consideration for a disciplinary matter, setting a mandatory minimum six-month suspension (which amounts to far more, perhaps four times that length), the court abdicates its responsibility,” Ziegler wrote.

The dissent agreed that the six-month suspension could turn into two years for Moodie, which they viewed as excessive. Ziegler said Moodie was not a threat to clients or the legal profession, as his practice will be limited because of his health.

Ziegler said she would have suspended his license for five months and 28 days, “which is really six months.”

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley did not participate.

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