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Norcross attorney disbarred over 'misconduct'

LAWRENCEVILLE - A Norcross attorney has been disbarred because money a client paid him to file bankruptcy charges and pay off a mortgage arrearage on her behalf disappeared.

A client of John Clark Whatley IV filed a complaint with the State Bar of Georgia this year which resulted in him being disbarred Nov. 7, according to the ruling. A voice message left at a telephone number listing for John Whatley in Norcross was not returned Friday.

The following is a summary of events leading up to Whatley's disbarring as outlined by the Bar.

Whatley was hired to file for bankruptcy on the client's behalf in November 2000. At the time, the client was behind on her mortgage payments by more than $3,000.

The woman claimed she paid Whatley's firm $4,350, understanding that most of the money would be put toward her mortgage arrearage. That debt was never paid.

When the bankruptcy court in January 2004 issued an order requiring the client to pay the mortgage bills and set out a payment plan, Whatley never notified her.

When she subsequently defaulted on the payment plan, eventually the mortgage company contacted the client directly. She filed a grievance against Whatley and hired another attorney.

The bankruptcy court judge scheduled a hearing for Whatley to appear and account for the missing money. However, Whatley reportedly couldn't account for $1,600 of the funds.

The judge then ordered him to refund the client and pay attorney fees. The bankruptcy court also found there was evidence that Whatley had violated rules of the Bar.

In a subsequent investigation by the Bar, Whatley wrote a letter addressing the charges leveled against him. In it, Whatley claimed he had established the law firm of John C. Whatley & Associates P.C. eight years ago with a law school graduate who had never passed the Bar exam, but who had experience handling bankruptcy paperwork.

The partner was responsible for the firm's day-to-day business, while Whatley completed bankruptcy filing and appeared in court as needed. Whatley had a full-time job elsewhere, and he was paid only a flat fee of $1,500 a month by the firm bearing his name.

Whatley claimed that in 2004, the man allegedly began telling him the firm was suffering from a lack of business. In May of that year, the man left Whatley a voice mail saying he had decided to close the law firm, Whatley's letter said. Whatley later learned the man had pocketed all the money from the firm's bank accounts, his letter claimed.

Whatley asserted the man had stolen not only the one client's funds, but also money from clients in eight other bankruptcy cases. Whatley claimed he had filed a lawsuit against the man and said the blame for the client's grievance should be placed on his partner.

The Investigative Panel of the Bar concluded that Whatley should be disbarred.

"Whatley appears to have engaged in a pattern of misconduct; that he has displayed a cavalier and arrogant attitude toward these proceedings; and that he does not appear to understand his obligations under the Bar Rules," the ruling stated.