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Meehan v. Board of Professional Responsibility of Supreme Court of Tennessee

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Nashville

September 20, 2019


          Session May 30, 2019

          Direct Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 17C3204 Robert E. Lee Davies, Senior Judge.

         A Board of Professional Responsibility hearing panel found that an attorney should be disbarred after she was convicted of bank fraud. On appeal, the circuit court held that the hearing panel's decision was arbitrary and imposed a five-year suspension. We reverse. The hearing panel's decision was supported by substantial and material evidence and was neither arbitrary nor an abuse of discretion.

         Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9, § 33.1(d); Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed; Decision of the Hearing Panel Affirmed

          Jerry Morgan, Brentwood, Tennessee, for the appellant, Board of Professional Responsibility.

          Philip N. Elbert and Benjamin C. Aaron, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Jennifer Elizabeth Meehan.

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


          Sharon G. Lee, Justice.


         Background and Disciplinary Proceedings

         Criminal Conviction

         Jennifer Elizabeth Meehan, a licensed Tennessee attorney, mishandled funds belonging to Gamma Phi Beta sorority at the University of Alabama. Ms. Meehan pleaded guilty to bank fraud, 18 U.S.C. § 1344 (2012), in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

         Ms. Meehan, while attending the University of Alabama, was a member of Gamma Phi Beta sorority. After graduating, Ms. Meehan was an active sorority alumna, serving as president of the sorority's housing board. As board president, Ms. Meehan oversaw the construction and furnishing of a new sorority house. Her responsibilities included coordinating the selection and purchase of furniture and other items for the house.

         Ms. Meehan arranged to buy furniture for the new sorority house through Ai Corporate Interiors, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. Ai Corporate Interiors, an authorized dealer of furniture made by Teknion, LLC, gave Ms. Meehan a template that allowed her to generate invoices on her computer for orders of Teknion furniture. Ms. Meehan prepared and submitted invoices for furniture expenditures to Greek Resource Services, Inc., which served as manager and custodian of the sorority's funds, including funds for furnishing the new sorority house. Under the sorority's agreement with Greek Resource Services, the sorority could have no bank accounts other than the accounts managed by Greek Resource Services.

         In September 2014, Ms. Meehan embarked on a scheme to obtain sorority funds from Greek Resource Services by submitting false furniture invoices and using a bank checking account opened under a fictitious name. She began by creating an invoice from "Technion, LLC" (Technion is a misspelling of Teknion, the furniture supplier's name) with an address of P.O. Box 251, Villa Rica, Georgia. Ms. Meehan had rented this post office box as a part of her plan. She submitted an $88, 311.60 invoice to Greek Resource Services for sorority house furniture that she had not ordered.

         A few days later, Ms. Meehan opened a business checking account at First Citizens Bank & Trust Company in Carnesville, Georgia, under the "Technion" business name and listed the Villa Rica, Georgia post office box as the account's address. To open the account, Ms. Meehan provided the bank with a false Employer Identification Number and a fictitious corporate resolution identifying her as the Chief Financial Officer. Neither the sorority housing board nor Greek Resource Services knew about the First Citizens Bank account. Later that day, Ms. Meehan went to a different branch of First Citizens Bank to deposit a check received from Greek Resource Services in the invoiced amount of $88, 311.60. The check, issued by Greek Resource Services from the sorority's account, was payable to "Technion Accounts Receivable."

         In October 2014, First Citizens Bank notified Ms. Meehan that the Employer Identification Number she had provided was incorrect. She then obtained and provided to the bank Teknion's correct Employer Identification Number and address in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. After receiving this information, the bank changed the name on the account to Teknion, LLC and the address to Teknion's New Jersey address.

         In November 2014, Ms. Meehan created and submitted to Greek Resource Services a second false invoice payable to "Technion, LLC" for a furniture order in the amount of $286, 740. Three days later, Greek Resource Services issued a check for the invoiced amount. Ms. Meehan deposited the check at a First Citizens Bank branch in Buckhead, Georgia. With this deposit, the balance in the account she had opened was more than $375, 000.

         In January 2015, Ms. Meehan went to a First Citizens Bank branch in Anderson, South Carolina, and wired $175, 000 from the Teknion account to her personal business account at Bank of America. She also changed the address on the First Citizens Bank account from Teknion's New Jersey address to a street address in Villa Rica, Georgia. In March 2015, Ms. Meehan obtained a cashier's check for $175, 000 from her personal business account at Bank of America, payable to Ai Corporate Interiors for furniture that she had purchased for the sorority house. Ms. Meehan closed the Teknion account later that month after being notified by First Citizens Bank that there was a problem with the account. She arranged for the remaining funds in the account to be transferred to Greek Resource Services for deposit into the sorority's account.

         In June 2015, Ms. Meehan was indicted in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama on eight felony charges: three counts of wire fraud, one count of bank fraud, and four counts of money laundering. In July 2016, she pleaded guilty to one count of bank fraud in exchange for the dismissal of the other seven counts of the indictment. As part of the plea, she agreed to pay $34, 815 to Greek Resource Services for an audit to account for the funds deposited into First Citizens Bank and to forfeit $234, 648 in cash belonging to the sorority.[1] In November 2016, the federal district court sentenced Ms. Meehan to prison for six months, followed by forty months of supervised release, together with restitution of $34, 815 and forfeiture of $234, 648.

         Disciplinary Actions

         Ms. Meehan, while engaging in bank fraud, was a licensed attorney in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Texas. Ms. Meehan practiced law in Tennessee for three years. She worked two years as a staff attorney for the Tennessee Board for Licensing Contractors in 2005 and 2006, and then as a contract attorney for a Nashville firm for another year. In 2008, she moved to South Carolina, where she was licensed to practice law and established a small practice focusing mainly on health care compliance and estate matters. In 2010, Ms. Meehan became licensed in Texas but never practiced there.

         Ms. Meehan reported her guilty plea to the licensing board in each state. In March 2017, the Texas Supreme Court accepted Ms. Meehan's surrender of her license in lieu of disciplinary action. In July 2015, the South Carolina Supreme Court placed Ms. Meehan on interim suspension. In January 2019, the South Carolina Supreme Court disbarred Ms. Meehan based on her failure to report that she had surrendered her license in Texas in lieu of discipline, as required by South Carolina's Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement Rules. The South Carolina Supreme Court relied on South Carolina's reciprocal discipline rule and the Texas disciplinary rule requiring that the Texas surrender be treated as disbarment for all purposes. Ms. Meehan petitioned for rehearing of her disbarment. The petition was still pending when briefs were filed in this case.

         In August 2016, this Court summarily suspended Ms. Meehan from the practice of law in Tennessee based on the certified copy of Ms. Meehan's plea agreement to bank fraud submitted by the Board of Professional Responsibility. In re Jennifer Elizabeth Meehan, No. M2016-01606-SC-BAR-BP (Tenn. Aug. 10, 2016) (Order of Enforcement). The Court referred the matter to the Board to initiate formal proceedings to determine the appropriate final discipline.[2] Id.

         The Board began formal proceedings, and a hearing panel set the disciplinary hearing for January 11, 2017. A week before the hearing, Ms. Meehan moved to continue the hearing until South Carolina concluded its disciplinary proceedings or until January 25, 2017. The hearing panel continued the hearing to January 25, 2017. Yet the day before the January 25 hearing, Ms. Meehan filed an emergency motion for continuance because she had voluntarily reported to prison on January 17, 2017. At the January 25, 2017 hearing, the hearing panel denied Ms. Meehan's emergency motion and allowed the Board to present its proof. The Board introduced Ms. Meehan's 2016 plea agreement in the federal court case, her conditional guilty plea in a 2011 Tennessee disciplinary matter, and the public censure arising out of the disciplinary matter. The hearing panel allowed Ms. Meehan to respond to the Board's evidence after she was provided a copy of the hearing transcript.

         Ms. Meehan responded, arguing that multiple mitigating factors under Standard 9.32 of the American Bar Association's Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions (the ABA Standards) applied. Her response included nineteen letters that had been filed with the federal district court vouching for Ms. Meehan's good character. Ms. Meehan renewed her motion to continue the hearing until after the South Carolina disciplinary proceedings ended or until after her release from prison on June 16, 2017. The hearing panel continued the hearing to July 31, 2017.

         Meanwhile, in March 2017, Ms. Meehan petitioned this Court to allow her to surrender her law license. In re Jennifer Elizabeth Meehan, No. M2017-00498-SC-BAR-SUR (Tenn. Mar. 23, 2017) (Order). The Court dismissed her petition without prejudice, citing her ongoing suspension and pending proceedings for final discipline before the hearing panel. Id.

         The hearing panel, at the start of the July 31, 2017 hearing, denied Ms. Meehan's motions to dismiss the disciplinary proceedings for lack of jurisdiction and to continue the hearing until the South Carolina disciplinary ...

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