On Thursday, July 6, 2023, the Hearing Board of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission filed its report and recommendation for a case against attorney James Douglas Cottrell for embezzling funds from a client’s trust account.

The case is entitled, “In the matter of James Douglas Cottrell,” with case number 22PR00069.

The charges cited Rule1.15(a), and Rule 8.4(c) of the Rules of Professional Conduct which provide that:

A lawyer is required to hold property of clients or third persons that is in the lawyer’s possession in connection with a representation separate from the lawyer’s own property, in a client trust account.

It is professional misconduct for an attorney to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.

The rules of professional conduct can be found here.

The complaint revolves around Attorney Cottrell’s conduct of dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation by unauthorized use of funds from a client’s account for his personal use. The Administrator presented clear and convincing pieces of evidence that proved the guilt of Mr. Cottrell.

During the investigation, Attorney Cottrell admitted that he did not have the authority to use the funds but did so anyway for personal purposes.

On May 3, 2016, and March 6, 2022, Mr. Cottrell wrote a check for $2,544.29 and $300, respectively, totaling $2,902.34 into his operating account. Shortly thereafter, however, the respondent deposited $3,100 back to the client’s account because “taking out the money was wrong,” He also reported his withdrawals to the Administrator because he was öbligated to report his own misconduct”. Up to that point, he further testified that he is still in a quandary as to the proper distribution of the funds because he wanted to return them to the rightful owners.

The hearing panel gave weight to the fact that Mr. Cottrell spent long hours “cleaning” the client’s file, working on hundreds if not thousands of them, considering that he has no associate in his law firm. Mr. Cottrell even went to the extent of spending $800 dollars to accomplish some paper works. He had also completed three legal education courses substantiated by certificates. Mr. Cottrrell has had no previous discipline since 1983. And appealing to the panel’s compassion, he testified that a suspension would ruin his career, him having no associate. Mr. Cottrell fully supported the investigation and showed genuine remorse, even resorting to self-reporting his misconduct. The effort and money the respondent had expended to locate the owner of the funds also were given weight at mitigation.

On careful analysis of the evidence and the mitigating factors, the hearing panel concluded that Mr. Cottrell had violated the cited rules. Contrary to the Administrator’s recommendation, the hearing panel was inclined to recommend that a reprimand was appropriate under the circumstances of this case.

The recommendation reads:

“We recognize that the foregoing cases did not include findings that the attorneys violated Rule 8.4(c), and we further recognize that reprimands typically are not given when an attorney has been found to have dishonestly converted funds. That said, we determine that the unique circumstances of this case, including the absence of harm, the Respondent’sefforts to clean up the files of a retired attorney, and his efforts to rectify his mistakes and report his misconduct, justify a reprimand recommendation. Accordingly, we recommend that the Respondent, James Douglas Cottrell, be reprimanded. A proposed reprimand accompanies this Report.”

James Douglas Cottrell obtained his law degree in 1982 from Drake University and was admitted to the Illinois Bar Association in 1983. More of Mr. Cottrell’s bio can be found here.

A copy of the original filing can be found here.