The Missouri Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel is trying to get a Lebanon attorney’s license suspended pending the outcome of an investigation into allegations of “serious professional misconduct,” including defrauding clients.
Local attorney Meagan Howe, who has law offices in Lebanon and Camdenton, has been accused by the Chief Disciplinary Counsel of engaging in “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation,” “failed to “appropriately protect client funds,” “failed to adequately communicate with clients, “charged unreasonable fees,” “knowingly engaged in a conflict of interest,” “knowingly lied to a tribunal,” “failed to protect a clients’ interests upon the termination of representation,” failed to cooperate with (the Chief Disciplinary Counsel” and “is suffering from alcohol addiction which affects her ability to practice,” according to court documents filed with the Missouri Supreme Court.
The counsel argues that the interim suspension is “needed to protect the public” because Howe has allegedly “misappropriated client funds” and defrauded clients.
“If (Howe) can practice while client complaints work through the disciplinary hearing process, (Howe) will continue to have access to client funds,” the court filing says. “…This is especially troubling given her current poor financial condition which increases the risk she will continue to misappropriate funds and/or fail to adequately protect client funds or tax returns.”
The court document goes on to argue that if allowed to continue to practice law, Howe could “seriously neglect other client matters.” They allege that it “creates a substantial threat of irreparable harm to the public.”
Howe, who is represented by Downey Law Group of St. Louis, submitted a rebuttal, saying that she objects to the suspension and denying the allegations against her. Along with saying that she “obtained favorable outcomes” for three of the clients who had made complaints against her, the document argues that Howe “has dealt with issues of being a parent and working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to Ms. Howe being, in some aspects, less organized than she otherwise would have been.”
The document also asserts that Howe is not an alcoholic, having taken an assessment with the Missouri Bar’s Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program that showed that she did not have a drinking problem.
The document also points out some mental health issues that Howe had been recently diagnosed with, including generalized anxiety disorder and post traumatic stress disorder. The document also lists that she takes medication for depression, anxiety and ADHD.
The 39-page court document filed by the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel details complaints from several clients, as well as complaints from past employees and an audit of Howe’s trust and operating accounts.
In one case, Howe was hired to represent a man facing drug distribution charges. The man’s wife and his family members paid Howe $14,000 to work on the case. Howe said it would cost $25,000. At one point, Howe allegedly asked the wife to file paperwork for a business.
She allegedly wanted the wife to apply for a $20,000 small business loan based on the nonexistent business in order to pay her. Howe allegedly drove the woman to the bank to fill out the paperwork for the loan, but the woman later called the bank to withdraw her request for a loan, according to the court documents.
Howe has denied this allegation.
In another case, a man came to Howe for help with a tax issue. He owed $69,000 in back taxes, fines and interest and was seeking legal help in negotiating a lower settlement. He also hired her to complete future tax returns and employer withholdings. After paying Howe to help in the matter, the man claims in his complaint that he learned that the IRS had levied $2,500 against his business bank account and credit card, and the Department of Revenue had placed a lien against him, according to the court documents.
The client also learned that he had been underpaying his employer withholding taxes and had not filed a 2019 withholding tax return. The client was told that Howe would set up a meeting with the Department of Revenue to clear up the issues. The Chief Disciplinary Counsel says Howe didn’t take any action, which cost her client several thousands of dollars in fees. The client also learned that Howe had allegedly filed his employer tax withholding returns under her own firm’s tax ID, according to the court documents.
In her response, Howe claims that her client knew about the possibility of future liens and levies on his account and they had to do with a previous year’s taxes. She also admitted that she had entered the client’s tax ID on her forms but blamed it on the numbers being similar and her computer’s auto-fill causing the issue. She says she later filed amendments to fix the error.
In a child custody case, the client alleges that Howe emailed her an hour before court and insisted that she enroll her son in a football camp although he’d never attended camp in the past. At the hearing, Howe allegedly told the court that her client’s son could not go on a trip to Florida with his father because he needed to attend football camp and was afraid of his father. A guardian ad litem said that the son was not afraid of his father, according to the court documents.
In her answer to the complaints filed against her, Howe said that her client had told her she didn’t want her son to miss the camp. She claims she emailed the client about the football camp because she thought it would be helpful because “her son had just moved to town and played football.”
The court documents also include allegations from past employees who say they had money deducted for benefits like 401K, health insurance and life insurance, but Howe did not pay those premiums.
An audit of Howe’s accounts allegedly showed that Howe had taken money out of a client trust account and put it in her operating account. She also allegedly made rent and credit card payments from the trust account. In her response, Howe claimed that she had accidentally picked up the wrong check book on the rent payment and that the credit card payment was to reimburse expenses she made for clients with the card.
The audit also called Howe’s financial condition as “poor.” It showed that she had overdrawn her operating account three times while making payroll, once when paying rent and once when making a loan payment. She also allegedly obtained seven loans, totaling $39,718 in a three month period, according to the court records.