A Columbia lawyer who threatened former clients with disclosure of confidential information and accused other attorneys who took over her cases of racism has been suspended from practice indefinitely by the Missouri Supreme Court.
In an order handed down Tuesday, the court rejected a recommendation of probation from the Chief Disciplinary Counsel for Columbia attorney Syreeta McNeal. In the order, the court directed that McNeal may not seek reinstatement of her license for at least six months.
McNeal, who has been practicing as an independent attorney since 2012, was accused of harassing former clients for fees they allegedly owed, including late-night calls to clients for payment and reporting former clients to the IRS for failing to file tax returns.
The court based its decision in part on past disciplinary actions against McNeal, who in 2017 was admonished for directly contacting a party to a lawsuit rather than the person’s attorney and failing to turn over a client’s file when they hired a new lawyer.
In the brief filed on behalf of McNeal, attorneys Brent W. Baldwin and M. Brendhan Flynn noted that she had not been accused of misconduct previously in collecting fees.
“However, there is absolutely no dispute that Respondent violated her ethical obligations in regard to the three fee disputes for which she is charged in this case,” they wrote.
Among the actions she admitted to, the attorneys wrote, are calling clients late at night and using abusive language to coerce payment, accusing another client of lying and threatening to reveal it and filing a complaint with the IRS about another client.
In arguing for probation, the two attorneys wrote that McNeal was under stress at the time from caring for an ailing father and that she suffered from “three previously undiagnosed mental health disorders. These three mental disorders caused Respondent to see threats that were not there, to overreact to those perceived threats, and to blame others.”
In recommending probation, Nancy L. Ripperger, staff counsel representing the Chief Disciplinary Counsel, wrote that with supervision McNeal could practice law successfully.
“The prospect that noncompliance with the probation terms will lead to the revocation of probation, and ultimately suspension, serves as a powerful incentive to change,” she wrote.
There are several mitigating factors, she wrote.
“The most compelling is Respondent’s mental health,” Ripperberger wrote.
The order suspending McNeal without probation does not give the court’s reason for rejecting that recommendation.