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Associated Press, Published May 28 2012

ND lawyers question law license suspension for late child support payments

BISMARCK – North Dakota lawyers are raising questions about whether the state’s child support enforcement agency can suspend an attorney’s law license for late payments.

The Child Support Enforcement Division of the North Dakota Department of Human Services has broad power to take away occupational licenses, as well as licenses needed to drive or hunt, as a means of ensuring payments are made on time.

Rudolph Tollefson, a lawyer from Devils Lake, had his law license suspended twice this year and last because of tardy payments. A North Dakota Supreme Court disciplinary panel had investigated Tollefson for a number of rules violations, including allegations that he practiced law while his license was suspended for not paying child support.

In its recommendations to the state Supreme Court, the panel questioned whether the child support agency had authority to strip Tollefson of his license. Earlier this month, the court suspended Tollefson’s license for six months for other infractions.

Jim Fleming, director of North Dakota’s child support enforcement agency, said Tollefson is the only North Dakota lawyer to have his law license taken for late child support payments.

Fleming and William Neumann, director of the state Bar Association, said the issue is whether the agency infringed on the Supreme Court’s own authority to discipline attorneys.

Since 2003, when the North Dakota Legislature gave the agency suspension powers, it has yanked the occupational licenses of 14 people, Fleming said.

“For some ... debtors, it’s the leverage that works, to get them to come in and negotiate a payment plan with us,” Fleming said. “We want them to start paying and start paying regularly.”

An informal task force of four attorneys, headed by Fleming, is reviewing the issue. The group met for the first time last month and made no decisions, Fleming said.

The attorney discipline process is lengthy and complex, and Neumann said the task force is looking for a way to streamline it in cases when an attorney is behind in paying child support.

“The problem with using the disciplinary system for child support collection is that it is cumbersome,” Neumann said. “And it is cumbersome because it has a lot of safeguards in it.”

Tollefson did not respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment.

North Dakota’s child support agency has more than 33,000 cases and had jurisdiction over more than $93 million in payments for the budget year that ended Sept. 30, 2011. Fleming said almost 75 percent of the amount owed was collected.