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Grand Forks attorney disciplined for breaking ethical rules

The North Dakota Supreme Court disciplined a Grand Forks attorney Tuesday for breaking ethical rules by allowing his paralegal to take the lead on a case where a conflict of interest existed.

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DeWayne Alan Johnston

The North Dakota Supreme Court disciplined a Grand Forks attorney Tuesday for breaking ethical rules by allowing his paralegal to take the lead on a case where a conflict of interest existed.

DeWayne Johnston, an attorney with Johnston Law Firm at 221 S. Fourth St., was ordered to complete six hours of education in conflicts of interest, according to a Tuesday opinion reprimanding him.

Johnston took up a case brought to him in 2008 by Darrin West, who said he was owed $15,000 by Corey Hanson, according to the Supreme Court opinion. Johnston sued Hanson on West’s behalf in 2008 and again in 2011 to collect the debt, according to the opinion.

In 2011, Johnston hired a paralegal, Todd Chrzanowski, and had him take the lead on West’s debt collection case, according to the opinion.

However, in 2009 and 2010, the paralegal worked on a bankruptcy case of Hanson’s while employed at a Minnesota law firm in which Hanson listed the money he owed West among his debts, according to the opinion. Some of the same legal issues were present in Hanson’s bankruptcy case that were present in West’s debt collection case, according to the opinion.

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The five North Dakota Supreme Court justices determined Johnston essentially allowed the paralegal to “switch sides” in the legal matter, which is in violation of lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct.

The opinion noted Chrzanowski, while working as a paralegal under Johnston, was the primary contact with West, met and exchanged emails with West and discussed litigation strategy with the client despite his previous work in Hanson’s interests.

The justices found Johnston should have kept the paralegal away from any conflicts of interest arising in the West case, as was his ethical obligation, according to the opinion.

Besides reprimanding him and requiring the extra classes, the justices also ordered Johnston to pay about $5,500 for the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.

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