It was getting pretty late in the day when the phone rang in Belinda Haynie’s Morgantown office. Her secretary transferred the call, thinking the pre-paid call from the North Central Regional Jail may have been any one of Haynie’s clients.
But Haynie didn’t recognize the voice on the other end of the line when she picked up the phone that day in January 2014.
The man introduced himself as Greg White. He’d found her number and was hoping to find a lawyer who could help him look into his own case. His lawyer, David Anderson, had ignored his letters, and the judge overseeing White’s case couldn’t make Anderson respond.
They agreed to talk the next day and hung up. Haynie looked online at the regional jail website and found White’s case number. She called Marion County Judge David Janes’ secretary.
“Well, that case number was dismissed, like, you know, in November, like 400 and some days ago,” Haynie remembered the secretary saying.
Later that evening, Haynie checked back at the regional jail website. White had been released that night after spending 433 days incarcerated after a judge dropped his case.
Before Haynie checked into the case, White wrote to the judge, and to his own lawyer several times, asking for information about his case. A line of public officials tasked with making sure White was released from jail instead ignored him, letting him sit in jail about 14 months longer than he needed to.
“I mean, it should be a total fluke. That was the interesting thing about Mr. White’s case, is that no one involved in the process knew that he should’ve been out of jail,” said Edmund Rollo, who would later represent White in a civil suit against Anderson, the jail and other public entities.
Anderson would later have his license suspended for his failing to communicate with White. It wasn’t the first time he failed to communicate with clients in jail, according to disciplinary records obtained by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Through Haynie, White declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he hoped to put the past behind him.
But Anderson was disciplined in White’s case. In a 3-2 decision this May, the state’s highest court suspended Anderson’s law license for six months, two of which he’d serve. His license was reinstated on Aug. 21, and he works as an assistant public defender for the 13th Judicial Circuit in Charleston, according to the state bar.
When Anderson’s license was suspended, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel issued a news release. The release didn’t mention White’s months of letters to Anderson and Janes about his incarceration, or that the ODC dismissed a 2013 ethics complaint he filed, before finally investigating his claim in 2014. The release also didn’t mention the dozen complaints against Anderson alleging the same kind of neglect White tried to tell public officials about.
By the time the Office of Disciplinary Counsel received White’s complaint against Anderson, the ODC already had a file of complaints against the lawyer. Starting in 2008, clients wrote in, complaining of an absentee lawyer.
In 2008, Jovohna Cosby wrote to the ODC from the North Central Regional Jail, saying she’d wanted a preliminary hearing in her case, but that the court waived the hearing because Anderson didn’t request anything otherwise.
“He proceeded by saying, ‘I have a law degree, want to see?’ ” she wrote. Anderson later denied saying that.
The ODC closed the case — Cosby was “clearly dissatisfied” with her representation, but the evidence against Anderson wasn’t compelling enough, the record shows.
White first complained to the ODC in 2013. They closed the case. Haynie ultimately filed a complaint on his behalf in 2014.
But even after that, in July 2017, another man, Charles Knapp, wrote from South Central Regional Jail in Charleston: “It has been two months now and I can not get in touch with him, nor have I received anything from him.”
The ODC said there was not enough evidence to show Anderson violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, and dismissed the case.
In September 2018, another client, Terrence McArthur wrote from the same jail: “Since the beginning he’s been out of the loop.”
The ODC closed the case.
Anderson did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
These complaints should be taken with a grain of salt, Rollo warned.
“A vast vast majority of attorneys don’t do things that would be violative of Rules of Professional conduct. On the other hand, that doesn’t stop someone from filing a complaint with the ODC,” he said.
He knew Anderson through the Monongalia County bar, and said Anderson had a reputation as a “very fine attorney.”
“So to the extent that he has any ODC complaints against him, part those that have been dismissed by the ODC, I would suggest to you that that would not be a reason to think there’s fire where there’s smoke,” he said.
Only when Haynie filed her 2014 complaint did the ODC decide to hear a case against Anderson.
White first ended up in the criminal justice system in Marion County in 2007, when he pleaded guilty through an information to one count of distributing and exhibiting minors engaged in sexually explicit acts. An information plea normally means the defendant is cooperating with prosecutors.
His plea was accepted and he was sentenced to two years in jail. The sentence was later suspended, and he was ordered to serve a six-month term of home confinement.
In 2011, White violated his probation and was found again with obscene materials. He was sent back to North Central Regional Jail, in Doddridge County, and assigned a new lawyer: David Anderson. He finished his first sentence there, in March 2012. At that point, he remained incarcerated because he didn’t post bond in the second criminal case.
In November 2012, while White was in jail, a Marion County judge signed an order to dismiss the indictment. He should’ve been released that day.
Instead, a series of communication failures kept White in jail. The prosecuting attorneys who prepared the nolle order didn’t instruct the Marion County Circuit Clerk to tell the jail. The circuit clerk, tasked with keeping records, didn’t tell the jail. Anderson, who saw the nolle order, didn’t tell his client. When he asked, jail employees didn’t help White get more information about his case, he’d later say in a lawsuit.
No one told White he should have been released from jail.
In May 2013, White wrote to Circuit Judge Michael Aloi in Fairmont on lined, loose-leaf notebook paper.
“My name is Greg Edward White. I have been sitting in North Central Regional Jail for almost 14 months on a detainer,” he wrote in his first letter.
On May 30, he wrote to Janes, the judge, saying Anderson hadn’t talked to him, and that he was seeking information about his sentence. He wrote again June 28.
“It has been 3½ weeks since I received your letter dated 30 May 2013. Mr. Anderson has still not contacted me,” he wrote. “Would you please reconsider appointing me a new attorney?”
He wrote again July 20. In response to each letter, Janes said he’d instruct Anderson to get in touch.
That never happened.
“I do remember having a conversation with Judge Janes about the matter over a letter sent to him by Mr. White,” Anderson would later write to the ODC. “The judge did suggest at the time that I write to Mr. White, and I failed to do so.”
In August, White filed his first ethics complaint, which was subsequently dismissed.
After White was released from jail, Haynie filed another Office of Disciplinary Counsel suit on his behalf, which would set into motion a series of hearings that culminated with this year’s Supreme Court ruling.
White later sued Anderson and a group of public entities: The West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority and its director, the North Central Regional Jail and its administrator, the Marion County commission, the circuit clerk of Marion County, the county’s prosecuting attorneys and counselors with the North Central Regional Jail.
The lawsuit alleged legal malpractice, emotional distress and “callous indifference” to his state and federal rights.
Each declined to comment for this story. Janes also declined to comment.
The groups settled with White in September 2017. White’s lawyers declined to comment on the terms of the settlement, but a transcript of a court hearing shows the public entities settled for $11,000. A transcript from an ethics hearing shows Anderson told the counsel he’d agreed to pay more than $140,000 to settle the case.
In February 2018, Anderson testified at a hearing before the Lawyer Disciplinary Board’s Hearing Panel Subcommittee. Choking back tears, he admitted he was wrong.
“I didn’t believe him. I chose not to believe him. I’m supposed to protect these people. I’m sorry. This is embarrassing,” he said.
At the hearing in Charleston, he said he should have looked at the nolle order that dropped the case.
“I failed him because I failed to believe him and I actually became aggravated with him because I thought he was wrong,” he said. “And I was wrong.”
In May, the West Virginia Supreme Court’s five justices were split on how harshly to discipline the lawyer for failing to keep his client “reasonably informed” about his case and communicating in a way that allowed his client to make an informed decision — violations of the Rules of Professional conduct.
The opinion, concurred by Chief Justice Beth Walker and justices Evan Jenkins and John Hutchison, followed the subcommittee’s recommendations to suspend Anderson’s law license and require legal education classes and a payment.
Justices Margaret Workman and Tim Armstead wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing the punishment wasn’t harsh enough. Disciplinary proceedings don’t just punish the attorney, they protect the public, they wrote.
“Mr. Anderson’s misconduct is egregious because the injury suffered by his client would have been minimized had Mr. Anderson complied with multiple circuit court orders directing him to communicate with Mr. White,” they wrote.
In June, Anderson’s law license was suspended for 60 days. In all, he’d be suspended six months, but serve the remainder on supervised probation.
Anderson, first admitted to the state bar in November 2000, will also have to complete six additional hours of continuing legal education and reimburse the Office of Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel $947 for the cost of proceedings in his case.
Three hours after White picked up the phone to call Haynie, he was approached by a guard.
He was told to pack up his belongings. White had no idea where he was going, but figured he was going to general population. If that were true — that he’d be with the rest of the people in jail — he’d be dead in a matter of days, he thought.
He started to talk toward general population, but the guard corrected him.
“No, straight. You’re getting out of here,” the guard said.
“And it was ... I was like that far from just collapsing out of relief,” White later told a disciplinary panel in February 2018. “Happy would be an understatement.”
That night, White didn’t get any of his clothes back. He was given a pair of pants that didn’t fit him right. It was January, and it was cold, so the jail gave him a jacket. While he was in jail, his ex-wife died and her husband abandoned the house.
Walking out of the jail in borrowed clothes, White stepped out into the cold January night, and called a cab to a homeless shelter — the only home he had left.