Citing mishandled money, NH Supreme Court suspends Claremont attorney
Lisa Wellman-Ally, former NH Bar president, ‘engaged in serious misconduct,’ justices rule
A Claremont attorney and former president of the NH Bar Association has been suspended from practicing law over mishandling clients’ money.
The NH Supreme Court suspended the law practice of Lisa Wellman-Ally – who served as NH Bar president in 2014 and 2015 – stating that she “engaged in serious misconduct which poses an immediate and substantial threat of serious harm to the public or the integrity of the legal profession,” according to an order released by the court.
The summary suspension remains in effect “pending further order” of the court, the court ruled in the Feb. 21 suspension. It came in response to a 17-page petition filed by the high court’s Attorney Discipline Office that detailed how Wellman-Ally “mishandled” money held in trusts on behalf of two clients.
Wellman-Ally, in reply to a request for comment from the Valley News, offered this statement: “I would like to say that no client funds were missing and that I negligently failed to maintain proper records, which led to the suspension.”
According to the assented-to petition — a filing in which the interested parties agree to facts submitted to the court — Wellman-Ally, who has been a solo practitioner with an office in Claremont focusing on criminal defense, family law, landlord-tenant issues and general litigation since 2002, was found to be “out of trust” in the amount of $13,831 for one client and $5,790 for another client.
(“Out of trust” means the amount of money in the clients’ trust accounts did not comport with the amount of money that was deposited.)
Wellman-Ally “was dishonest regarding the amounts she held in trust for these clients with third parties who sought to intercede on these clients’ behalf and could not write checks to these clients for funds due to them without first ‘replenishing’ her (firm’s client trust account) with personal funds,” according to the petition for summary suspension with which the high court concurred.
Both clients eventually received the funds they had entrusted to Wellman-Ally, but it was only after months of wrangling.
In each case, the clients had to call upon the help of third parties — in one case a deputy sheriff and in the other a private attorney — to pry loose their money, according to the history of their efforts detailed in the petition.
The summary petition for suspension was filed with the Supreme Court even as Wellman-Ally had completed her conditions on a prior six-month suspension from the court, according to the petition. The cause behind the prior suspension was not given.
Actions against attorneys for running afoul of professional conduct are infrequent.
Six-month transfer delay
As of Jan. 1, 2022, there were 21 grievances and 28 docketed complaints against attorneys practicing in New Hampshire pending at the state’s Attorney Discipline Office (ADO), which receives and reviews the initial complaint, according to its 2021 annual report.
The number of violations cited by the ADO’s Professional Conduct Committee totaled 25 in 2021 — the most recent year for which data is available — but only a handful go on to the Supreme Court for final adjudication.
In the case of one client, Wellman-Ally was sent two checks totaling $50,500 — distribution of an inheritance to a Charlestown woman — for “safekeeping” in the firm’s client trust account. But when Wellman-Ally was requested to transfer those funds into another account at Claremont Savings Bank in early 2022, the client “received no reply,” the petition said.
When the client did not receive a response from Wellman-Ally, the client enlisted her son to help to get her money transferred into her revocable trust account at Claremont Savings.
When the son, too, did not receive a reply from Wellman-Ally about the status of the transfer, he turned to his brother, a deputy sheriff in Virginia, to contact the attorney asking why the money had not been transferred.
Finally, in June, about six months after the client first asked Wellman-Ally to transfer the funds into her account at Claremont Savings, the attorney replied to the deputy sheriff that “I do have the funds. I’ve just been extremely busy and haven’t gotten a chance to send it out yet. I will do so.”
In fact, as a subsequent investigation by the ADO uncovered, the amount of the client’s money held in the trust accounts under Wellman-Ally’s control was substantially less than the $50,500 she was required to keep in them.
Meanwhile, at the same time that the Charlestown woman was trying to get her funds transferred to her Claremont account, another client who had given Wellman-Ally a $10,000 retainer to represent her in a possible wrongful death action in regard to the death of her daughter, was unsatisfied with the representation and asked for the retainer fee to be returned, the petition said.
Despite the client’s repeated attempts to contact Wellman-Ally extending into the fall of 2022, the attorney never responded to the client’s messages. Finally, the client resorted to hiring another attorney “for the sole purpose of obtaining her retainer from Ms. Wellman-Ally,” the petition said.
Wellman-Ally responded to the client’s attorney’s demands for the retainer to be returned, replying via email she would “get info together and send (the client) back the balance of the retainer,” or $9,000, less $1,000 for work Wellman-Ally said she performed on behalf of the client.
But in fact, as a subsequent investigation by the ADO found the law firm’s client trust account had only $3,209 at the time Wellman-Ally represented the funds were available, significantly less than the $10,000 it was required to hold.
“This was a misrepresentation,” the petition said, representing a “false” statement made to the client’s attorney.
Moreover, the ADO investigation found that, in order for Wellman-Ally to make the trust accounts whole to return the funds to her clients, she “backfill(ed)” the accounts by transferring funds from the firm’s operating account into the firm’s client trust accounts, which represented “impermissible commingling” of funds.
The petition for summary suspension does not detail why the clients’ trusts were short the money that was supposed to be in them or why Wellman-Ally was transferring money to and from the accounts or mixing her firm’s money with clients’ deposits.
But the ADO excoriated Wellman-Ally for how she kept her firm’s financial records.
“Many of Ms. Wellman-Ally’s individual client ledgers were incomplete or illegible,” the assented-to petition for summary suspension said. “Most could not be corroborated by bank records, such as check images or online transfers that corresponded to the ledger by date, amount of disbursement or by individual client designation.”
Moreover, the petition noted, among various individual client ledgers two were missing for the year 2022: Those were the client ledgers cited in the complaint.
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