The opinion of the court was delivered by: Per Curiam
Argued September 9, 1997 --
On an Order to show cause why respondent should not be disbarred or otherwise disciplined.
This matter arises from a grievance filed with the District XIV Ethics Committee by Warren Wilbur III, Esq., against respondent, Peter B. Silvia. The Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE) filed a complaint charging respondent with violations of RPC 1.15(b) (failure to safeguard client funds) and RPC 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation). The complaint charged respondent with knowingly misappropriating trust fund disbursements for the benefit of his wife's cousin, Allen C. Graveley.
The Special Master found that respondent had an attorney-client relationship with Graveley, and that he knowingly misappropriated funds entrusted to him in the course of that attorney-client relationship. The Special Master observed that even if respondent was not acting as Graveley's attorney he knew that Graveley was physically and psychologically ill and completely dependent on respondent to handle his financial affairs. The Special Master determined that respondent had a fiduciary obligation to handle Graveley's finances with the care he would have used in handling the finances of a client or an unrelated third-party.
The Special Master found that respondent did not have authority to withdraw funds from an account containing Graveley's trust fund income. The Special Master noted that, even if Graveley had authorized respondent's withdrawals, respondent knew that Graveley lacked the capacity to do so. The Special Master found that respondent's conduct constituted knowing use of client funds without authorization in violation of RPC 1.15(b), and dishonesty, deceit, and misrepresentation in violation of RPC 8.4(c).
The Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) sustained the Special Master's finding that respondent's conduct constituted a knowing misappropriation of Graveley's funds in violation of RPC 1.15(b) and RPC 8.4(c), and a majority of the DRB voted to disbar respondent.
Based on our independent review of the record, we are persuaded that the evidence clearly and convincingly establishes that respondent knowingly misappropriated funds from Graveley.
The charges against respondent, who was admitted to the bar in 1977, stemmed from his conduct in handling the income of four trusts that were created for the benefit and support of his wife's cousin, Allen C. Graveley. Of relevance to those charges is the allegation that Graveley was incompetent and, therefore, unable to handle the trust funds on his own. Respondent denied throughout the proceedings that Graveley was incompetent. Moreover, he claimed that he did not have an attorney-client relationship with Graveley.
The four trust accounts created for Graveley's support were administered by the Crestar Bank and the Riggs National Bank, both in Washington, D.C. The record does not disclose the precise date when Graveley first began receiving income from those trusts, although, beginning at least as early as 1983, the trust fund income was sent to respondent for Graveley's benefit. Presumably around the same time, and purportedly at Graveley's request, Graveley and respondent established a joint checking account at the Midlantic National Bank into which Graveley's trust fund checks were deposited. From June 1990 to February 1992 the Crestar and Riggs banks sent Graveley checks totaling in excess of $90,000.
The decision of the DRB summarized the relevant evidence as follows:
"Graveley was admitted to the Briarleaf Nursing and Convalescent Home ("Briarleaf") inDoylestown, Pennsylvania, in December 1990. At the time he was forty-one years old. He died at Briarleaf on February 24, 1992. Respondent signed the Briarleaf agreement of admission form as the "responsible party" for Graveley. In this capacity, respondent was required to promptly pay Briarleaf for any services incurred by Graveley that were not otherwise covered by alternate forms of insurance. . . ."
The admission form and discharge summaryindicated that Graveley was in the "end stage of renal disease" and had a history of psychiatric disorders from alcohol abuse. Thedischarge form also indicated that Graveley wassuffering from schizophrenia. [F]or unknown durations, Graveley had been committed to both Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital in the 1980s andGreystone Psychiatric Hospital as a teen.
Graveley required a great deal of assistance in his day-to-day life. Initially, Graveley's uncle provide[d] the assistance. When the uncle became too old, respondent began caring for Graveley. According to respondent, he and Graveley had a verbal agreement [entered into while Graveley was living independently and prior to Graveley's admission to Briarleaf] that respondent was to pay himself $500 per week for services to ...