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No jurisdiction to rule on attorney ethics complaint

The circuit court correctly ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to hear appellant’s ethics complaint against an attorney.


Appellant Spanos filed an ethics complaint in circuit court, seeking to have Feinmel’s law license revoked. “Spanos asserted that the circuit court had jurisdiction under Code § 54.1-3915 to grant the relief he requested. Feinmel filed an amended demurrer arguing, among other things, that the circuit court ‘ha[d] no jurisdiction to determine the matter raised in the [c]omplaint or to grant the relief requested.’

“The circuit court heard argument; Spanos filed a written opposition but did not appear for the hearing. At the hearing, the court found the lack of jurisdiction and lack of available relief dispositive.

“The court ruled ‘that the [c]ourt has no jurisdiction whatsoever to entertain the relief sought in this case to, generally, revoke the attorneys’ right to practice in the Commonwealth of Virginia or otherwise subject them to discipline.’

“The circuit court entered a final order incorporating its bench ruling, sustaining the demurrer, and dismissing the complaint. This appeal followed.”


“The basic premise underpinning Spanos’ claims is that ‘any person or entity has standing to file a Virginia legal ethics complaint within any court according to [Code] § 54.1-3915.’ He argues that under Code § 54.1-3910, the Virginia State Bar ‘has no authority to prosecute or discipline attorneys’; rather, ‘only the courts (of record) are authorized to discipline attorneys.’

“Continuing, he asserts that Code § 54.1-39102 requires the Bar to ‘act as an administrative agency of the Court” to investigate and report violations of rules and regulations adopted by the Court. He contends, however, that the Bar’s power to investigate and report such violations excludes the power to adjudicate them.

“In In re Moseley, 273 Va. 688 (2007), Spanos continues, the Supreme Court acknowledged that ‘[l]icensure of an attorney, and revocation of that license, are matters governed by statute. It is not within the jurisdiction of a circuit court to adjudicate the revocation of a license to practice law except in compliance with the statutory authority.’ …

“He interprets Moseley to require the circuit court to adjudicate his ethics complaint under Code § 54.1-3915.

“Spanos expressly disclaims, however, any reliance on Code § 54.1-3935, which provides for the adjudication of a legal ethics complaint by a three-judge court, after certain prerequisite conditions are met.

“Similarly, he acknowledges that the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct do not confer a private right of action, but merely provide the metric for evaluating whether an attorney has committed an ethical violation warranting discipline.

“He contends that the allegations in his complaint sufficiently stated a claim that Feinmel violated those rules, so he concludes the complaint properly invoked the circuit court’s jurisdiction to discipline him.

“We are unpersuaded by Spanos’ interpretation of the statutory framework governing attorney discipline.”


“In Moseley, the Supreme Court discussed two separate forms of attorney discipline. First, any court may suspend or revoke an attorney’s privilege to appear before that court. …

“The second form of attorney discipline involves inquiries into alleged misconduct which may affect the attorney’s licensure to practice law. …

“Under the controlling statutes, the Supreme Court of Virginia has express authority to ‘[p]rescrib[e] a code of ethics governing the professional conduct of attorneys,’ to ‘[d]efin[e] the practice of law,’ and to ‘[p]rescribe[e] procedures for disciplining, suspending, and disbarring attorneys.’ …

“Code § 54.1-3935 governs who – what body – will decide whether an attorney’s misconduct justifies disbarment.

“Code § 54.1-3935(A)5 permits either ‘[a]ny attorney who is the subject of a disciplinary proceeding or the Virginia State Bar … to terminate the proceeding before the Bar Disciplinary Board or a district committee and demand that further proceedings be conducted by a three-judge circuit court.’(Emphases added).

“When such a three-judge court is demanded, the Bar ‘shall file a complaint in a circuit court where venue is proper,’ whereupon the chief judge of that court issues the rule to show cause. …

“The rule to show cause is then heard by a three-judge court designated by the Chief Justice and prosecuted by Bar Counsel or special counsel appointed under Code § 2.2-510. …

“Virginia law does not authorize the revocation or disbarment proceedings Spanos seeks to pursue in any other form. Nor does it provide for individual citizens to prosecute disbarment or disciplinary proceedings against attorneys in circuit courts. …

“In providing that Supreme Court Rules cannot be ‘inconsistent with any statute,’ Code § 54.1-3915 provides checks and balances against rules which ignore or seek to override statutory provisions. The rules which Spanos challenges, however, are wholly consistent with the statutory framework.

“Under these rules any attorney who prefers court adjudication over Bar review of his discipline is free to select it. …

“The Commonwealth’s statutory scheme does not grant the Circuit Court of Louisa County the power to disbar attorneys – and the court lacked authority to grant Spanos the relief he desires.

“Accordingly, the circuit court did not err by ruling that it lacked jurisdiction to revoke Feinmel’s license to practice law. The court has only such subject-matter jurisdiction as is conferred by the Constitution or by statute. …

“Despite Spanos’ assertions to the contrary, Code § 54.1-3915 does not confer jurisdiction, and the circuit court was without authority to redress Spanos’ claims.”

Spanos v. Feinmel, Record No. 0140-22-2, March 7, 2023. CAV (unpublished opinion) (Friedman). From the Circuit Court of Louisa County (Sanner). Nickolas George Spanos, pro se. John P. O’Herron for appellee. VLW 023-7-105, 15 pp.

VLW 023-7-105

Virginia Lawyers Weekly