The Supreme Court of South Carolina
In the Matter of Richard Alexander Murdaugh, Respondent.Appellate Case No. 2022-000812
On September 7, 2021, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) requested this Court place Respondent Richard Alexander Murdaugh on interim suspension based upon information indicating Respondent had stolen funds from the law firm that employed him. Respondent consented to the relief and on September 8, 2021, this Court issued an order suspending Respondent from the practice of law. In re Murdaugh, 434 S.C. 233, 863 S.E.2d 335 (2021).
On September 16, 2021, Respondent was arrested and charged with Attempted Insurance Fraud and Filing a False Police Report. The false report was related to an attempted assisted suicide that Respondent reported as an attempted murder because he believed his life insurance policy contained an enforceable suicide exclusion.
On September 16, 2021, December 13, 2021, and January 10, 2022, Respondent appeared at bond hearings and, through counsel, admitted in court that he had, in fact, engineered the events that supported the arrest. On November 22, 2021, Respondent filed an Emergency Motion for a Gag Order in Satterfield v. Murdaugh, Case No. 2021-CP-25-00298, in which Respondent admitted to misconduct related to the theft of money from the law firm that employed him. Over the course of several months, Respondent was indicted and charged with over seventy criminal counts involving the theft of funds from various clients, including the Satterfield plaintiffs. On May 27, 2022, Respondent signed a Confession of Judgment and Stipulation in the amount of $4,305,000.00, admitting liability for the theft of settlement funds in the Satterfield matter in which Respondent was the named defendant.1
The South Carolina Constitution "commits to this Court the duty to regulate the practice of law in South Carolina." See In re Unauthorized Practice of Law, 309 S.C. 304, 305, 422 S.E.2d 123, 124 (1992) (citing S.C. Const. art. V. § 4); see also Kirven v. Sec'y of Bd. of Comm'rs on Grievances & Discipline, 271 S.C. 194, 197, 246 S.E.2d 857, 858 (1978) ("The jurisdiction of this Court to discipline attorneys for acts of professional misconduct is exclusive."). This constitutional duty includes the duty and the authority to remove unfit persons from the legal profession for the protection of the public and the administration of justice, and to do so through disbarment. In re Jordan, 421 S.C. 594, 809 S.E.2d 409 (2017).
As an officer of the Court, an attorney is at all times subject to the Court's control, and the attorney's admission to practice carries with it the imprimatur of this Court. State v. Jennings, 161 S.C. 263, 272, 159 S.E. 627, 631 (1931).Disciplinary matters call into question whether a lawyer is no longer worthy to bear the Court's imprimatur. Id. at 272, 159 S.E. at 631.
Disciplinary proceedings ordinarily follow a course of investigation, pleading, limited discovery, and a contested hearing before the Commission on Lawyer Conduct. The Commission then submits a report to this Court with findings of fact, conclusions of law, and recommendations for disposition. Rule 26(d), RLDE, Rule 413, SCACR. This Court then reviews those findings and issues a decision accepting, rejecting, or modifying in whole or in part the Commission's findings, conclusions, and recommendations. Rule 27(e), RLDE, Rule 413, SCACR. These procedures ensure that ODC carries its burden of establishing allegations of misconduct by clear and convincing evidence. See Rule 8, RLDE, Rule 413, SCACR (stating, "[c]harges of misconduct . . . shall be established by clear and convincing evidence, and the burden of proof of the charges shall be on the disciplinary counsel").
However, here, Respondent has admitted to conduct that amounts to clear and convincing evidence of dishonesty in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct. See Rule 8.4(d), RPC, Rule 407, SCACR (prohibiting conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation); Rule 7(a)(1), RLDE, Rule 413, SCACR (providing a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct is grounds for discipline). Respondent is bound by the admissions contained in the documents he filed in the Satterfield case. See Johnson v. Alexander, 413 S.C. 196, 202, 775 S.E.2d 697, 700 (2015) ("Parties are generally bound by their pleadings and are precluded from advancing arguments or submitting evidence contrary to those assertions."); Hayne Fed. Credit Union v. Bailey, 327 S.C. 242, 251–52, 489 S.E.2d 472, 477 (1997) (establishing that a party may not adopt a factual position in conflict with one taken in the same or a related action); cf. Quinn v. Sharon Corp., 343 S.C. 411, 414–15, 540 S.E.2d 474, 476 (Ct. App. 2000) (finding litigant was judicially estopped from asserting a factual position after previously disclaiming those facts in a prior divorce action). Respondent is also bound by the statements his counsel made at the bond hearings in which counsel admitted Respondent staged a suicide attempt to appear as a murder so as to defraud the life insurance company and subsequently filed a false police report to that effect. Cf. United States v. Blood, 806 F.2d 1218, 1221 (4th Cir. 1986) (stating, "a clear and unambiguous admission of fact made by a party's attorney in an opening statement in a civil or criminal case is binding upon the party"); Black's Law Dictionary 58 (11th ed. 2019) (defining a judicial admission as "[a] formal waiver of proof that relieves an opposing party from having to prove the admitted fact and bars the party who made the admission from disputing it"); Meyer v. Berkshire Life Ins. Co., 372 F.3d 261, 264–65 (4th Cir. 2004) ("Judicial admissions are not . . . limited to affirmative statements that a fact exists. They also include intentional and unambiguous waivers that release the opposing party from its burden to prove the facts necessary to establish the waived conclusion of law.").
Based on these admissions, there is no factual dispute about whether Respondent engaged in dishonest conduct. Respondent's admissions in the criminal proceedings that he engaged in conduct that violates the Rules of Professional Conduct satisfies ODC's burden of proving that same misconduct in connection with the pending disciplinary proceedings. Thus, an evidentiary hearing before the Commission is unnecessary for disposition of the pending discipline, as the only remaining issue to be decided is the legal question of determining the appropriate sanction, a matter left to the discretion of this Court under the Constitution.
In this unique case, Respondent's admissions in the public record lead to only one conclusion—that Respondent's egregious ethical misconduct subjects him to the most significant sanction available—disbarment. Accordingly, we find there is no need to expend additional resources to proceed through the normal disciplinary process. Instead, this Court may act under the Court's constitutional authority to regulate the practice of law in South Carolina and may remove an unfit lawyer from the practice of law to ensure the public, and the administration of justice, are protected.2
Therefore, we dispense with further proceedings before the Commission. Respondent shall appear in the Supreme Court Courtroom at 11:00 a.m. on June 22, 2022, to present legal argument on the question of whether this Court should disbar Respondent from the practice of law.
s/Donald W. Beatty C. J.
FOR THE COURT
Columbia, South Carolina
June 16, 2022
1 The Court obtained this information from the public records in Hampton County, South Carolina, and from the transcripts of the bond hearings.
2 This procedure is limited to the facts and circumstances of this case.