In the Matter of the Disciplinary Proceeding Against Matthew Franklin Pfefer, an Attorney at Law
Argued January 22, 2015
Matthew F. Pfefer, pro se.
M. Craig Bray, for the bar association.
AUTHOR: Justice Charles W. Johnson. WE CONCUR: Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen, Justice Susan Owens, Justice Mary E. Fairhurst, Justice Debra L. Stephens, Justice Charles K. Wiggings, Justice Steven C. González, Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, Justice Mary I. Yu.
[182 Wn.2d 720] ¶ 1 This is a disciplinary proceeding against attorney Matthew Franklin Pfefer, admitted to practice in 2001. Pfefer was hired to represent his client in her personal injury suit. Delay and a lack of diligence characterized his representation. He delayed filing his client's suit until only a few days before the statute of limitations expired. He did not perform discovery. He did not prepare potential witnesses for testimony. He did not comply with court deadlines. He did not tell his client that her case had been dismissed because of his failure to comply with those court deadlines. He did not tell his client that opposing counsel made a settlement offer. He did not give his client notice of his withdrawal, which he made effective immediately. In short, he did nothing to meet his basic responsibility to protect his client's interest, with the result that a viable settlement offer lapsed and her claim is now barred by the statute of limitations.
[182 Wn.2d 721] ¶ 2 Rather than challenge the factual basis of the Washington State Bar Association's (WSBA) three-count complaint, Pfefer's brief to this court raises arguments about due process and unconstitutional vagueness. He does not cite to any testimony, evidence, or argument that the events of his representation did not occur exactly as the hearing officer found. Our own review of the record shows the same--a knowing disregard of fundamental professional duties owed to his client and an indifference to making restitution. The WSBA Disciplinary Board (Board)
unanimously recommended that Pfefer be suspended from the practice of law for six months and pay restitution to his former client in the amount of the unaccepted settlement offer. We affirm, suspend Pfefer for six months, and condition his return to practice on the payment of restitution of $5,834.15 to his former client and the payment of costs and expenses to the WSBA.
Factual History and Misconduct
¶ 3 In February 2006, Ana Ortiz and her minor daughter were injured in an automobile accident. Ortiz hired Pfefer to represent her and her daughter. On February 10, 2009, six days before the statute of limitations would run, Pfefer filed a complaint on behalf of Ortiz and her daughter in King County Superior Court. The court set a trial date of July 26, 2010, a deadline of July 21, 2010 for filing a confirmation of joinder, and a deadline of April 19, 2010 for moving to change the trial date. On the day of the April 19 deadline, Pfefer moved to continue the trial, which was reset to March 21, 2011. The amended order required that settlement/mediation be completed by February 22, 2011 and a joint confirmation of readiness for trial be filed by February 28, 2011. A February 8, 2011 court order reminded both parties of the deadlines.
¶ 4 Pfefer did little before these deadlines passed. He did not conduct discovery, disclose witnesses, submit the case to [182 Wn.2d 722] mediation (or move to waive it), or exchange exhibits with defense counsel. He did not meet with Ortiz or other witnesses to prepare for trial. Although reminded by a personal phone call from the superior court judge's bailiff, he also did not file the joint confirmation of trial readiness by the February 28, 2011 deadline. Because Pfefer did not file the joint confirmation, the case was not sent to trial. Pfefer did not inform Ortiz that her case was not proceeding to trial. On March 21, 2011, Ortiz appeared at the King County courthouse, unaware that her case had not been sent to trial. Pfefer did not appear; he was evidently in Spokane where he maintained his office. The court dismissed Ortiz's case that same day because Pfefer had failed to meet the court's deadlines.
¶ 5 On March 24, 2011, opposing counsel offered to settle Ortiz's case for $6,580.06. Pfefer did not communicate this offer to Ortiz.
¶ 6 On March 31, 2011, Pfefer filed a motion for reconsideration. The court granted the motion, and Ortiz's case was set for a new trial date of June 13, 2011. On May 5, 2011, Pfefer filed a notice of immediate withdrawal, " effective immediately." Ass'n's Ex. A-132, at 1. Pfefer informed Ortiz of his withdrawal by leaving a phone message with one of Ortiz's friends and mailing her a copy of the notice. Ortiz attempted to file an objection in court to Pfefer's withdrawal, but it was struck for lack of proof of service. On May 19, 2011, her case was dismissed. The statute of limitations on her claim then expired.
¶ 7 The WSBA filed a complaint with the Board under the Rules for Enforcement of Lawyer Conduct (ELC) 10.3, charging Pfefer with three counts of misconduct, and the case proceeded to a hearing. The hearing officer found all three counts were proved: count one, that Pfefer violated Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) 1.3 and RPC 3.2 by [182 Wn.2d 723] failing to comply with dates and deadlines set out in the May 18, 2010 and February 8, 2011 orders and by failing to meet with Ortiz in preparation for trial; count two, that Pfefer violated RPC 1.2(a) and/or RPC 1.4 by failing to consult Ortiz regarding the settlement offer and failing to advise her that her ...