The following article is being republished with permission from WECT. View the original news segment and article.
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) — When Gary Holyfield tragically lost his 16-year-old daughter in a car crash on I-140, he turned to Julia Olson-Boseman, licensed attorney and chair of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, to help settle a $30,000 insurance claim for her death.
After helping Holyfield get his daughter’s affairs in order, Boseman proposed taking his case one step further: file a wrongful death lawsuit against the state of North Carolina.
When Boseman offered her services to the tune of $20,000, what she called a retainer, Holyfield agreed and cut Boseman a check for the full amount on February 3, 2020, according to a grievance he’s filed with the North Carolina State Bar.
Now, nearly one-and-a-half years after paying Boseman $20,000, Holyfield says he can’t get a call back from his lawyer and no lawsuits have been filed against the state on his or his daughter’s behalf. A WECT investigation has also not found any evidence of a filing against the state.
Boseman’s office on Market Street has been vacated and a new business is already in its place. In an email to WECT, Boseman said she retired at the beginning of this year and is no longer practicing law.
But Holyfield says he was never informed that Boseman was no longer practicing law and has plenty of questions — perhaps, most importantly, he wants to know why.
Left without any other options, Holyfield filed an official grievance with the North Carolina State Bar and a police report with the Wilmington Police Department for obtaining property by false pretenses. While Boseman’s name is not directly mentioned in the report, her former office is listed as the address where the incident occurred.
According to District Attorney Ben David, the State Bureau of Investigation is currently aware of the pending complaints and is on standby to investigate the allegations against Boseman if the State Bar identifies any criminal element to the case.
A spokesperson for the Wilmington Police Department confirmed the case is now in the hands of the SBI, but declined further comment. An SBI spokeswoman confirmed they have been made aware of the allegations but at this time are not yet investigating.
In April 2019, Brittany Holyfield and her 7-year-old brother were riding with their mother along I-140 when their car hydroplaned and ran off the road into a culvert. Brittany and her brother died in the crash.
After the accident, Holyfield hired Boseman as his attorney to sue the insurance company of the mother, ultimately being awarded $30,000. Boseman took $10,000 as her fee.
The insurance payout would have helped pay for a funeral and other expenses, but for Holyfield, it was not just about the money. Instead, he wanted two things: enough money to buy two headstones and some type of safety measure in place so no one else had to experience what he had to go through.
“When I go out there to pay my respects, I want a nice headstone for her and CJ,” Holyfield said.
In order to pursue legal action against the state with the hopes of guardrails being installed at the location of the accident, Boseman said she needed more money. The contract Holyfield entered with Boseman agreed to pay her $20,000 for her services. That money was from the remaining balance paid out by the insurance company for the death of Holyfield’s daughter. Now, more than two years after her death, Holyfield wants answers.
“I’d like to know where that $20,000 was deposited at, because if it was deposited into her personal, her business account or whatever, and you didn’t do any work to get that, then that was free money — free money at the expense of the death of my daughter. I can’t roll with that — no,” Holyfield said.
“The thing that makes me so mad is that I trusted this woman,” Holyfield continued. “I truly trusted her. I voted for her in politics. I believed in her as a person of the people, and then to take that. I mean, I don’t have much. I am fighting for my little family. How would she like it if someone did that to her?”
An ongoing investigation
Despite the fact Boseman said she is no longer practicing law, the North Carolina State Bar (NCSB) shows that her law license is still active.
A letter dated June 29, 2021 shows the NCSB received Holyfield’s grievance on June 21, 2021 and is currently investigating and reviewing the grievance. The NCSB is the regulatory arm for attorneys across the state.
“The North Carolina State Bar was created in 1933 by the North Carolina General Assembly as the government agency responsible for the regulation of the legal profession in North Carolina. The State Bar currently regulates over 28,000 licensed lawyers. Protection of the public and protection of our system of justice are the objectives of regulation,” according to the organization’s website.
Not only does the NCSB act to regulate lawyers, it also holds them accountable.
“The key regulatory responsibility of the State Bar is the investigation and prosecution of lawyers who violate the State Bar’s code of ethics for lawyers,” the NCSB’s website states.
Since the NCSB is a state regulatory agency, getting information on investigations is tricky due, in large part, to exemptions in the state’s open record laws.
“Generally, grievance proceedings are confidential unless the Grievance Committee imposes and the lawyer accepts public discipline, or unless a formal disciplinary complaint is filed in the Disciplinary Hearing Commission (DHC) against the lawyer. Additional exceptions to the confidentiality rule apply infrequently,” according to the NCSB.
Attorneys in the state are required to follow the Rules of Professional Conduct, which are laid out on the NCSB’s website. One of the rules, Rule 1.15, outlines how attorneys must treat the property of clients. Specifically, it outlines how attorneys must keep a client trust account to ensure the money paid to them by their clients is kept separately from business or personal accounts.
“Every lawyer who receives funds belonging to a client must maintain a trust account. The general rule is that every receipt of money from a client or for a client, which will be used or delivered on the client’s behalf, is held in trust and should be placed in the trust account. All client money received by a lawyer, except that to which the lawyer is immediately entitled, must be deposited in a trust account, including funds for payment of future fees and expenses,” the rule states.
But, as noted above, there is an exception to the rule: Sometimes an attorney can be immediately entitled to payments.
According to the contract Holyfield signed, the money he agreed to pay Boseman went directly to her business account, not a client trust account. This is where the rules begin to get more nuanced and the definition of the word “retainer” comes into play.
Part 12 of the rule reads: “Whether a fee that is prepaid by the client should be placed in the trust account depends upon the fee arrangement with the client. A retainer fee in its truest sense is a payment by the client for the reservation of the exclusive services of the lawyer, which is not used to pay for the legal services provided by the lawyer and, by agreement of the parties, is nonrefundable upon discharge of the lawyer. It is a payment to which the lawyer is immediately entitled and, therefore, should not be placed in the trust account.”
However, the term “retainer” apparently gets misused enough for the NCSB to further break down the rules.
“A ‘retainer,’ which is actually a deposit by the client of an advance payment of a fee to be billed on an hourly or some other basis, is not a payment to which the lawyer is immediately entitled. This is really a security deposit and should be placed in the trust account. As the lawyer earns the fee or bills against the deposit, the funds should be withdrawn from the account…” the rule continues.
When looking at the contract between Holyfield and Boseman, the first part of the “retainer” section states the $20,000 was simply to retain Boseman’s services and ensure that she did not represent anyone else related to the matter. Therefore, she was entitled to the full sum immediately and the money would not be placed into a client trust account.
However, the next part of the retainer portion of the contract is more in line with the second part of the rule regarding retainers.
“Attorney will provide legal services to Client on an hourly basis according to the schedule set out under section one of this agreement until the value of those services is equivalent to the minimum fee …” the contract reads.
Finally, the rules require an attorney to refund any part of the fee not earned.
“Rule 1.16(d) requires the refund to the client of any part of a fee that is not earned by the lawyer at the time that the representation is terminated,” according to the Rules of Professional Conduct.
But, according to Boseman’s contract, Holyfield would not be entitled to a refund of any portion of the minimum fee –– regardless of the circumstances.
“When Attorney’s representation ends, client will not be entitled to a refund of any portion of the minimum fee, even if the representation ends before Lawyer has provided legal services equivalent in value to the minim fee, unless it can be demonstrated that the minimum fee is clearly an excessive fee under the circumstances,” the contract states.
Due to privacy laws, the NCSB does not answer questions about ongoing investigations into attorneys in the state.
“Grievances are not made public unless and until the Grievance Committee decides that a complaint against the respondent lawyer should be filed with the Disciplinary Hearing Commission. However, the respondent lawyer will know about your grievance because he or she will be asked to respond,” an NCSB spokesperson said.
However, Holyfield provided WECT with a copy of his complaint, as well as the letter received from the NCSB confirming it had received it.
While much of what the NCSB does is administrative, they will defer any potential criminal behavior to the appropriate law enforcement agency. In this instance, that would likely be the SBI, as previously mentioned.
Boseman was reached for comment, but she was unwilling to discuss the matter in depth.
“I am not aware of any complaint or police report that has been filed and am not at liberty to discuss any past clients. I retired from the practice of law January 1st of this year,” she wrote in an email to WECT.
But that came as a surprise to Holyfield, who is left with more questions than answers.
“Why do that over the death of my daughter I mean that doesn’t make sense, I can’t believe that she would be that type of a person,” Holyfield said. “I would at least like to hear some type of ‘Gary this is why we’re doing what we’re doing, this is where we’re at,’ but I can’t even get that. And that to me, to a father … someone else is gaining off the death of his daughter, that’s just not right, that’s like almost saying blood money man that’s just not right.”
Copyright 2021 WECT. All rights reserved.
Michael Praats is an investigative reporter at WECT and can be reached at Michael.Praats@wect.com.
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