Durham attorney and former city council member Floyd McKissick Jr. has been disciplined by the N.C. State Bar for professional misconduct involving a conflict of interest.
McKissick received a formal reprimand from bar's grievance committee late last year, which the bar recently released to the public. The reprimand is essentially a slap on the wrist from the organization that regulates North Carolina attorneys; his law license is not endangered.
The bar found that McKissick, a civil litigator who served on the council from 1993 to 2001, improperly represented both sides in a 2000 dispute involving the estate decisions of an elderly Durham man, Thomas Griswell. The conflict between the man and his younger caretaker spawned a civil case, as well as criminal charges of elder abuse against the caretaker.
"I found myself in the middle of a family dispute, which I initially felt could be solved through mediation rather than litigation," McKissick says. "When I realized that it couldn't, I removed myself as expeditiously as possible."
Griswell's niece, however, sees it very differently.
"Floyd McKissick was a danger to elderly people who trusted him, who relied on him to protect their interests," says Beverly Hill, who lives in Raleigh. Hill believes that "a huge conflict of interest" led McKissick to help her uncle's caretaker get control of his assets, taking advantage of his advanced age, poor health and grief over his wife's death. "My uncle was very exposed."
Court records show that Griswell signed over the deed to his East Alton Street house and all legal power over his personal finances and other affairs to caretaker Lily Richardson, whom Griswell and his wife had considered one of four unrelated "foster children" they had supported for many years. The legal transactions took place in then-councilman McKissick's office in 1999, the day after Griswell's wife of 63 years had died. At the time, McKissick legally represented Griswell.
A couple of months later, when Griswell realized he'd lost his house and given away power over his personal affairs, he hired another attorney to help him rescind the agreement McKissick had arranged for him with Richardson. McKissick later represented Richardson in her attempts to keep the agreement in place, according to court records.
Questioned about the conflict of interest, McKissick is quick to assert that the bar's ruling "is not newsworthy."
"I consider this stuff to be purely personal in nature, to be candid with you," McKissick says, emphatically insisting that he's "no longer a public official." Two days after a lengthy phone interview, McKissick calls back to leave this statement on a recorded message: "It's very important if you're writing something to add this to it. . . that what I did was an act of human compassion and kindness for someone in a time of need, and if for that I'm reprimanded, then so be it. May God be my judge. I'll never lose my compassion for others."
The battle over Griswell's assets eventually led to a nine-day civil trial in 2002, after which a jury concluded in Griswell's favor. While waiting for the case to move forward, Griswell had died in September 2000, at the age of 89, leaving Hill, whom he'd since named as his heir in a new will, to carry on his battle. The jury ruled that the house should be returned to the estate, and that Richardson should pay the estate about $6,700. The criminal charges against Richardson, which accused her of taking advantage of Griswell's age and infirmity to trick him out of his assets, were eventually dropped due to the death of the primary witness and the civil suit being settled, according to news accounts at the time.
In disciplining McKissick, the state bar cited evidence that the attorney violated his duty to Griswell by representing Richardson in her claim to Griswell's house and other assets in the civil suit.
The bar also alleges that McKissick was involved, at least marginally, in Richardson's defense of the criminal charges, an allegation he denies.
"She called me after she was arrested, but I did not assist her in the criminal case," he says.
Susan Mitchell, the Roxboro attorney who represented Griswell in his attempts to regain possession of his house and control of his assets, says she was incensed by what she saw as McKissick's clear conflict.
"Mr. McKissick called me after I filed the lawsuit, saying he represented the Richardsons," Mitchell says. "I told him, 'You are a witness in this case' and urged him to withdraw."
She filed a formal motion asking a judge to force him to do so. McKissick then withdrew after the motion was filed but before it came up for a hearing in open court.
McKissick points out that the state bar's action is the only time in 20 years of law practice that he's been accused of professional wrongdoing. And he's been cleared of other accusations. In 1995, McKissick's former wife said he physically abused her, and in 2001 a former employee of his law firm said he hit her with a telephone. He was acquitted in both cases.
Richardson, Griswell's former caretaker who still lives in Durham, says the attorney was blameless in this case as well, though she declined to discuss details.
"As far as I'm concerned, Mr. McKissick never did anything wrong," Richardson says today. "That's really all I have to say about it."
The state bar issued its initial reprimand to McKissick in January 2003, nearly three years after it was filed by Griswell's niece. McKissick asked for a reconsideration before the bar's grievance committee, but the committee declined to change its ruling and reissued the reprimand in November.
Hill, the niece, says she wishes the bar had acted sooner and more forcefully.
"I don't like to see anyone lose their livelihood, but on the other side of the coin, I don't like to see elderly people taken advantage of," Hill says.