I love my profession. Most people become lawyers because they have a deep rooted belief in justice and want to help people. I can even respect lawyers that represent evil corporations and criminals; in our society everyone is entitled to legal representation. Of course, there are a few bad apples in every profession. And then there is Michael Bradley, a now disbarred attorney from Warrington, Pennsylvania. His crime, stealing the money needed to care for a disabled child.
This story starts in 2012. A young boy named Branden Thornton was walking the side of the road near his home on a late summer day. Branden was struck by a passing vehicle in a horrific accident that left the young man in a coma for 10 weeks.
Although Branden finally regained consciousness, his injuries were permanent. He suffered a traumatic brain injury. For the rest of his life he will require almost round the clock care.
While we won’t call Bradley an ambulance chaser, he did show up at Branden’s hospital room. After meeting in the hospital, Branden’s mother (Ms. Howard) signed a representation agreement. Ms. Howard agreed to pay 25% of any monies attorney Bradley was able to obtain on behalf of her son.
Ultimately in 2014 Bradley was able to settle the case for $1,005,000. While that sum might be considered small given Branden’s injuries, we don’t know if Branden was partially at fault in the accident or darted out in traffic. We also don’t know if that is all the insurance money available. That isn’t the issue in this story.
The settlement was paid in several checks. All were deposited in Bradly’s law firm account. Again, no red flags yet.
Several years went by and each time Ms. Howard needed money for Branden’s care, Bradley would issue a check. That all ended on May 2, 2017. After several weeks of not getting any response from Bradley, he finally called Ms. Howard on that date and said the insurance company “removed” the funds.
Several times Branden’s mother tried to get documentation so she could discuss the issue with the insurance company. Getting no response, she hired an attorney to find out what was happening. Still nothing.
Finally, in March 2018 Ms. Howard filed a bar complaint with the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Every state has a disciplinary committee that regulates lawyers although they may have different names.
One year later in February 20 19, Michael Bradley was disbarred meaning he can no longer practice law. There are reciprocal agreements among the states meaning it is highly unlikely that he can be licensed anywhere as a lawyer.
The story doesn’t end here. State bar or disciplinary committees can take away someone’s license to practice law but they can’t get back money for victims. Reporting a bad lawyer to the bar is useful to make sure he or she doesn’t hurt others else but for most victims, that is not enough.
District Attorney Charges Bradley with Theft
The Disciplinary Committee notified the local district attorney after its investigation was complete.
From what we know, Bradley never deposited the settlement checks into his attorney trust account. Instead it went into his regular business checking account. State bar rules typically require client settlement funds to be segregated into a separate trust account. That better protects the funds from being spent by the lawyer.
Further investigation revealed that after deducting his 25% and the monies he advanced to Howard, there should have been $563,000 left. It was gone.
Compounding the problem was that Bradley lied. Instead of admitting that the money was gone he made up a story about the money going to reimburse the insurance company for Branden’s bills.
So where did the money go? According to the Montgomery County District Attorney Michael Bradley used the money for himself and his family including tuition, home renovations, car payments, his home mortgage, a plastic surgeon, vacations, custom jewelry, restaurants, almost 1000 online purchases at Amazon and ironically, his malpractice insurance. (More about that in a minute.)
This month, Michael Bradley was charged with felony theft for taking the $563,000 belonging to Branden Thornton.
According to Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele, “The defendant's theft of more than half a million dollars — funds that were dedicated to helping his client
receive the care he needed to live — which he used to pay for extravagant goods and vacations, is not only illegal but disturbing on a basic human level. The defendant was entrusted to help Thornton."
We think Steele is too kind in his words. What type of person takes money that a severely disabled boy needs for his round the clock care?
While Branden suffers every day, Bradley was writing checks to Funjet Vacations to take his family on a holiday.
Why did Bradley steal? Who knows what goes on in the head of a thief? Montgomery County Detective Jean Morrison says Bradley’s attorney claims he became “reliant” on Vicodin, Percocet and oxycodone. His attorney client also claims in his defense that he didn’t steal from anyone else. Those defenses are weak.
Legal Malpractice Insurance Doesn't Cover Theft
We know from Detective Steele’s thorough investigation that Bradley used some of the comingled money to purchase malpractice insurance. Unfortunately for Branden and his mom, legal malpractice insurance doesn’t cover intentional misconduct or theft.
Typically, malpractice covers claims when a lawyer misses a deadline or makes a mistake.
Collecting from Bradley will be difficult. The money is spent. Hundreds of thousands of dollars gone and with little to show for it. You can’t get the money back from restaurant meals, plastic surgery or tuition. Nor can you get it back from drugs.
We suspect that if convicted, Bradley will be ordered to pay restitution. Disbarred lawyers who happen to also be convicted felons probably don’t have great job prospects.
Although we sue bad lawyers, we typically do so when the lawyer made a mistake. Unless Bradley worked for a big firm (he didn’t), there isn’t much anyone can do. Getting a judgement will be easy. Branden’s family may even get a sizeable award for punitive damages as well. Collecting it will be another story.
We hate sharing a story without a happy ending. That’s sometimes life, however. What we can share are some tips so that this doesn’t happen to others.
If you have a large settlement, think about where your money should go. We understand that many people want someone to help manage their money. If you choose to have a lawyer do it, consider one whom works at a larger firm. Better yet, choose a financial professional who is bonded by a reputable bonding company and personally verify the bond.
No matter who manages your money, insist on having monthly statements from the bank. Periodically verify those statements from the bank too. Bradley didn’t take all the money overnight. It took him three years to burn through the money. Had someone taken five minutes to verify the existence of the funds, maybe Bradley would have been stopped much earlier.
Another tip? If the person managing your money shows any signs of substance abuse, considering moving your money immediately. Ditto if that person starts living a lavish lifestyle. We don’t put any of the blame for this horrific crime on Ms. Howard. Yet in hindsight, she did see warning stories but didn’t recognize their significance.
Were You the Victim of a Dishonest Lawyer?
Our team and network of legal malpractice lawyers represents victims of bad lawyers. If it is a case of pure theft, we can probably only help you if the lawyer worked for a medium or large firm. Some states have a client protection fund to help when lawyers steal money but these funds are usually limited in how much they can pay.
In Pennsylvania, the state established the Pennsylvania Lawyers Fund for Client Security in 1982. The fund can pay up to $100,000 per claim. Monies for the fund come from an annual assessment on other lawyers.
If you were the victim of theft, start by calling the state bar and learning whether your state has a client security fund. If the losses are from theft (NOT malpractice) and small, you can make an application to the fund without a lawyer. If you think you are the victim of malpractice or your losses are large and the lawyer worked for a firm, give us a call.
To learn more, visit our legal malpractice information page. Ready to see if you have a claim? Contact us online, by email [hidden email] or by phone 877.858.8018.
All inquiries protected by the attorney – client privilege and kept strictly confidential. We consider cases where the loss is $500,000 or more.