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In re Ridgely

Supreme Court of Delaware

June 29, 1954


Disciplinary action against a member of the bar. Attorney excepted to a report of the Censor Committee of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, Southerland, C. J., held that actions of attorney, a Deputy Attorney General, in representing interests adverse to those of the public called for a severe reprimand, and the return of fees allocable to such proceedings.

Order in accordance with opinion.

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[48 Del. 465] S. Samuel Arsht, Wilmington, for the Censor Committee.

William Prickett, Wilimington, for Henry J. Ridgely.

SOUTHERLAND, C. J., and WOLCOTT and TUNNELL, JJ., sitting.

SOUTHERLAND, Chief Justice.

There is before us for review under Supreme Court Rule 32, Del.C.Ann., a report of the Censor Committee of the Court recommending disciplinary action against Henry J. Ridgely, a member of the bar and until recently Deputy Attorney General for Kent. Two cases of alleged unprofessional conduct form the basis of the Committee's action. Both of them involve the important and delicate question of the representation of conflicting interests by an attorney who occupies the office of a Deputy Attorney General and who is also engaged in private practice.

1. The Villa Case.

The primary facts were found by the Committee and appear to be undisputed. The following statement for the most part is based on these findings, supplemented by the Court's examination of the record.

On May 23, 1953, Lieutenant Charles Villa, an Air Force Pilot stationed at the Dover Air Force Base, bought a Mercury [48 Del. 466] automobile from Biter's Auto Service, Inc., automobile dealers in Dover. The total consideration was $3,123.04, made up as follows:

Trade-in allowance for Ford car $1,745.60

Note to finance company secured by conditional sales contract 1,000.00

Personal Note 357.44

Cash 20.00.

Villa believed he was buying a new 1953 Mercury. The price was that fixed for a new car. The purchase order signed by him and accepted by Edward P. Biter, President of the corporation, specified a new car. In fact, the car was not new. As Biter and the salesman knew, it was a used car. It had been driven about 800 miles, had been involved in an accident,

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and had been traded in to Biter's by the prior owner. The speedometer had been turned back (by whom, does not appear) to show only eight miles of driving.

By chance Villa learned the facts a few days later. Incensed, he consulted Lieutenant H. M. Finkelstein, then Assistant Staff Judge Advocate, at the Air Base, who told him to see Ridgely, the Deputy Attorney General. Finkelstein then called Ridgely on the telephone, stated the facts, and expressed his opinion that a violation of the criminal law was involved. Ridgely told Finkelstein to have Villa come to his (Ridgely's) office. Although Finkelstein cautioned Villa not to let his anger against Biter lead him to overlook his own financial interests, it is quite clear from the evidence that Villa was referred to Ridgely in the latter's official capacity.

On Thursday, May 28th, Villa went to Ridgely's office on the Green in Dover. He told Ridgely the facts, and demanded prosecution-he wanted to ‘ hang Biter’ . Ridgely believed that the facts justified criminal proceedings, but sought to dissuade Villa from immediate prosecution because he thought such a course would delay a civil settlement. While Villa was there [48 Del. 467] Ridgely telephoned the Biter office and talked to Mr. Murphy, the salesman. Ridgely told Murphy that Lieutenant Villa was with him, complaining that he (Villa) ‘ had been gypped’ in his purchase of the car, and that Villa was ‘ pretty well burned up’ about it. Ridgely asked Murphy to have Biter call him. Biter did not call him back, and on the following day (Friday, May 29th), Ridgely called Biter. Ridgely told Biter of Villa's complaint, and Biter admitted that his company had sold a used car as a new one. Ridgely questioned him about returning the Ford that Villa had traded in. Biter said it had been sold. Ridgely said Lieutenant Villa wanted to call off the transaction and would not take a new Mercury under any circumstances. Ridgely suggested, in effect, that Biter settle the matter. Ridgely testified:

‘ I stated to him, that in the interests of his corporation, that a matter like this, if it got spread all around the community, that it would damage his reputation, and that he should seriously consider putting everything back the way it was before it happened.’

Shortly after this conversation Villa returned to Ridgely's office. He renewed his request for criminal action. Ridgely again advised against immediate criminal prosecution, but Villa wanted it. Ridgely sent him to the Attorney General's office, where his statement of facts was reduced to writing. He then swore out warrants before the Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas for the arrest of Biter and Murphy on charges of obtaining money by false pretences. However, Ridgely directed his secretary to instruct the Clerk of the Court to hold the warrants and not to serve them. Asked why he held up the warrants, Ridgely testified:

‘ Well, if Mr. Biter had been arrested I felt reasonably certain that, as a defendant in a criminal action, he wouldn't pay off the money, or pay back to Lieutenant Villa what he had involved in the transaction or call it off. He might eventually, but not in the foreseeable future.’

[48 Del. 468] After swearing out warrants Villa returned to Ridgely's office. The matter of recovering his car was discussed. Apparently Villa asked whether a civil settlement would interfere with prosecution, and Ridgely said it would not. Ridgely called Biter, and the possible recovery of Villa's car, or alternatively, a payment to Villa of the trade-in price, was discussed, but nothing was agreed upon. Ridgely advised Villa to go to Biter's, taking some one with him, and obtain, if possible, ‘ some sort of statements or admissions'.

Nothing seems to have occurred with respect to the case during the following three days (Saturday, Sunday and Monday), except that on Monday, June 1st, Ridgely again told his secretary that the warrants should not be served.

On Tuesday, June 2nd, Villa came again to Ridgely's office. As a result of Ridgely's

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recommendations, he had decided to accept restitution, and told Ridgely he would ‘ take his money back’ -that is, an amount representing the value of the Ford car that he had traded in. Ridgely telephoned Biter to this ...

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