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Supreme Court mulls reprimand for Ralston
By JIM WALLS
Nov. 10, 2016 — House Speaker David Ralston would receive a reprimand but no suspension for violating State Bar rules, according to papers filed today with the Georgia Supreme Court.
Ralston, who practices law in Blue Ridge, admitted advancing $22,000 — against any future settlement — to a client who’d waited years for his case to come to trial. Under bar rules, “a lawyer shall not provide financial assistance to a client in connection with pending … litigation.”
Ralston paid the money from his firm’s trust account, also a rule violation. The speaker noted that the advances came from a fee that he earned in an unrelated matter and had deposited in the account.
“Whether Ralston’s actions in advancing money to the Chemaks were the result of ignorance as contended, negligence, or an attempt to placate an increasingly frustrated client, the conduct clearly violates the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct,” special master Jon Peters wrote in his 20-page report to the high court.
To resolve the matter, Ralston had agreed to discipline up to a three-month suspension of his law license. Peters, in recommending only a reprimand, noted that Ralston didn’t personally benefit from his actions, as well as other mitigating factors.
If the Supreme Court accepts the recommendation, it would end a three-year battle that Peters described as “a complicated and contentious course.”
Cumming resident Paul Chernak had approached Ralston’s firm in 2006 to seek damages for injuries sustained in a car wreck. He filed suit on Chernak’s behalf in March 2008 and discovery proceedings took another eight months.
Ralston’s legislative duties and other factors made it difficult to pin down a trial date, though, the special master’s report said. The scheduling was complicated further once Ralston became speaker of the House in 2010.
The speaker, Peters noted, told Chernak several times that legislative duties limited his available time and explicitly said Chernak could hire another lawyer.
Chernak acknowledged as much in a 2014 television interview about the case, the special master reported. “Mr. Chernak was quoted as stating: ‘When I confronted him on it [delay], his [Ralston’s] comment was, ‘If you don’t like it, fire me.'”
Chernak hired a new lawyer to replace Ralston in 2013. Ralston did not seek return of the $22,000 advance.