Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Attorney Suspension for Unethical Testimony

April 29, 2022

The Tennessee Supreme Court today upheld the suspension of a longtime Nashville attorney for testimony he gave in personal litigation that violated the Court’s ethics rules for lawyers. The Court found that, by choosing not to tell the whole truth in his testimony, the attorney failed to fulfill lawyers’ special responsibility to the justice system.   

In 2011, attorney Tyree B. Harris IV was a partner in the Willis & Knight law firm in Nashville. Mr. Harris filed a petition in juvenile court, on his own behalf, to reduce his court-ordered child support. While the child support petition was pending, Mr. Harris arranged to receive a $225,000 check from his law firm, outside of the firm’s normal procedures. He deposited the check into his personal savings account and held the funds there.

Later, in the course of the child support litigation, Mr. Harris gave sworn testimony about his income. He was asked repeatedly about any “draws,” that is, money he’d received from the law firm. In responding to the questions, Mr. Harris did not disclose the $225,000 check to either his child’s mother’s attorney or the juvenile court. The juvenile court judge cut Mr. Harris’s monthly child support payment roughly in half, by over $1,000 per month.

Mr. Harris’s law firm later sued him, and the attorney for Mr. Harris’s child’s mother learned of the $225,000 check. A report about Mr. Harris was made to Tennessee’s Board of Professional Responsibility, the board that regulates lawyer ethics. After investigation, the Board of Professional Responsibility filed a petition to discipline Mr. Harris for his failure to disclose the $225,000 to the juvenile court in his child support testimony.

A hearing panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility held a hearing on the ethics charge against Mr. Harris. Mr. Harris argued that the $225,000 was technically not a “draw” because he was only holding the $225,000 in his personal savings account until he knew how much of that money would have to be paid back to the law firm for expenses. For that reason, he said, his testimony in the child support case was not false.  

The hearing panel rejected this explanation. The panel concluded that Mr. Harris’s failure to disclose the $225,000 check from his law firm amounted to dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.  The panel explained Mr. Harris’s testimony may not have constituted the crime of perjury, but it was nevertheless dishonest because it was “carefully crafted to give the appearance of truth” while intentionally omitting relevant information, namely, the $225,000 check.  The hearing panel noted that Mr. Harris could be disbarred for this conduct, but in light of Mr. Harris’s unblemished forty-year legal career, it instead suspended his law license for one year.  Mr. Harris appealed, and the Davidson County Circuit Court affirmed the hearing panel’s decision.

Mr. Harris appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. He again argued that the $225,000 was technically not a “draw,” so his testimony in the child support case was truthful in the context of the specific questions asked.

The Supreme Court rejected Mr. Harris’s argument as “hair-splitting.” The Court noted that, once Mr. Harris deposited the $225,000 check into his personal bank account, he had full control of the money; he could choose to hold it or spend it.  As an experienced and accomplished attorney, Mr. Harris knew that lawyers have a duty to do more than simply refrain from committing perjury. They have a special responsibility to the justice system to disclose all material facts and tell the whole truth. The essential aim of the legal system is to seek truth in the pursuit of justice, and a lawyer who misleads or tells half-truths—whether for a client or to avoid personal responsibility—undermines the rule of law and erodes public trust in the legal system.

For those reasons, the Court affirmed the decisions of the hearing panel and the circuit court, and upheld the one-year suspension of Mr. Harris’s law license.

To read the unanimous opinion in Tyree B. Harris, IV. v. Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, authored by Justice Holly Kirby, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.