Attorney Grievance Commission v. Lawson
Misc. Docket AG No. 4, September Term 2008
Disbarrment is the appropriate sanction when an attorney charged an excessive and unreasonable fee, entered into a settlement of a fee dispute with a disabled client that created a lien on the client's marital property settlement without providing the client with the advice or an opportunity to obtain independent counsel, failed to segregate the client's property from his own, and lied to his client about a disciplinary proceeding pending against the attorney.
MLRPC 1.5(a), 1.8(a), 1.15(a), 8.4(a), (c), (d).
Bell, C.J. Harrell Greene Murphy*fn1 Adkins Barbera JJ.
In 2007, we suspended Jeffrey Lawson from the practice of law as a result of his improper efforts to increase a fee by threatening withdrawal after beginning representation of a client. Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Lawson, 401 Md. 536, 933 A.2d 842 (2007). Mr. Lawson has not practiced law since that time. In this case, we disbar him in light of other fee-related misconduct he committed prior to his suspension.
In this matter, the Attorney Grievance Commission (the "Commission") charged Mr. Lawson with violating numerous provisions of the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC"). The alleged violations all arose during Mr. Lawson's representation of Harry F. Fields in an uncontested divorce and subsequent division of marital property. Pursuant to Maryland Rules 16-752(a) and 16-757, we referred the matter to Judge Robert
E. Cahill, Jr., of the Circuit Court for Baltimore County to conduct a hearing and to provide findings of fact and recommended conclusions of law.
Mr. Lawson declined to participate in the hearing before Judge Cahill. In his absence, Judge Cahill entered a judgment by default*fn2 and held an evidentiary hearing at which the court received documentary and testimonial evidence. Judge Cahill made various findings of fact and concluded that Mr. Lawson violated MLRPC 1.2(a) (duty to abide by the client's decisions concerning the objectives of the representation); 1.5(a) (prohibition against charging an unreasonable fee); 1.8(a) (restriction on business transactions with clients);
1.15(a) (duty to safekeep the property of clients); and 8.4(a), (c), (d) (professional misconduct involving violation of disciplinary rules, dishonesty, and other conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice). He concluded that Mr. Lawson did not violate MLRPC 1.1 (duty to provide competent representation).
Neither Mr. Lawson nor the Commission filed exceptions to Judge Cahill's findings of fact or recommended conclusions of law. We explain below why Mr. Lawson must be disbarred.
Jeffrey Lawson was admitted to the Maryland Bar on April 1, 2004. On or about January 24, 2006, Harry F. Fields engaged Mr. Lawson in connection with a property settlement and divorce. At that time, Mr. Fields was homeless, diabetic, and hypertensive, and suffered from vision impairment because of glaucoma. He knew Mr. Lawson because they were both Muslims and worshiped at the same masjid.*fn4 Mr. Fields' estranged wife had recently offered him $5,000 for his share of any marital property as part of the finalization of their divorce, and it was with an eye toward obtaining a larger share of the marital property that Mr. Fields retained Mr. Lawson. Mr. Fields signed a written fee agreement in which he agreed to pay Mr. Lawson $250 per hour plus costs and expenses and in which Mr. Lawson agreed to represent Mr. Fields in his divorce.
Cracks in the attorney-client relationship soon developed, however. An initial problem was a disagreement over meeting locations that would continue throughout the representation. Mr. Fields, who was then sleeping at the masjid, requested that their meetings take place in Mr. Lawson's law office.*fn5 Instead, Mr. Lawson would only agree to meet in the masjid where, in Mr. Fields' words, they could be overheard by others; on the street; in Mr. Lawson's vehicle; or in a parking lot. This initial disagreement further developed into a fee dispute because, according to Mr. Fields, Mr. Lawson billed Mr. Fields for all travel time to and from their rendezvous points. Mr. Fields' testimony suggests that Mr. Lawson would travel to the masjid for prayer and deliver papers to Mr. Fields while he was there. He would then, according to Mr. Fields, bill Mr. Fields for the entire trip.
On March 6, 2006, Mr. Lawson filed on Mr. Fields' behalf a Complaint for Temporary Restraining Order, a Preliminary Injunction, and a Limited and Absolute Divorce and Partition in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County.*fn6 Then, in mid-March, Mr. Fields was given a bill for approximately $12,000. Mr. Fields disputed the amount of the bill and sought to involve their imam in resolving the dispute, but Mr. Lawson refused to moderate his demands.
There was further disagreement as to what actions Mr. Lawson would take in his representation of Mr. Fields. In pursuing the divorce claims, Mr. Lawson engaged in extensive discovery related to a Motion for Entry Upon Jointly Owned Land. Mr. Fields testified that he did not wish to enter the home or spend time with his estranged wife and that he did not authorize Mr. Lawson to take this action. The discovery documents in the record indicate that Mr. Lawson was requesting temporary entry in order to photograph and identify marital property located in the marital home. Mr. Fields also testified that he directed Mr. Lawson to contact a judgment creditor and attempt to negotiate a reduction of the amount owed prior to the settlement on the property but that Mr. Lawson did not do so.
On or about May 23, 2006, the circuit court master awarded Mr. Fields temporary support, pendente lite, from his wife in the amount of $500 per month. Mr. Lawson directed Ms. Fields to send these funds to himself, though the record does not indicate that any funds were ever transferred, and both sides filed exceptions to the support award.*fn7
While the divorce action was still pending, on August 2, 2006, Mr. Fields and his wife negotiated and signed a settlement agreement that resolved the property dispute. The agreement provided, in part, for the sale of the marital home and equal division of the proceeds.*fn8 Mr. Fields was unable to read the settlement agreement due to his poor eyesight, so he brought a female friend to the settlement conference to assist him in reading the documents. Mr. Lawson refused to permit Mr. Fields to sit next to the woman. In his original complaint to the Commission, Mr. Fields explained that Mr. Lawson was concerned that it would give the impression that Mr. Fields was in an extra-marital relationship with the woman. The record contains no greater detail on this incident.
On September 22, 2006, Mr. Lawson filed a Motion to Enforce Attorney's Lien and Enjoin Distribution of Proceeds of Sale. He filed this motion on behalf of Mr. Fields, and the motion requested, among other things, that the court order that any proceeds from the sale of the marital home be given to Mr. Lawson and not Mr. Fields. The basis for this request was a March 7, 2006, lien agreement that Mr. Lawson had persuaded Mr. Fields to sign several months into the representation.*fn9 The agreement purported to create a lien for attorney's fees against any proceeds recovered. Mr. Fields testified that at some unidentified later time he entered into a handwritten settlement agreement with Mr. Lawson to resolve a fee dispute and believed that Mr. Lawson had agreed to accept $3,500 as payment. According to Mr. Fields, he later discovered that the handwritten document actually called for Mr. Lawson to reduce the fee, which had ballooned to approximately $46,000, down to $35,000.*fn10 Mr. Lawson entered into this business transaction with Mr. Fields without advising Mr. Fields verbally or in writing of his option to seek independent legal counsel, nor did Mr. Lawson give Mr. Fields a reasonable opportunity to do so. As a result of this agreement, Mr. Lawson received the entirety of Mr. Fields' share of the proceeds from the sale of the marital property. Mr. Fields ultimately came away from the settlement with less than he started with because his share of the proceeds was still $3,000 short of the full legal bill that Mr. Lawson claimed he was owed.
During the representation, Mr. Fields had also furnished Mr. Lawson with certain documents, among which was the title to a van. After the representation ended, Mr. Lawson returned some of the documents, but he did not return the title to the van.
Additionally, the records indicate that Mr. Lawson billed Mr. Fields at his full rate of $250 per hour for simple clerical tasks such as preparing a fax cover sheet ($50) and making copies ($50 on one occasion, $100 on another). Similarly, he charged his full rate for driving time to the courthouse to file motions, resulting in several charges in excess of $500 per round trip. He also billed $850 for preparing and filing requests to waive filing fees for his client.
On or about September 17, 2006, Mr. Fields asked Mr. Lawson whether he was the same Jeffrey Lawson who was the subject of an attorney disciplinary case then pending in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. Mr. Lawson denied that this was the case. This was a lie, as Mr. ...