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Former clients testify in Butler discipline case

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By Damon Lawrence

After numerous postponements, Harriman attorney Donice Butler’s disciplinary hearing finally got underway at the Roane County Courthouse this week.

The Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility is seeking to have Butler disciplined over allegations that she violated rules on competence, diligence, communication, scope of representation and terminating representation.

Butler is also accused of misconduct and lying to a tribunal. She faces a possible censure or suspension of her law license.

The hearing panel that will decide Butler’s fate is made up of three attorneys – Steve Erdely IV of Knoxville, Heidi Anne Barcus of Knoxville and Carl P. McDonald of Maryville.

Alan Johnson, the disciplinary counsel for the Board of Professional Responsibility, called a parade of Butler’s former clients to testify on Monday.

“What was your experience in reaching Ms. Butler?” Johnson asked Paul Lawson Jr.

“I’d call to see how my case was going, and it was either she was with a client or she was out of the of fice and they would return my call,” Lawson said. “I’d wait a couple days and no phone call. I’d have to call back down there and ask the same question again.”

Annie Delozier Harrell said she and her sister had a similar experience with Butler.

“When you have to speak to her secretary and stuff and didn’t get to talk to her and she wouldn’t return your telephone calls, that was being dishonest,” Harrell said.

Butler testified on her own behalf during the hearing.

She accused her former clients of colluding to ruin her livelihood.

“I walked in here and heard them all talking together about this case this morning,” she said. “I think their testimony was pretty consistent and vague about their failure to reach me.”

Butler’s attorney, Chris Cawood, asked about her bout with breast cancer.

She became tearful during that testimony and the panel took a brief break.

Roane County General Sessions Court Judges Dennis Humphrey and Jeff Wicks and Criminal Court Judge Eugene Eblen all testified on Tuesday that Butler is a competent attorney.

“Would you appoint her to cases if you didn’t feel she was competent?” Cawood asked Humphrey.

“No, I wouldn’t,” Humphrey responded.

Wicks said Roane County has a limited number of lawyers to handle court-appointed cases and the administration of justice could be impacted locally if Butler is suspended.

“We would be absent a lawyer,” he said. “We do need court-appointed attorneys to help out with a lot of cases.”

Cawood and McDonald, one of the panel members, had a few testy exchanges on Tuesday.

One occurred when Cawood started talking about an exhibit that Johnson was in the process of reviewing.

“Let him look at it, Mr. Cawood,” McDonald said. “It’s not fair for him to look at an order and you talk at the same time.”

“He has two ears,” Cawood said.

“Excuse me,” a visibly perturbed McDonald responded.

“Forget it,” Cawood said.

“I will,” McDonald responded, as he slammed his pen to the desk.

The hearing concluded Tuesday afternoon. The panel took the case under advisement and will render a decision in the coming weeks.

“I feel great,” Butler said. “I feel like everything got out that should have gotten out.”