Washington Lawyer

Bar Counsel’s Page: Reflections on Discipline in 2001

From Washington Lawyer, April 2002

By Joyce E. Peters

barcounsel2In 2001 the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the Board on Professional Responsibility and its hearing committees, and the Office of Bar Counsel devoted substantial time and effort in handling lawyer discipline for the District of Columbia Bar. It was a busy year for the more than 100 people involved in the operation of the disciplinary system here. As we work through the budget cycle now under way for the Bar’s new fiscal year, this is good time to take a look at the disciplinary case workload and analyze what sort of cases the disciplinary system is handling.

At the top of the pyramid, as the final arbiter of lawyer disciplinary matters, the Court of Appeals heard 15 oral arguments and issued 132 decisions in disciplinary cases, as compared with 13 oral arguments and 107 decisions in 2000. The court also received 53 new cases from the Board on Professional Responsibility during 2001 and ended with 51 disciplinary matters pending at the end of the year.

The court’s actions in 2001 included 26 disbarments and 16 suspensions requiring proof of fitness for reinstatement. These are the most serious actions that the court can take. Disbarment, though not permanent in this jurisdiction, removes the attorney from the practice of law for a minimum of five years and requires the attorney to demonstrate his or her fitness to practice by clear and convincing evidence to obtain reinstatement. A suspension carrying a fitness requirement imposes the same evidentiary burden on the disciplined attorney. This is a heavy burden, so it isn’t surprising that during 2001 the court considered only two reinstatement cases and reinstated only one attorney. If a case warrants a suspension with fitness or disbarment, it is a very serious matter. Most often these cases involve misuse or misappropriation of client funds, serious dishonesty, criminal conduct, or egregious neglect of multiple clients.

The court, however, also imposed 18 suspensions without requiring proof of fitness and suspended five attorneys with some additional probation requirement. Attorneys receiving this sort of discipline are reinstated to practice at the conclusion of the suspension period. Those with a probation requirement, which may include working with a practice monitor, restitution, or substance abuse counseling, must also satisfy the added requirement to resume practice or to remain in practice.

The court also entered five disability suspensions, which remain in effect until the attorney petitions to have the suspension lifted upon a showing that the disability has been removed. These cases usually involve attorneys who are seriously ill, are suffering from some sort of physical or mental impairment, or are impaired because of substance abuse. Because we have such a large bar of more than 76,000 lawyers, these cases may also arise on a reciprocal basis from other jurisdictions. The court has on several occasions imposed reciprocal disability suspensions on the basis of actions by other state disciplinary authorities.

A significant part of the court’s work involves entering temporary suspension orders upon learning of attorneys’ criminal convictions for serious crimes as defined in D.C. App. R. XI, § 10(b), or pursuant to D.C. App. R. XI, § 11(d), upon learning of disbarments or suspensions in other jurisdictions. In 2001 the court entered 33 temporary suspension orders on the basis of discipline in other jurisdictions and nine temporary suspension orders in cases involving criminal convictions. These suspensions are significant because they remain in effect until the court rules on the board’s recommended sanctions. Depending upon the complexity of the case and whether, as in some criminal convictions, the case must also be sent to a hearing committee, these temporary suspensions can be in effect for considerable periods of time.

The court also handles cases that result in dismissals-three in 2001, compared with seven in 2000-and in less serious discipline. Cases involving diversions, informal admonitions, and Board reprimands don’t normally reach the court; its least serious discipline usually is public censure. In 2001, however, the court ordered Bar Counsel to issue an informal admonition in a case contested by an attorney and also ordered four public censures, as compared with five in 2000.

Cases are also remanded by the court so that the board may consider newly discovered evidence, changes in disciplinary law, or other matters that the court would like to have the board consider first. There were six remands in 2001 to the board. At least two of these remands occurred after oral argument when the court wanted additional briefing and consideration of specific issues.

The workload of the court, however, does not reflect the hundreds of hours spent by Bar Counsel in investigating complaints, by hearing committee members in conducting fact-finding hearings and reviewing evidence, or by members of the board itself in reviewing cases, hearing oral argument, and making recommendations to the court. In supporting the work of the court, each of these organizations has handled a heavier workload in 2001 than in 2000.

The Office of Bar Counsel (OBC) received 1,376 complaints in 2001, as compared with 1,315 in 2000. This included 262 complaints by criminal defendants against appointed counsel, 680 undocketed complaints ("preliminary inquiries"), and 434 docketed complaints that resulted in extensive investigation. In addition, OBC handled 41 reciprocal matters, eight criminal convictions, and three reinstatements. OBC initiated 22 new petitions, dismissed 303 cases, deferred 22 cases because of other pending matters, and issued 31 informal admonitions. In addition to this new work, OBC also prosecuted 34 cases in hearings, argued 15 cases before the board, and prepared and presented 15 cases to the court.

The hearing committees issued 34 reports to the board. The board itself issued 73 reports; disposed of an additional eight cases by dismissal (2), informal admonition (2), and board reprimand (4); and directed other dispositions in nine cases. These numbers reveal the heavy workload in the disciplinary system, but not the many hours the volunteers in the system contribute to make it work. What is clear, however, is the significant professional commitment that the court, the board’s staff, OBC, and the individuals who volunteer to serve the Bar through its disciplinary system make.

Disciplinary Actions Taken by the
Board on Professional Responsibility

In re Charles R. Bridges. 2300 Lincoln Boulevard, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. November 13, 2001. In a reciprocal matter from Maryland, the board recommends that the court publicly censure Bridges for failing to respond to a demand for information from a disciplinary authority and engaging in conduct that seriously interfered with the administration of justice. The Maryland court issued him a public reprimand, the functional equivalent to a public censure in this jurisdiction, for refusing to provide requested information, destroying relevant documents, failing to cooperate with the disciplinary investigation or participate in subsequent hearings, and concealing his whereabouts from the disciplinary authorities.

In re Deloris A. Brown. 3807 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. November 30, 2001. In reciprocal matters from California, the board recommends that the court suspend Brown for five years, with the requirement that she demonstrate fitness to practice law prior to reinstatement. In one matter Brown stipulated that she had misappropriated entrusted funds; failed to pay a third party with an interest in funds in a timely manner; and failed to provide competent representation. The California court initially suspended her for one year, stayed execution of all but 60 days’ suspension, and placed her on probation with conditions for two years. When Brown did not comply fully with the conditions, the California court suspended her for an additional year, stayed execution of the suspension, and placed her on probation for one year. In a second matter Brown voluntarily resigned from the California Bar while disciplinary charges were pending against her alleging that she had practiced law while suspended and committed perjury by affirming that she had not practiced law during her suspension.

In re Donald A. Clower. Clower & Clarke, 601 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. November 21, 2001. The board recommends that the court publicly censure Clower. In connection with a personal injury settlement, Clower failed to notify a medical provider promptly of his receipt of settlement funds in which the provider had an interest by virtue of an authorization and assignment agreement, failed to deliver funds that the provider was entitled to receive, and failed to maintain records of his disbursements from the settlement funds.

In re Paul T. Demos II. 9227 North 33rd Place, Phoenix, Arizona. December 21, 2001. In reciprocal matters from the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, where Demos’s name was stricken from the roll of attorneys, and the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, where Demos’s license to practice was revoked, the board recommends that the court disbar Demos. The board concluded that the misconduct found by the Arizona court-misrepresentation and dishonesty with respect to his applications for admission in both the Arizona and Texas district courts-warranted disbarment in this jurisdiction. The board did not recommend an independent sanction based upon the Texas court’s action.

In re David A. Downes. 14 Chester Street, Front Royal, Virginia. November 26, 2001. In a reciprocal matter from Virginia, the board informally admonished Downes. Downes consented to an "admonition without terms," the functional equivalent in Virginia to an informal admonition in this jurisdiction, for committing a deliberately wrongful act that reflects adversely on his fitness to practice law, using a client confidence or secret to his own advantage and to the disadvantage of the client, and failing to protect a client’s interest after termination of the representation. Downes acknowledged that he threatened to reveal a former client’s confidences or secrets to the opposing party if the client did not withdraw a disciplinary complaint.

In re Anthony Graham Sr. 2202 T Place SE, Washington, D.C. November 16, 2001. The board recommends that the court publicly censure Graham for commingling client funds with his own and for failing to notify a third party promptly of his receipt of funds in which the party had an interest, to deliver funds the party was entitled to receive, or to maintain client funds in a properly designated trust or escrow account. Graham deposited or transferred funds received in connection with several clients’ settlements into his firm’s operating account. In one instance he also failed to notify a medical provider of his receipt of funds in which the provider had an interest by virtue of an assignment and authorization agreement or to deliver funds that the provider was entitled to receive.

In re Thomas R. Hendershot. 7525 Greenway Center Drive, Greenbelt, Maryland. November 30, 2001. In a reciprocal matter from Maryland, the board recommends that the court suspend Hendershot for two years, with the requirement that he demonstrate fitness to practice law prior to reinstatement, but with the right to apply for vacation of the fitness requirement should he be summarily reinstated in Maryland. Hendershot stipulated that he had commingled entrusted funds with his own, deposited an estate check into his escrow account, split fees with a nonattorney, and failed to provide competent representation, to represent clients diligently, or to communicate with clients adequately. He consented to an indefinite suspension in Maryland, with the right to apply for reinstatement after two years.

In re Clinton A. Jackson. 1828 18th Street NW, Washington, D.C. December 10, 2001. The board found that Jackson accepted an illegal fee (by collecting a fee prohibited by statute) and failed to represent a client diligently, to communicate adequately with the client, or to make reasonable efforts to ensure that associates over whom he had direct supervisory authority conformed to the Rules of Professional Conduct. Because Jackson already is disbarred, the board recommended no further disciplinary sanction, except that he be ordered to make restitution to the client.

In re Christos G. Ladas. 68 Rolling Woods, West Seneca, New York. November 30, 2001. In a reciprocal matter from New York, the board recommends that the court disbar Ladas. The New York court suspended Ladas for two years, with the requirement that he demonstrate fitness to practice law prior to reinstatement, for misappropriating estate funds. The board concluded that Ladas’s conduct warranted disbarment in this jurisdiction.

In re Stephen L. Shelnutt. PO Box 536, Arlington, Virginia. December 21, 2001. In a reciprocal matter from Virginia, the board recommends that the court suspend Shelnutt for six months. The Virginia court suspended him for six months based upon his stipulation that he had engaged in conduct that reflected adversely on his fitness to practice law and conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation; had intentionally failed to seek the clients’ legal objectives and prejudiced clients during the course of professional relationships; had knowingly made a false statement to a client; had intentionally violated established rules of procedure or evidence; and had failed to withdraw from representation when required by the disciplinary rules, to serve clients with reasonable promptness, to keep clients reasonably informed about the status of their matters, or to carry out contracts of employment with clients.

In re Vincent C. Uchendu. 12016 Beltsville Drive, Beltsville, Maryland. December 26, 2001. The board recommends that the court suspend Uchendu for 30 days and require him to complete at least two continuing legal education courses totaling six hours. In various probate matters, Uchendu affixed his clients’ signatures to documents requiring their personal signatures (albeit with the clients’ consent). In some cases he failed to place his initials next to the signatures and/or notarized the signatures, falsely affirming thereby that the clients had appeared before him and personally signed the documents. The board concluded that his conduct constituted false statements to the probate court; conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation; and conduct that seriously interfered with the administration of justice.

In re George G. Ventura. PO Box 1776, Gulfport, Mississippi. December 27, 2001. In a reciprocal matter from Utah, the board recommends that the court suspend Ventura for 90 days, nunc pro tunc to August 22, 2001, and place him on probation for nine months thereafter. The Utah court imposed the identical sanction based on Ventura’s conviction in the Court of Common Pleas of Hamilton County, Ohio, of four misdemeanor counts of attempted unauthorized access to computer systems.

Disciplinary Actions Taken by the
District of Columbia Court of Appeals
In re Rena V. Atkinson. 5501 40th Avenue, Hyattsville, Maryland. November 15, 2001. In a reciprocal matter from Maryland, the court suspended Atkinson for one year, with the requirement that she demonstrate fitness to practice prior to reinstatement, but with the right to apply for vacation of the fitness requirement should she be summarily reinstated in Maryland. Atkinson failed to pay federal or state income taxes for eight years or to file federal or state income tax returns for two years. The Maryland court suspended her indefinitely for engaging in criminal conduct that reflects adversely on her fitness as a lawyer, conduct involving dishonesty, and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice

In re James F. Childress. PO Box 7173, Arlington, Virginia. October 1, 2001. In a reciprocal matter from Maryland, the court temporarily suspended Childress and directed the Board on Professional Responsibility to determine the nature of the final discipline to be imposed. Childress was suspended indefinitely in Maryland, with the right to apply for reinstatement after the expiration of one year, for using his computer to facilitate sexual contact and communication with female children.

In re T. Clarence Harper. 7600 Georgia Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. November 8, 2001. The court disbarred Harper in connection with a reciprocal matter from Maryland. Harper, who was never admitted in Maryland, engaged in the unauthorized practice of law by maintaining a second office there, soliciting clients and accepting referrals in Maryland cases, and maintaining trust and operating accounts for the Maryland office and cases. He also failed to represent clients diligently or to keep clients informed regarding the status of their cases, committed a criminal act that reflects adversely on his fitness as a lawyer (practicing law without a license, a misdemeanor under Maryland law), engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, solicited employment by creating the false impression that he was licensed in Maryland, materially misled a client as to his ability to settle her claim, and violated record-keeping requirements relating to the operation of his trust account. The Maryland court imposed disbarment, which, when applied to an attorney not admitted in Maryland, constitutes permanent exclusion from practicing law there.

In re Steven H. Hofberg. 11300 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Maryland. December 27, 2001. In a reciprocal matter from Maryland, the court disbarred Hofberg. The Maryland court disbarred Hofberg in connection with nine separate matters in which he neglected his clients’ cases; prejudiced clients during the course of representations; misrepresented the status of a matter to a client; and failed to communicate with clients regarding the status of their cases, to inform clients of a proposed settlement agreement, to return clients’ files and unearned fees after the representation ended, to respond to disciplinary authorities, to render an accounting to a title insurance company that employed him as a licensed agent, to comply with a court order directing him to pay damages to the insurance company, or to account for funds he held in trust on behalf of clients.

In re Geoffrey P. Kelly. 1034 5th Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. November 14, 2001. The court temporarily suspended Kelly and directed the Board on Professional Responsibility to determine the nature of the final discipline to be imposed based upon his consent to disbarment in Pennsylvania and his conviction in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania of bank fraud and making and subscribing a false income tax return.

In re Jeffrey M. Laub. Global Credit, 1901 Research Boulevard, Rockville, Maryland. October 1, 2001. The court temporarily suspended Laub and directed the Board on Professional Responsibility to determine the nature of the final discipline to be imposed based upon his conviction in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland of mail fraud.

In re Rafael A. Prado. 107 Baldwin Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey. November 1, 2001. In a reciprocal matter from New Jersey, the court disbarred Prado for misappropriating entrusted funds. In the New Jersey proceedings, Prado stipulated that he had failed to keep records for his trust account for seven years and that he had misappropriated entrusted funds on three occasions. He inadvertently agreed to have loan payments automatically deducted from his trust account rather than his personal account, thereby invading client funds; in connection with two real estate matters he handled on behalf of clients, he failed to return funds that one client was entitled to receive from the closing and failed to advise the other client of an overpayment of closing costs or to return the funds to that client. In the real estate matters, he did not maintain the funds in his trust account, and he did not entirely replace the funds in any of the misappropriations until after his trust account was audited. The New Jersey court found that Prado’s misappropriation was negligent and suspended him for three months. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals, however, concluded that the New Jersey record supported a finding of reckless or intentional misappropriation, and warranted a substantially different sanction in this jurisdiction-disbarment.

In re Glenn M. Rocca. PO Box 3307, Fort Lee, New Jersey. December 6, 2001. In a reciprocal matter from New Jersey, the court disbarred Rocca. Rocca assisted another person in running a bar, notwithstanding that that person had been prohibited from such activities following conviction of a crime. Rocca entered into a sham contract of sale and sham lease showing purchase of the bar by another corporation from the true owner’s girlfriend, when in fact the owner and his girlfriend retained a one-half interest; misrepresented himself and his law partners to New Jersey regulatory authorities as bona fide purchasers in an arms-length transaction in order to obtain approval for the transfer; and suborned perjury in a civil matter related to the transfer. The New Jersey court permanently disbarred Rocca for engaging in conduct involving fraud, dishonesty, and misrepresentation and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. Because disbarment is imposed in New Jersey without possibility of reinstatement, a sanction that is not imposed in this jurisdiction, Rocca will be allowed to apply for reinstatement in this jurisdiction after five years.

In re Julia A. Soininen. 7706 Random Run Lane, Falls Church, Virginia. October 25, 2001. The court suspended Soininen for 30 days, stayed execution of the suspension, and placed her on probation for two years with conditions. Soininen committed criminal acts (misdemeanor theft, driving while intoxicated, and possession of a controlled substance not obtained from or pursuant to a valid prescription) that reflected adversely on her fitness as a lawyer and engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. The court accepted the conclusion of the Board on Professional Responsibility that Soininen’s addiction to alcohol and to a legally prescribed drug caused her misconduct, that she has since been rehabilitated, and that she is thus entitled to a mitigation of sanction on these misdemeanor convictions pursuant to In re Kersey, 520 A.2d 321 (D.C. 1987).

In re Theresa M. Squillacote. 1201 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. January 17, 2002. The court disbarred Squillacote based upon her conviction in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia of conspiracy to commit espionage and attempted espionage, crimes that the court found involved moral turpitude per se, thus requiring her automatic disbarment pursuant to D.C. Code § 11-2503(a).

In re Robert M. Standard. 1951 Thayer Avenue, Los Angeles, California. December 27, 2001. The court disbarred Standard. Standard was convicted in the United States District Court for the Central District of California of subscribing to a false tax return and bankruptcy fraud, a crime involving moral turpitude and thus requiring his automatic disbarment pursuant to D.C. Code § 11-2503(a).

In re Douglas R. Thomas. 10601 Baltimore Avenue, Beltsville, Maryland. October 4, 2001. In a reciprocal matter from Maryland, the court disbarred Thomas. Thomas consented to disbarment in Maryland, admitting thereby that he had committed a criminal act that reflects adversely on his honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects; engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation; and engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

The Office of Bar Counsel compiled the foregoing summaries of disciplinary actions. Reports and recommendations issued by the Board on Professional Responsibility, as well as informal admonitions issued by the Office of Bar Counsel, are posted on the D.C. Bar Web site at www.dcbar.org. Court opinions are printed in the Atlantic Reporter and, for decisions issued since mid–1998, are also available online. To obtain a copy of a recent slip opinion, visit www.dccourts.gov/internet/opinionlocator.jsf. Please note that in some cases Bar members may have the same name. To confirm the identity of individuals who have been subject to discipline, contact the D.C. Bar Member Service Center at 202-626-3475 or membership@dcbar.org.