OFFICE OF THE PRESIDING DISCIPLINARY JUDGE
No. 16PDJ038. People v. Bontrager. 4/20/2017.
A hearing board suspended William D. Bontrager (attorney registration number 35359) from the practice of law for nine months, effective December 7, 2017. To be reinstated, Bontrager must pay restitution to his clients and will bear the burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that he has been rehabilitated, has complied with disciplinary orders and rules, and is ft to practice law.
Bontrager represented clients in five separate oil and gas cases. In all five cases he acted incompetently and advanced frivolous claims, causing his clients serious financial harm and wasting judicial resources.
In the first case, he fled an appeal without adequately analyzing the substantive and procedural aspects of the relevant race-notice statute. Tough his clients’ claims were barred by the race-notice statute, he did not inform himself of this fact before fling the litigation. He then persisted with his arguments on appeal.
In the second case, Bontrager fled a lawsuit against the Southern Ute Indian Tribe based on an alleged breach of an oil and gas lease. Opposing counsel sent Bontrager many letters asserting that, based on its sovereign status, the tribe was immune from suit. Opposing counsel warned Bontrager that the tribe would file a motion to dismiss and that Bontrager’s clients would be responsible for fees and costs if the tribe prevailed. The case was eventually dismissed by the district court, which held that the tribe was immune from suit. Bontrager had no experience with Indian law and did not understand relevant legal principles, yet he did not confer with an experienced practitioner before or during the litigation. Nor did he advise his clients about the risks of proceeding against the tribe and the possibility that they might be required to pay the tribe’s attorney fees and costs.
The third, fourth, and fifth cases—although separate cases and appeals—all transpired during the same timeframe and featured nearly identical factual and legal issues. In all three of these oil and gas lease cases, Bontrager’s clients or their relatives had previously entered into settlement agreements with an oil company. The terms of the settlement agreements released the oil company from future litigation brought by the plaintiffs or their heirs, successors, or assigns, including claims for breach of the implied covenant to develop leaseholds and for failure to act as a prudent operator. Bontrager neglected to read the settlement agreements before fling claims against the oil company, even though in one of those cases, Bontrager...