Disbarred lawyer allowed to file for reinstatement after 6 months

But judge says 9th Circuit order placing Woodruff only on probation, not binding on the District Court

U.S. District Court for the NMI designated judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood has ruled that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision not to impose the CNMI courts’ reciprocal discipline of disbarment on lawyer Stephen C. Woodruff is not binding on the District Court.

Tydingco-Gatewood said the District Court is not bound to reciprocate and impose the same discipline that the Ninth Circuit did on Woodruff, namely probation.

Tydingco-Gatewood discussed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in her order last Wednesday, March 28, modifying her previous order that reciprocated Woodruff’s disbarment by the CNMI courts.

The judge suspended Woodruff from practice in the District Court for a period of one year from the date of her order.

During the period of suspension, Woodruff is permitted to resume representation in cases that were pending before the District Court in which he was the attorney of record at the time reciprocal discipline was imposed, if the client so requests in written declaration to the court.

Tydingco-Gatewood said Woodruff may apply for reinstatement after the expiration of at least one half of the period of suspension—that is, six months and one day from the entry of this order.

The judge directed the clerk of court to send a copy of her order to the Ninth Circuit.

Tydingco-Gatewood said she has a firm conviction that reciprocal discipline was warranted and that she was correct to impose it on Woodruff.

The judge noted that in its own original reciprocal-discipline proceeding, the Ninth Circuit did not review her reciprocal discipline order or comment on it.

Nevertheless, Tydingco-Gatewood said she is mindful of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, and recognizes that it is based on a review of essentially the same record of CNMI disciplinary proceedings and on application of the same law.

In her order issued on March 9, 2017, Tydingco-Gatewood imposed the CNMI courts’ reciprocal discipline on Woodruff and disbarred him from practice of law before the District Court.

In that March 9 order, Tydingco-Gatewood said Woodruff was given fair notice and an opportunity to be heard by the CNMI courts.

Tydingco-Gatewood said Woodruff is not allowed to accept any new retainer or engage as the attorney for another in any new case or legal matter of any nature.

The judge said Woodruff may not apply for reinstatement until the expiration of at least two years from the effective date of disbarment.

In 2013, then-Superior Court associate judge David A. Wiseman disbarred Woodruff from the practice of law in the CNMI for 44 violations of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

The CNMI Supreme Court affirmed the disbarment order in 2015. The District Court then issued to Woodruff a notice of intent to impose reciprocal discipline.

In 2016, the CNMI Supreme Court denied respondent Woodruff’s petition for rehearing.

After Tydingco-Gatewood imposed the reciprocal discipline on March 9, 2017, Woodruff moved to modify the order, but she denied it.

Woodruff appealed.

Meanwhile, the Ninth Circuit was itself considering whether to impose reciprocal discipline on Woodruff. The matter was referred to the appellate commissioner, who conducted a hearing and prepared a report and recommendation.

The appellate commissioner found lack of due process, infirmity of proof, and grave risk of injustice, and recommended that the Ninth Circuit should not accord a presumption of correctness to the Commonwealth disciplinary proceedings.

Nonetheless, in light of a pattern of failures of Woodruff to meet deadlines and follow Ninth Circuit rules in various appeals, the appellate commissioner recommended imposition of alternative discipline of 18 months’ probation.

The appellate commissioner recommended that during the probationary period, Woodruff would be allowed to complete pending appeals but prohibited from taking new cases.

Last Oct. 26, Woodruff filed the present motion for relief from judgment, asserting that the appellate commissioner exposed the flaws in the Commonwealth disciplinary proceedings and that the District Court should therefore revise its own analysis of the record.

Woodruff offered to accept a period of probation not to exceed 18 months and asserted that at a minimum he should be allowed to complete his representation of Dr. Gary Ramsey.

Ramsey, a former medical staff at the Commonwealth Health Center, has a pending wrongful termination lawsuit in federal court against the CNMI government, Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., and others.

Last Nov. 15, the Ninth Circuit issued an order adopting the appellate commissioner’s recommendations in all respects except for the restriction on taking new cases during the probationary period, a restriction to which Woodruff had objected.

Last Nov. 30, Tydingco-Gatewood issued a notice to Woodruff indicating an inclination to grant the motion and proposing to modify its order of discipline.
The proposal were to impose one year’s suspension from the date relief is granted; permission to resume representing Ramsey; restriction against bringing new cases during the probationary period; and permission to apply for reinstatement after six months.

Woodruff filed a response to the court’s notice and declined the court’s proposal.

Woodruff stated that he “does not believe it is appropriate to impose discipline on respondent that is harsher and more restrictive than that imposed by the Ninth Circuit.”

Woodruff asserted that probation is an available means of discipline because, although not set forth in the District Court’s Local Disciplinary Rules, it is provided for in the CNMI Disciplinary Rules.

In modifying her previous order, Tydingco-Gatewood said she does not find probation to be appropriate in this case and in this District Court.

Tydingco-Gatewood said Woodruff observes that probation is available under the Commonwealth disciplinary rules.

Tydingco-Gatewood said the CNMI bar, however, has a standing disciplinary committee specifically tasked with supervising probationers.

The District Court bar, the judge noted, has only ad hoc disciplinary committees, and no structure for ongoing supervision of attorneys under discipline who are handling a regular case load.

Therefore, Tydingco-Gatewood said, she will modify her reciprocal discipline order as it outlined in its notice.

She said the modification will give Woodruff the opportunity to show his progress in attention to deadlines and other matters of competent representation in the Ramsey case.

Ramsey has declared in court pleadings his desire for Woodruff to continue representing him.

Tydingco-Gatewood said Woodruff may apply for full reinstatement to the District Court bar in as little as six months.

Woodruff asserted that, “the imposition of reciprocal discipline, particularly the sanction of disbarment, would be unwarranted and unjust.”

MD: U.S. District Court for the NMI designated judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood has ruled that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision not to impose the CNMI courts’ reciprocal discipline of disbarment on lawyer Stephen C. Woodruff is not binding on the District Court.

KW: Stephen C. Woodruff, Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood, reciprocal discipline order.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com

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