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Brooks v. Board of Professional Responsibility

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Knoxville

May 7, 2019

NATHAN E. BROOKS
v.
BOARD OF PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY

          Session September 6, 2018

          Direct Appeal from the Chancery Court for Hamilton County No. 17-0506 Jeffrey F. Stewart, Chancellor

         In 1998, the appellant attorney agreed to entry of a consent order suspending his law license for two years. In 2017, the appellant filed this petition for reinstatement of his suspended law license. Instead of the advance cost deposit required by Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, section 30.4(d)(9), he filed a pauper's oath and affidavit of indigency. Upon motion of the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, the hearing panel dismissed the appellant's petition without prejudice to his ability to file a new petition in compliance with Rule 9. On appeal, the chancery court affirmed. The appellant now appeals to this Court, arguing that a Tennessee statute entitles him to file his petition without paying the advance cost deposit, and also that mandating payment of the advance cost deposit deprives him of his constitutional right to due process. Discerning no error, we affirm.

         Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9, § 33.1(d) Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed

          Nathan E. Brooks, Chattanooga, Tennessee, appellant, Pro Se.

          William C. Moody, Brentwood, Tennessee, for the appellee, Board of Professional Responsibility.

          Holly Kirby, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., Cornelia A. Clark, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          HOLLY KIRBY, JUSTICE

         Factual Procedure and Background

         Petitioner/Appellant Nathan E. Brooks became licensed to practice law in Tennessee in 1986. In 1997, Mr. Brooks was served with a petition for discipline by the Respondent/Appellee Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee ("Board"). "Faced with possible disbarment," Mr. Brooks "entered into a negotiated settlement with the Board on February 13, 1998," in which he admitted he was guilty of violating multiple disciplinary rules, agreed to a two-year suspension of his law license, "agreed to pay restitution on twelve complaints totaling $8, 532.50, and [agreed] to pay costs and expenses of the proceeding, totaling $2, 028.82." Brooks v. Bd. of Prof'l Responsibility, 145 S.W.3d 519, 520-22 (Tenn. 2004). Thus, pursuant to an agreed order of this Court, Mr. Brooks' law license was suspended for two years. Payment of costs and expenses was required as a condition precedent to reinstatement. Id. at 522.

         In 2002, approximately four years after the suspension of his law license, Mr. Brooks filed a motion for reinstatement. Id. at 522. In that proceeding, Mr. Brooks claimed he was "indigent and therefore unable to pay the costs and restitution that he previously agreed to pay as part of the conditional guilty plea." Id. at 525. Mr. Brooks was denied a hearing by both the hearing panel and by the chancery court because he had not paid the restitution and past costs. Id. at 523. On appeal to this Court, he claimed, inter alia, that "by denying him a hearing on his petition for reinstatement based on his inability to pay the costs and restitution, the hearing panel and Chancery Court were denying him due process." Id. at 525. This Court rejected that argument, holding that Mr. Brooks had been "denied a hearing on the merits of his petition due to his failure to meet certain conditions precedent." Id.

         Some 13 years later, Mr. Brooks filed the instant petition to reinstate his Tennessee law license. Instead of the advance cost deposit required for petitions to reinstate under Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, section 30.4(d)(9), [1] Mr. Brooks submitted a pauper's oath and an affidavit of indigency.

         In light of Mr. Brooks' failure to pay the required advance cost deposit, Disciplinary Counsel for the Board filed a motion seeking dismissal of Mr. Brooks' petition to reinstate. The motion to dismiss noted that Rule 9 made no provision for waiver of the advance cost deposit in cases of indigency and asserted that Mr. Brooks' petition was fatally flawed.

         In response to the Board's motion to dismiss, Mr. Brooks argued that he should be permitted to file his petition to reinstate pursuant to a pauper's oath. He claimed he had a "substantial property interest in the return of his law license" and argued that denying him the opportunity to proceed as a pauper would violate his rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal Constitution.[2] Mr. Brooks also relied on Tennessee Code Annotated § 20-12-127, which provides generally that a "civil action" may be commenced upon filing a pauper's oath. Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-12-127(a) (2009).

         Mr. Brooks' petition was referred to a hearing panel. See Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9, § 30.4(d). On May 16, 2017, the hearing panel dismissed Mr. Brooks' petition. The panel noted that the language in Rule 9 makes the advance cost deposit mandatory and makes no "provision for use of the pauper's oath in the filing of a petition for reinstatement." It concluded that Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-12-127 was not applicable. The hearing panel dismissed Mr. Brooks' petition without prejudice to his ability to file a new petition in compliance with Rule 9.[3]

         In July 2017, Mr. Brooks filed an appeal from the hearing panel's decision with the Hamilton County Chancery Court. See Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9, § 33. In it, Mr. Brooks raised the same arguments he had made to the hearing panel. Mr. Brooks' appeal included another pauper's oath and affidavit of indigency.

         The matter was heard by the trial court on December 4, 2017.[4] On December 28, 2017, the trial court issued its findings and conclusions, affirming the decision of the hearing panel.[5] The trial court took note of Rule 9's advance cost deposit requirement and the Board's need to secure funding from such deposits. It acknowledged the general provisions in Tennessee Code Annotated § 20-12-127 but held that Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9 controls because it "specifically provides that an attorney shall provide an advance cost deposit when filing a petition for reinstatement."[6] The trial court held that Tennessee Code Annotated § 20-12-127 does not apply to attorney reinstatement proceedings and affirmed the decision of the hearing panel.[7]

         On January 18, 2018, Mr. Brooks filed an appeal as of right to this Court. See Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9, § 33.[8]

         Standard of Review

         In this case, the issues presented involve only questions of law, which are reviewed de novo with no presumption of correctness. Bd. of Prof'l Responsibility v. Cowan, 388 S.W.3d 264, 267 (Tenn. 2012) (citing Sneed v. Bd. of Prof'l Responsibility, 301 S.W.3d 603, 612 (Tenn. 2010)).

         Analysis

         In his appellate brief, Mr. Brooks describes the issue before the Court as whether the trial court erred in affirming the hearing panel's dismissal of his petition to reinstate solely on the ground that he was not entitled to proceed as a pauper. Under this broad umbrella, he argues generally that the public policy of Tennessee, as embodied in Tennessee Code Annotated § 20-12-127, requires that he not be denied access to the courts based on his poverty. Mr. Brooks also contends that refusal to reinstate his law license because he cannot afford to pay the advance cost deposit required by Rule 9 violates his due process rights as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution.

         We discuss these issues in turn.

         Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 20-12-127

         Mr. Brooks asserts that public policy favoring access to the courts undergirds Tennessee Code Annotated ...


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