A Virginia State Bar discipline panel last month yanked the license of a Reston lawyer based on allegations of “gross incompetence, utter lack of diligence, and dishonesty.” A VSB lawyer argued Thomas J. Sehler was “not fit to practice law” and his continued practice posed “an imminent danger to the public.”
The VSB urged the Disciplinary Board to revoke Sehler’s license based on a litany of charges, most involving self-dealing and disregard of court orders in connection with bankruptcy cases.
The VSB petition asked for an expedited hearing, arguing nothing short of revocation “will suffice to protect the public from Respondent’s intolerable ethical misconduct.”
The charges are “bogus and scurrilous,” said Sehler, but he acknowledged he did not contest them at the hearing. “It wasn’t worth it,” he said.
Sehler’s April 27 disbarment came 20 years after his license was reinstated; he surrendered it in 1986. Sehler explained the misconduct charges in the 1980s arose out of repossession of a car to collect on a legal fee.
After winning reinstatement in 1992, Sehler, 62, did not make much use of his law license until just three years ago. He mainly did real estate and mortgage work, he said.
In 2009, Sehler opened The Thomas Law Firm of Reston, owned by an LLC. The firm’s website promoted a bankruptcy practice along with debt settlement, mortgage modification and other services. The bankruptcy practice was busy – the Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia lists 237 cases over a three year period with Sehler as counsel for the debtors.
Court records confirm Sehler was sanctioned twice by bankruptcy judges and at least five times ordered to refund his fees to clients. “I learned bankruptcy from the ground up, by trial and error,” he said. “Have I screwed up? Sure, but I corrected my mistakes.”
Sehler said no one ever lost anything because of early mistakes, such as failing to file a homestead deed. Sehler said he handled almost 200 successful bankruptcy discharges.
The bar raised more serious issues, however. In one of those cases, the VSB charged, Sehler prepared a $1,000 check to his client, but arranged to meet her at the bank and talked her into negotiating the check and giving him the cash. He said it was for his filing a third bankruptcy petition for her, but he performed no further legal service for that client, the bar alleged.
“That $1,000 was applied to a new case, a new filing,” Sehler said.
Sehler also got into trouble with his own bankruptcy petition.
He filed in 2009, just as he was launching his bankruptcy practice. By the time he attended a creditors’ meeting the next month, he had filed four bankruptcy petitions for clients. Nevertheless, in his bankruptcy filings, Sehler never mentioned that he was starting to earn fees as an attorney. He told the bankruptcy trustee that he was in the “real estate and mortgage business,” earning about $1,500 a week plus commissions, according to the trustee’s court pleadings.
By the time he attended another creditors’ meeting two months later, Sehler had filed 17 bankruptcy cases and collected at least $30,000 in fees, the trustee alleged. Despite the new found income as a bankruptcy lawyer, Sehler again told the trustee he was in the real estate and mortgage business, omitting any mention of legal work.
Sehler “concealed the existence of The Thomas Law Firm with the intent to hinder, delay or defraud creditors and the United States Trustee,” the trustee contended.
Sehler said he did not mention his law practice because he considered the LLC as a separate entity. He conceded it was a “technical answer,” but he said bankruptcy is a technical procedure.
After the trustee asked the court to refuse to discharge Sehler’s debts, Sehler agreed and gave up his bid to have his debts wiped out by the court.
The VSB case against Sehler was prosecuted by Senior Assistant Bar Counsel Seth M. Guggenheim. Sehler said he refused to sign an admission of misconduct prepared by Guggenheim.
“I would have had to pay tens of thousands of dollars” to defend the charges. “It’s just not worth it to me,” he said. “I am uninterested in attending a barbecue when I’m being barbecued.”
Sehler said he expects to continue work in real estate and mortgage matters.
Bar Counsel Edward L. Davis said he can recall only one other case of a lawyer who lost his license twice, that of Albert C. Lynch of Richmond.
Lynch surrendered his license in 1985, petitioned for reinstatement and then surrendered it again in 1995, according to Davis.