Thursday, March 11, 2010
John M. Miller Defrauded Partners, Judge Rules
By ROGER M. GRACE
A major factor leading to the June 16, 1903, disbarment of a young lawyer, Frank G. Bryant, was his display of such impertinence as to cast aspersions on the integrity of an established lawyer in Los Angeles, who was by many years his senior, John M. Miller. However, after a judge ruled on Nov. 9, 1903, that Miller had defrauded former partners D.P. Hatch and Herbert C. Brown, it occurred to members of the legal community that there was faultiness in the assumption underlying the disbarment—that is, that Miller was honest.
The firm of Hatch, Miller & Brown was formed in 1896 (and was disbanded the following year). Hatch and Miller each had a two-fifths interest in the firm, Brown had the balance.
In April 1897, the firm provided legal services in setting up the Yellow Aster Mining and Milling Company for their client, Frederick M. Mooers. Miller collected the fee, which he represented to his partners to have been 1,000 shares of stock. It was parceled out, with 400 shares each going to Hatch and Miller, and 200 to Brown.
What was uncovered later was that Miller had actually garnered 2,065 shares as a fee.
While that leaves 1,065 shares that were diverted from the firm, attention was centered on 970—which Miller put in the name of his wife, Kate P. Miller. He insisted Mooers intended the shares as a gift. Mooers could neither confirm nor refute that, having died.
Judge Felix Ewing of the Ventura Superior Court heard the case. He put large stock in Miller’s testimony as to why he caused the gift from Mooers to appear to be a payment of a lawyers’ bill for services:
“I fixed it that way because it gave him the opportunity of carrying out his theater party and programme with Mrs. Miller, as he wanted to, and at the same time secured to me what I thought I was entitled to. It didn’t make any difference to me and I suppose it didn’t make any difference to him, whether he paid it as fees or as a present.”
The judge wrote:
“There is an admission of the defendant Miller that by Mooer’s purported gift to Mrs. Miller, he [Miller] was getting what he was entitled to, and adds that such a gift was making no difference to him.
“How could it be true by such a gift he was getting what he was entitled to? As I have before determined and as Mr. Miller himself claimed, he was entitled to two-fifths of the 970 shares as fees and if the gift was being made to Mrs. Miller in good faith, it could not be truly said that he was getting what he was entitled to and that it made no difference to him.
“But the live question here is not what was the result of this transaction to Mr. Miller, but rather what was its result to the partners. By such a gift they were assuredly not getting what they were entitled to. It was making a difference to them. They had referred the matter of the settlement with Mooers to Mr. Miller and as we have seen, the rule of law required that he should deal with them in the highest good faith, and should not gain any advantage over them by the slightest misrepresentation or concealment.
“It should be concluded that the 970 shares of stock, purporting to have been given Mrs. Miller, are legally and of right still a portion of the compensation earned by the law firm under its contract with Mooers.”
Hinting that he thought the supposed gift to Miller’s wife was a cock-and-bull story, the judge mentioned that Miller had “full control” over the funds.
Ewing ordered that two-fifths of the 970 shares be transferred to Hatch and one-fifth to Brown. The value of those shares was about $12,000 (roughly $300,000 in terms of today’s dollar).
Miller was little heard from after that time.
What of Bryant? He probably would not have been disbarred, for charging of excessive fees to a helpless young damsel in connection with real estate services, had he not implicated Miller.
The Dec. 20, 1905, issue of the Los Angeles Times recites the fact of Bryant’s disbarment, on petition of the Los Angeles Bar Assn., and reports:
“Since then circumstances in connection with the case have caused some members of the bar to revise their original opinion. Bryant has now filed a petition, widely signed, with the court, asking for reinstatement and restoration to practice as an attorney, and the Grievance Committee of the bar association has testified to the exemplary habits of the petitioner.”
The matter went before Judge Nathaniel P. Conrey, who had disbarred Bryant.
Bryant was restored to law practice.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company