STAR-BULLETIN / 2000
In July 2000, lawyer Lunsford Phillips showed the curb at King and Bethel streets newly renovated for wheelchair access.
suspended for a year
The disabled-rights advocate
is accused of mishandling funds
The state Supreme Court has suspended disabled-rights advocate Lunsford Phillips from practicing law for a year and a day, saying the local attorney misappropriated money owed to a legal expert.
The 55-year-old Phillips, who made his name filing lawsuits against local businesses for not complying with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, will begin his suspension on May 17.
The Supreme Court's order comes after the high court's Disciplinary Board recommended last September that Phillips be suspended for a year. The extra day means that Phillips must seek reinstatement before the board to retain his law license when the suspension is over.
The Supreme Court's ruling adopts an earlier agreement between Phillips and the Disciplinary Board's investigative arm, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, that Phillips' suspension be for a year and a day.
"Phillips misappropriated settlement funds he owed to a third person ... and otherwise mishandled funds violating the court's strict rules regarding the handling of funds belonging to clients and others," the Disciplinary Counsel said.
Phillips and his attorney, Pamela Tower, declined comment, but in legal papers filed with the Disciplinary Board, Tower said that a one-year suspension was "too harsh."
Tower said the alleged conduct is more akin to negligence than misappropriation and that a suspension of 30 days to six months would be more appropriate.
Tower cited cases in which local attorneys received similar punishments for acts that involved "willful" and "unauthorized" misappropriation of clients' funds.
"The case here is not so clear and the conduct at issue is negligence at best as opposed to intentional misappropriation of funds," she wrote.
Phillips, who uses a wheelchair, has filed scores of lawsuits against local businesses and operators of public facilities for failing to comply with the federal ADA law, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.
Under the law, operators of public venues such as restaurants and shopping centers must provide access ramps for wheelchairs, special toilets and other accommodations for the disabled.
Phillips' advocacy on behalf of the disabled has generated criticism from local businesses, who have been the targets of his lawsuits.
"His actions were never about the disabled, never about the individuals," said Sam Slom, president of Small Business Hawaii and a state senator. "His actions were about the deep pockets in Hawaii."
Magali Sunderland, a Disciplinary Counsel attorney, said Phillips' reputation worked in his favor during the disciplinary proceedings. The Disciplinary Board said that the punishment was mitigated by the facts that Phillips had never been disciplined by the board and that he received a number of letters of support from several local attorneys.
Phillips' suspension involves a 1997 case in which he sued the State of Hawaii and the Aloha Stadium Authority for ADA violations on behalf of disabled residents Kalani Griffin and Jill Graham. Under a settlement of the case, Phillips and his courtroom expert Bruce Clark were awarded $41,200.32 in fees.
Clark was to have received $6,440.32, but Phillips did not pay the expert until May 2001, when Clark filed an ethics complaint against Phillips.
By an 8-4 vote, with two abstentions, the Disciplinary Board ruled that Phillips had a fiduciary responsibility to pay Clark and that Phillips misappropriated those funds when he deposited them in his personal passbook account at American Savings Bank.
Dissenting board members -- attorneys Lissa Andrews, Thomas Cook, Corliss Chang and Thomas Welch -- argued that Clark had a contractual relationship with Phillips rather than a fiduciary one, meaning that his acts did not constitute misappropriation.