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Northern Wisconsin lawyer loses license for taking nearly $150,000 from clients

A northern Wisconsin lawyer lost his law license for taking nearly $150,000 from his clients, in what appears to be the final chapter in his lengthy disciplinary history.

In June 2019, the OLR filed a disciplinary complaint against Attorney James Runyon of Minoqua alleging 23 counts of misconduct in four client matters.

In the first, two brothers hired Runyon to sell real estate held by a trust of their late mother. The property sold in 2017, and a title company sent Runyon a check for $135,785.42 payable to the trust. The complaint said Runyon emptied the fund for his own benefit over the next six months, until just $48.35 of the money remained.

Around the same time, Runyon mailed his clients a brochure from the Wisconsin Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection and a copy of the check from the real estate sale — in what the OLR said was evidence that the brothers could try to recover their money from the fund.

The OLR also accused Runyon of taking nearly $13,500 from three other clients, including a client he took on in 2018 as he was closing his practice.

Lack of responses in OLR proceeding

The opinion said Runyon failed to respond to the OLR’s complaint with the 23 counts of misconduct, so the OLR filed a notice of motion and motion for default judgment. Runyon again didn’t respond, and the OLR renewed its motion.

The referee in the case, Michael Tobin, notified Runyon and the OLR of a scheduling conference and hearing on the default motion scheduled for April 2020. But Runyon never appeared, the opinion said.

Tobin recommended the Wisconsin Supreme Court grant the OLR’s motion for default judgment, revoke Runyon’s law license and order him to pay restitution.

In an opinion released on Wednesday, the state Supreme Court agreed with the recommendations, saying the OLR is entitled to default judgment because Runyon never answered the complaint.

“The facts detailed in the complaint demonstrate a clear pattern of misconduct by Attorney Runyon and disregard for his obligations as an attorney in this state,” the opinion said. “He converted thousands of dollars he had obtained from the clients or their relatives for his own use and failed to respond to the numerous grievances filed by his clients.”

Runyon’s restitution costs $149,233.31 in total. He must also pay $1,080.34 in the costs of the OLR proceeding.

The phone number Runyon lists with the State Bar of Wisconsin is no longer in service, and he could not be reached for comment.

History of misconduct

Runyon was admitted to practice law in Wisconsin in 1978. He was suspended for a year in 1984 for hiding fees from his law partners and keeping the money for himself. The opinion said he also gave false testimony at a proceeding over the withholding of those funds.

In 2006, the court privately reprimanded Runyon for additional dishonest conduct, and Runyon was again accused of hiding and taking fees without the knowledge of his co-counsel in a products-liability case.

In 2015, Runyon received a 60-day law license suspension for several trust-account violations, and he received a public reprimand in 2017 for failing to properly communicate with two clients on several matters.

Runyon signed a power of attorney in 2018 appointing an attorney-in-fact to help him close his practice and filed an amended petition asking the state Supreme Court to suspend his license immediately and indefinitely due to an unexplained medical incapacity.

The court temporarily suspended his license a month later because he wasn’t cooperating with the OLR investigation and denied his medical incapacity petition as premature. With Wednesday’s decision, the state Supreme Court dismissed his petition for license suspension as moot.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley did not participate in the ruling.


About Michaela Paukner, mpaukner@wislawjournal.com

Michaela Paukner is the legal reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal. She can be reached at (414) 225-1825 or by email at mpaukner@wislawjournal.com.

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