Lawyer says love blinded him to rules

Apr. 29, 2014 @ 08:28 AM

Lawyer William Wallace Respess Jr. admits he violated several rules of professional conduct in a divorce case he was handling, but it was because he fell in love with his client, according to a document submitted last week to the N.C. State Bar.

And while it is true that Respess had sex with two clients in the 1980s, at the time that did not violate the rules governing lawyers' behavior, so he was not lying under oath when he denied previous "inappropriate" relationships, the document said.

Evette Lynn Setzler (now Rockett) filed a complaint against Respess in March saying that he violated the Bar's rules of professional conduct by having sex with her, loaning her money and once talking directly with her estranged husband about the divorce case instead of talking to his lawyer. The Bar is the state agency responsible for regulating the practice of law in North Carolina, and it may discipline lawyers for violating the rules.

Setzler hired Respess in a divorce proceeding brought by her then-husband, John Bryan Setzler, shortly after her release from a drug rehabilitation facility on May 14, 2012.

The official complaint against Respess and his response refer to Setzler only by the initials E.S., but one of the documents from her divorce was filed as an exhibit in support of Respess' request for most of the complaint to be dismissed.

"It is admitted that during the course of his representation with Mrs. E.S., defendant (Respess) fell in love with her and before he withdrew from representing her, they engaged in a consensual sexual relationship," Respess' response says, admitting that violated professional rules and may merit discipline by the Bar.

Respess withdrew as Setzler's lawyer in June 2013.

Respess' response says of the money he loaned Setzler, which the complaint alleges constituted an inappropriate business relationship with a client, that they were made "under the mistaken impression that he was merely helping an individual with whom he had developed a close personal and emotional relationship and as of September 3, 2013, was his fiancee."

And the response says that when Respess spoke on the phone with John Setzler, he already had withdrawn as Evette Setzler's lawyer.

The response has a more nuanced dismissal of the portion of Setzler's complaint alleging that Respess lied under oath at a deposition in November 2013 when asked whether he ever had sex with other clients before Setzler. Respess' response says that what Respess actually was asked at the deposition was whether there were "any other clients you may have engaged in an inappropriate relationship with."

But at the time that he had sex with two clients -- one in 1982-83 and the other in 1988 -- the rules of professional conduct did not prohibit it, Respess' response says. The rule prohibiting lawyers from having consensual sex with clients was not adopted until 1997.

Respess was married from June 7, 2003, to April 21, 2014, when a divorce was granted in Alexander County. A phone call to Respess was not returned Monday.