Tennessee Supreme Court Permanently Disbars Nashville Attorney

The Tennessee Supreme Court today reversed the decision of a Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility hearing panel suspending the law license of Nashville attorney Brian Manookian and instead permanently disbarred Mr. Manookian.  The Court held that, after Mr. Manookian’s continuing, serious violations of multiple Rules of Professional Conduct, even after he had received several sanctions and suspensions, disbarment was the only appropriate action.In 2016, Mr. Manookian represented a plaintiff in a case in Nashville. An opposing lawyer in that case, who had fired Mr. Manookian from his law firm years earlier, sent him a letter criticizing his discovery responses. Mr. Manookian sent the lawyer an email with false, unflattering statements about the lawyer’s grown daughter. The email said Mr. Manookian had close friends at the daughter’s new employer and he would “make it a point” to influence the daughter’s future there. The lawyer saw this as a threat and asked the trial judge to sanction Mr. Manookian. In response, Mr. Manookian publicly filed a document that discussed another lawsuit where Mr. Manookian had represented the lawyer’s son on a sensitive matter, resolved years earlier, in a way that was inaccurate and intended to embarrass the son.      


The trial judge sanctioned Mr. Manookian. In response, Mr. Manookian tried to have the judge disqualified by making false and unsubstantiated claims about the judge.


After a second lawyer opposed the disqualification, Mr. Manookian sent the second lawyer a series of emails, often copying more than a dozen people, that attacked the lawyer’s reputation, made false allegations, and embarrassed him. This went on for several months, with the second lawyer moving for sanctions multiple times and Mr. Manookian responding by escalating his attacks. In an effort to intimidate the lawyer, Mr. Manookian used a paid computer tracking application to get detailed private information about the lawyer and his family, and then used a second paid investigative service to find even more. He then sent an email to the lawyer, and others, reciting private information such as how many times the lawyer had opened one of Mr. Manookian’s embarrassing emails, the home address where he was opening his emails, and details about the lawyer’s home, his wife, his children, his marital history, and a description and location of his wife’s car.


Mr. Manookian’s conduct was reported to Tennessee’s Board of Professional Responsibility for violation of Tennessee’s Rules of Professional Conduct, ethical rules that all attorneys in the state must follow to maintain their license to practice law. A hearing panel held a hearing, where the Board asked the panel to disbar Mr. Manookian.


In the hearing, Mr. Manookian claimed legitimate reasons for his conduct. The panel did not find him credible. After reviewing evidence and testimony, it concluded his only purpose was to intimidate and humiliate the opposing lawyers and threaten the well-being of their families as an effort to gain unfair and unethical advantage in the case.     


The hearing panel found Mr. Manookian violated multiple ethics rules and determined its guidelines showed he should be disbarred. But, without giving a reason, the panel recommended a two-year suspension instead of disbarment. 


Mr. Manookian appealed to the chancery court, where the Board again asked for disbarment. The chancery court agreed Mr. Manookian should be disbarred, but it affirmed the suspension because of procedural rules that required the Board to file a separate appeal.    


Both Mr. Manookian and the Board appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, where the Board asked the Court to disbar Mr. Manookian. He claimed the Court could not disbar him because of the procedural rule cited by the chancery court. The majority of the Court rejected this argument.  It agreed the procedural rule limited the chancery court’s authority to impose a different sanction, but it cited numerous authorities that give the Supreme Court broad authority to review all attorney discipline. The Court held the rule did not limit the Court’s authority, or its responsibility, to determine whether a lawyer should be disbarred.


The majority of the Court held Mr. Manookian violated multiple Rules of Professional Conduct and rejected the argument that his actions were protected by the First Amendment. It noted that the Court had earlier suspended Mr. Manookian because he was a “threat of substantial harm to the public.” The Court said Mr. Manookian had consistently engaged in intimidating and degrading conduct toward lawyers and also toward their families. “Victimizing the families of opposing counsel and causing well-founded concern for their well-being and safety,” the Court said, “is an especially grave offense and a profound dishonor as a lawyer.”


The majority emphasized the Court’s duty to protect the public. “Our role as guardians of the public trust,” it concluded, “requires us to impose disbarment.” The Court ordered Mr. Manookian disbarred from the practice of law in Tennessee.     


Justice Sharon G. Lee filed a dissenting opinion concluding that Mr. Manookian should be sanctioned but not disbarred, based on inadequate notice. In Justice Lee’s view, in light of the procedural rule cited by Mr. Manookian, the Supreme Court should have given him notice of its intent to increase his discipline under its inherent jurisdiction and an opportunity to be heard on that issue. Justice Lee would have affirmed the imposition of a two-year suspension.


To read the majority opinion in Brian Philip Manookian v. Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, authored by Chief Justice Holly Kirby, and the separate opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.