Circuit Court for Washington County Case # 21-C-07-29426 OC
Bell, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, [*] Murphy, Adkins, Barbera, JJ.
Petitioner, the Attorney Grievance Commission ("AGC"), acting through Bar Counsel, filed, in accordance with Maryland Rule 16-751,  a Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action against Cristine Kepple ("Respondent") for violation of the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC"). Petitioner alleges that Respondent violated MLRPC Rule 8.1(a) (Bar Admission and Disciplinary Matters) when Respondent failed to inform the Maryland State Board of Law Examiners on her application for admission to the Maryland Bar that she had knowingly concealed from her law school, West Virginia University College of Law, that she was not a resident of West Virginia at any time during her law school career, all in order to receive the benefit of in-state tuition at that institution. She is thus, Petitioner submits, subject to this Court's disciplinary authority.
In accordance with Maryland Rule 16-752(a),  we referred the Petition to the Honorable John H. McDowell of the Circuit Court for Washington County for an evidentiary hearing and to make findings of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with Maryland Rule 16-757. Following such a hearing, Judge McDowell issued his Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, in which he concluded, by clear and convincing evidence, that Respondent violated Rule 8.1(a).
I. The Hearing Judge's Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law
Respondent graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park on December 22, 1989, with a Bachelor of Science degree in the field of agricultural and resource economics. During her time as an undergraduate student, Respondent, a life-long resident of Garrett County, Maryland, prior to commencing her undergraduate studies, received instate tuition as a Maryland resident.
After graduation, Respondent worked from January through August, 1990 for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., as a marketing specialist for the Dairy Division of the Agriculture Marketing Service. There, Respondent oversaw a dairy farmer- funded promotion and research program; evaluated plans and budgets for proposed research projects; wrote reports; and reviewed proposed federal orders, proposed legislation, and contracts. Respondent moved to Terra Alta, West Virginia, in August 1990, while she was employed with the City of Morgantown as an Assistant City Planner. In this position, Respondent was, among other things, "[r]esponsible for [the] application, implementation, and evaluation of [a] Small Cities Block Grant Program and Rental Rehabilitation program." Also in 1990, Respondent became engaged to Barry Sweitzer, a co-worker for the City of Morgantown, West Virginia
After taking the LSAT in June of 1990, Respondent decided to apply for admission to the West Virginia University College of Law. She met with the Director of Admissions and Student Affairs of the law school, Janet Long Armistead, several weeks prior to October 2, 1990, after relocating to West Virginia. During that meeting, Respondent posed "questions regarding residency and application requirements" that would permit her to "meet the August 26th deadline for residency."
On Respondent's application for admission, prepared that same day, Respondent stated that her mailing address was P.O. Box 387, Terra Alta, Preston County, West Virginia, and that she was a permanent resident of West Virginia. As noted by Judge McDowell,
In question 6 on the first page of the application it was noted that "if you graduated from an out of state college, or had been a resident of West Virginia for less than one year, you may be asked to furnish acceptable proof of residency to be admitted as a West Virginia resident." On the last page of the application, appearing above her signature, was the following: "Furnishing or causing to be furnished false information for the purpose of your law school application constitutes grounds for disciplinary action, including, but not limited to, expulsion or revocation of one's acceptance ab initio. I certify that the information herein is complete and accurate and that I will inform this law school promptly of any material change in any of the information given in response to the questions above."
(Internal citations omitted).
In May of 1991, Respondent moved from Terra Alta, West Virginia, to a home that she purchased on Bethlehem Road in Oakland, Maryland. She and Barry Sweitzer were married on August 17, 1991. Shortly thereafter, she began law school at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, on or about August 26, 1991. Respondent surrendered her West Virginia driver's license to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration on November 21, 1991, and obtained a Maryland license, which listed her address as Route 3, Box 8910, Oakland, Maryland 21550. She paid income taxes to West Virginia for 1991 and part of 1992, but thereafter paid state tax obligations only to Maryland.
Although Respondent left West Virginia before commencing law school and was a permanent resident of Maryland throughout her law school career, she did not inform West Virginia University or the law school of her change of residence. Rather, Respondent maintained the post office box in Terra Alta, West Virginia, as her address on file with the University. Respondent claimed that she continued to use the Terra Alta post office box because she wanted to consolidate her mail at one address, and because Garrett County, Maryland, was in the process of changing "all mailing addresses from rural route and box numbers to street names and numbers to assist with 911 responses within that county." Respondent received her law school tuition bills, correspondence from her undergraduate school and former employers, magazines, periodicals, and miscellaneous mail at the post office box in West Virginia, but she also received utility bills, tax bills, ...