Billings attorney to be suspended for unethical adoption case, withholding records

2014-07-30T12:16:00Z 2014-08-01T16:08:08Z Billings attorney to be suspended for unethical adoption case, withholding recordsBy EDDIE GREGG The Billings Gazette

A Billings attorney with a history of being disciplined for unethical practices is facing suspension again, this time for misleading a district judge in an adoption case — which resulted in a girl being adopted without her father’s consent — and for hampering an investigation into his conduct.

In reports filed in two cases last week, the Montana Supreme Court ordered that Roy W. Johnson Jr. be suspended from practicing law for three months beginning Sept. 1 and then for seven months beginning Dec. 1.

Johnson, who contested findings in both cases, declined to comment late Wednesday, other than to say that two district judges, Gregory R. Todd and G. Todd Baugh, testified on his behalf in a hearing about the adoption matter.

Neither judge could be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Records indicate Johnson started practicing law in 1979 and that he has been disciplined by the Supreme Court at least three times prior to these two cases.

In 2011, he was publicly censured by the Supreme Court and put on two years of probation for mishandling a parenting plan for 43-year-old Walter Martin “Marty” Larson, the ex-husband of 34-year-old Susan Casey, of Glendive, who was found dead in the Yellowstone River in May 2008.

At the time of Johnson’s public censure in 2011, the death was unsolved. But in April 2013, a jury convicted Larson of strangling his ex-wife and dumping her body in the river. He has since been sentenced to 100 years prison.

Adoption without father’s consent

In one of the two cases, Johnson misled District Judge Gregory R. Todd in a 2007 adoption proceeding, which resulted in a girl being adopted by her stepfather without her father’s consent, according to a complaint filed by Jon. G. Moog, an investigator with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

Johnson testified on his own behalf before the Commission on Practice, which found he violated the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers, records say.

According to the complaint, a husband and wife with two children separated in 2003.

While paternity of one of the children was unclear, records say the husband was legally recognized as the father and the former couple shared custody of both kids, based on a parenting plan established in 2004 by District Judge G. Todd Baugh.

The mother hired Johnson as her attorney in 2006 after the father sought to change the parenting plan, records say.

Johnson was “well aware” of the shared custody of the children, the existing parenting plan and the established father-daughter relationship in the matter, the complaint states.

In 2007, Johnson filed a petition — in a different court, presided over by District Judge Gregory R. Todd — seeking to have the girl adopted by her mother’s new husband.

Todd allowed the adoption, after ruling, based on Johnson’s petition, that no other parties were interested in the adoption proceeding, records say.

According to Moog, Johnson knew this wasn’t true and failed to inform the judge about the existing parenting plan and did not notify the girl’s father about the adoption proceeding.

The matter went to trial before Baugh in July 2012. He ruled that the mother of the girl went through with the adoption in an effort to interfere with her ex-husband’s parental rights, Moog states.

Baugh also ruled that Todd had not been provided with, as required by law, notice of the pre-existing parenting plan, according to the investigator.

The status of the girl’s custody wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday.

Delayed investigation

In the second Johnson case, the attorney was disciplined for failing to “promptly and fully” respond to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel’s investigation into multiple ethical grievances clients had filed against him, a supreme court order indicates.

In the first grievance, a husband and wife complained about Johnson to the Office of Disciplinary Council after retaining him to defend their foster care license from being taken away and to help them adopt their foster children.

In the second grievance, a man complained about Johnson after hiring him to defend against a DUI charge.

Moog’s complaint doesn’t

elaborate on the details of either matter, but states that Johnson failed to cooperate with records requests

and the investigation into

his handling of the two cases.

Johnson’s failure to cooperate with the investigation, rather than the merit of the underlying ethics grievances, was the reason for the seven-month suspension, the Supreme Court’s order indicates.

The document states Johnson’s failure to cooperate with the investigation delayed the court proceeding for two years.

2011 public censure

Court records indicate the Supreme Court has disciplined Johnson before.

The case that led to Johnson’s public censure in 2011 involved the children of Susan Casey, whose body was found in the Yellowstone River in May 2008, several weeks after she was reported missing.

Casey’s ex-husband, Walter Larson, who was convicted last year of killing his ex-wife, hired Johnson when members of Casey’s family filed to be appointed co-guardians of Casey and Larson’s two children.

At the time, Casey’s murder was unsolved.

In September 2008, Johnson filed a proposed parenting plan on behalf of Larson, but the attorney failed to file appropriate documents or move forward with the case, a complaint states.

In a response to the complaint, Johnson said the correct paperwork was prepared, but Larson could not be reached for his signature.

Johnson also said that once Larson filed a complaint with the state about his legal services, he legally couldn’t move forward with the case on behalf of his former client.

The attorney concluded by saying Larson also failed to tell him about the circumstances of his wife’s death, “which made the matter involving the children a much more significant problem than he had lead (sic) me to believe.”

Later in 2011, Johnson was suspended from practicing law for 60 days in a separate matter. He was also publicly censured in May 2008.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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