Supreme Court refuses to limit scope of Manlove charge

CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Supreme Court has denied a petition filed by the Wyoming Attorney General’s office asking that certain allegations involving personnel be excluded from the Wyoming State Bar’s formal charge against Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove.

The petition, filed by Attorney General Bridget Hill on July 29, said complaints related to an alleged violation by Manlove of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as accusations that the district attorney created and fostered a toxic work environment within her office, fell outside the jurisdiction of the State Bar’s Board of Professional Responsibility.

A BPR attorney pushed back against that claim in an Aug. 9 response, arguing that, because the alleged FLSA violations and employee grievances “would amount to misconduct causing an unprecedented breakdown of criminal prosecution in Laramie County,” they do fall under the purview of the board, which is given its power by the Wyoming Supreme Court.

In the one-page order filed Thursday morning, Chief Justice Kate M. Fox said simply that the petition for writ of prohibition was denied “after a careful review of the petition, the materials attached thereto, the Board of Professional Responsibility’s response to petition for writ of prohibition, and the file.”

Attorney General Hill said she could not comment because the court did not provide an explanation as to why it denied the petition. State Bar counsel Mark Gifford also declined to comment on the order.

Manlove, through her attorney, Stephen Melchior, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Among other allegations, the formal charge alleges Manlove directed her staff not to report overtime, which is a complaint that would fall under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. In the petition for writ of prohibition, Hill argued that, by considering allegations that Manlove violated federal law, the board would be acting outside of its jurisdiction, as the board is limited to considering alleged violations of the Wyoming Rules of Professional Conduct, and determining an FLSA violation would fall to the U.S. Department of Labor and appropriate federal and state courts.

Hill also asked the court to prevent the board from considering personnel matters referred to in the formal charge, including allegations that Manlove “purg(ed) the District Attorney’s office of competent attorneys and staff on her first day in office,” “fail(ed) to properly supervise her legal assistant” and “engag(ed) in abusive behavior toward lawyers and office staff to a degree that they resigned their positions.” Hill argued that these types of complaints should be handled by the Human Resources Division of the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information.

Further, Hill said the alleged violations did not fall under Rule 1.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which states that “A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client.” The attorney general wrote that Manlove allegedly telling staff not to report overtime or creating a toxic workplace were “entirely unrelated to Manlove’s duty to a client.”

In response, BPR attorney Tom Toner said the attorney general had taken an “extreme position” in claiming that the court’s hands are tied just because someone affected by an attorney’s misconduct could also seek damages elsewhere.

Toner argued that, because the BPR’s jurisdiction extends from the Wyoming Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court is singular in its ability to oversee the conduct of Wyoming attorneys, the court can consider “any allegations of misconduct which, if proven, show the respondent attorney is incompetent or has committed acts prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

The State Bar’s Board of Professional Responsibility is made up of six lawyers and three non-lawyers. According to the Bar’s website, the board hears attorney discipline matters and may issue private reprimands or, in more serious cases that warrant public censure, suspension or disbarment, it makes a written recommendation to the Wyoming Supreme Court. Only the Supreme Court can order public discipline against attorneys.

Toner wrote that a writ of prohibition should not be issued by a court if there is a “plain, speedy and adequate remedy” available for disciplinary procedures, which the court and BPR do. He said the attorney general’s petition was meant to delay that disciplinary procedure “in the face of what may be a true emergency in Laramie County,” a claim that was denied by the attorney general in the petition.

Toner also rejected Hill’s argument that Manlove’s employee-related conduct did not relate to her duty to provide competent counsel to clients, writing: “The Attorney General fails to recognize that the District Attorney’s ‘client’ is the public that elected Ms. Manlove.”

The State Bar’s formal charge was filed June 11 following three investigations, including one the Bar says was prompted by an “unprecedented” letter signed by all of Laramie County’s district and circuit court judges. In the letter, the seven judges voiced their concern about the district attorney’s ability to carry out her duties and provide adequate representation for Laramie County citizens.

Manlove, through Melchior, filed her formal response to the charge on July 20. She largely denied the allegations against her, including that her alleged behavior violated any of the Rules of Professional Conduct described in the formal charge.