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Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Bell

Court of Appeals of Maryland

July 8, 2013

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND
v.
JIMMY ANTHONY BELL

Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No. CAE-12-19518

Bell, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, Barbera, McDonald, JJ. [*]

OPINION

Greene, J.

The Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland ("Petitioner" or "Bar Counsel"), acting pursuant to Maryland Rule 16-751(a), filed a "Petition For Disciplinary or Remedial Action" against Jimmy Anthony Bell ("Respondent" or "Bell"), on May 23, 2012. Petitioner charged Bell with violating various Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC"[1] or "Rule"), specifically Rule 1.1 (Competence), [2] Rule 1.15(a) (Safekeeping Property);[3] and Rule 8.4(a) and (d) (Misconduct).[4] Petitioner also charged Bell with violating several Maryland Rules of Procedure ("Maryland Rule" or "Md. Rule"), including Maryland Rule 16-606.1(a)(1), (Attorney Trust Account Record-Keeping);[5] Maryland Rule 16-607(a) (Commingling of Funds);[6] and Maryland Rule 16-609(a)-(c) (Prohibited Transactions).[7]Pursuant to Maryland Rule 16-752(a) (Order Designating Judge), this Court referred the matter to Judge DaNeeka L. Cotton of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County to conduct an evidentiary hearing and to render findings of fact and recommend conclusions of law pursuant to Maryland Rule 16-757.

On November 1, 2012, Judge Cotton conducted an evidentiary hearing, during which Bell was represented by counsel, and thereafter the hearing judge issued "Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, " in which she found that Bell's acts constituted violations of MLRPC 1.1, 1.15(a), 8.4(a) and 8.4(d), as well as Maryland Rules 16-606.1(a)(1), (a)(2), and (a)(3), 16-607(a), 16-609(a)-(c). In doing so, Judge Cotton stated the procedural history and made the following findings of fact:[8]

Procedural History

This case arises from a Petition for Disciplinary Action filed against the Respondent, Jimmy Anthony Bell, in the Court of Appeals of Maryland on May 23, 2012. The Court of Appeals designated the undersigned judge of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County to hear the action. The Respondent was served with the Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action on July 11, 2012. On August 9, 2012, Petitioner filed a Motion for Order of Default against the Defendant for his failure to file an answer to the petition pursuant to Maryland Rule 16-754(a). On August 21, 2012, Respondent simultaneously filed an Answer to the Petition for Disciplinary Action and an Opposition to Petitioner's Motion for Default. On August 22, 2012, Petitioner withdrew its Motion for Order of Default. A hearing on this matter took place on November 1, 2012.

Findings of Fact

* * * * Respondent attended law school at American University, Washington College of Law, and earned his Juris Doctor in 1999. Respondent was admitted to the Maryland Bar on December 14, 1999. Respondent maintains a law office located in Fort Washington, Maryland.
On February 15, 2011, Respondent filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tracy Wiggs in the Circuit Court of Prince George's County. Respondent received a check from Tracy Wiggs in order to pay for the filing fees. However, Respondent wrote a check from his Bank of America IOLTA (hereafter the trust account) to pay for the filing fee before depositing the check received from Mr. Wiggs.[1] On February 16, 2011 Respondent disbursed trust account check number 1177 in the amount of $145.00 made payable to "the Clerk of Court." This disbursement caused Respondent's trust account balance to fall to -$143.62. Respondent intended to deposit the check he received from Mr. Wiggs into his trust account immediately, but became ill before he was able to do so. On February 18, 2011, Respondent made a $145.00 cash deposit into his trust account; restoring the overall account balance to $1.38. On February 18, 2011, Petitioner received notification from Bank of America that an overdraft had occurred on Respondent's attorney trust account.
In a certified letter dated March 4, 2011, Petitioner requested that Respondent provide an explanation for the trust account overdraft and provide "client ledgers, deposit slips, canceled checks, and monthly bank statements" between November 2010 and March 4, 2011. Respondent failed to respond to Petitioner's March 4, 2011 letter, which led Petitioner to docket a complaint against Respondent. Petitioner sent a second letter to Respondent on April 12, 2011, requesting an explanation for the trust account overdraft and documentation regarding his trust account.
On June 14, 2011, Respondent submitted a response to Petitioner explaining the events surrounding the overdraft of Respondent's trust account. In his letter to Petitioner, Respondent provided a copy of check number 1177, the check that caused the overdraft, but failed to produce any other requested documentation.
The Court notes that the investigation of Respondent's case was delayed due to the lack of financial records provided. Respondent waited four months to reply to Petitioner's initial letter. Consequently, Petitioner subpoenaed Respondent's bank records from Bank of America. Once Respondent finally provided client ledgers, they were unclear and appear hastily and haphazardly prepared. Respondent later admits that he failed to keep proper records, and that the documents produced into evidence were created from memory, after Petitioner initiated the current investigation. The Court finds that Respondent's client ledgers were created retrospectively and in anticipation of disciplinary action, rather than contemporaneously maintained.
Mr. John DeBone, a paralegal for the Attorney Grievance Commission, reviewed bank statements for Respondent's trust account. As a result of his review, Mr. DeBone testified that he categorized deposits and withdrawals made from the Respondent's trust account based on client name. Mr. DeBone noted that there were a number of transactions which could not be attributed to a specific client; Mr. DeBone categorized these transactions as "Unidentified." During the hearing, Mr. DeBone testified that these "Unidentified" transactions consisted of four deposits which totaled $25, 650.00. Mr. DeBone also discovered forty-five (45) cash disbursements Respondent made to himself from his trust account, amounting to $61, 950.45.
Mr. DeBone also noted disbursements, categorized as "Bell-Expenses, " that were made to various business vendors, such as, DirecTV, AT&T, and Verizon. Respondent made twenty-four (24) "Bell-Expenses" from September 2009 to February 2011. Mr. DeBone's analysis also indicates that Respondent made a number of cash deposits into his trust account which he could not attribute to a specific client matter.
Based on his review of Respondent's file, and his seventeen years of experience with the Attorney Grievance Commission, Mr. DeBone concluded that Respondent was clearly keeping earned attorney's fees in his trust account, as evidenced by the fact that Respondent was paying his expenses from that account. Mr. DeBone stated that keeping some money in the account is permissible for covering maintenance fees, however the amount of money Respondent stored in his account far exceeded what is considered as an acceptable amount. At some point after his initial review of Respondent's file, Mr. DeBone received Respondent's client ledgers. Mr. DeBone testified that the funds in Respondent's trust account generally seemed to "match up, " and that he did not believe Respondent was intentionally misappropriating funds from his clients. The Court finds Mr. DeBone's testimony credible.
Petitioner's initial investigation led to further concerns about Respondent's trust account for the following clients.

A. Lloyd Carter

Respondent filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the District of Columbia Government on behalf of his client, Lloyd Carter. On October 13, 2009, Respondent settled Mr. Carter's case and received a contingency fee in the amount of $20, 000. Respondent received the settlement check for Mr. Carter's case on February 1, 2010. Shortly thereafter, Respondent discovered that the settlement check included funds designated for Respondent, as well as Mr. Carter. Instead of $20, 000 in attorney's fees, Respondent was only entitled to a portion of the check, specifically $14, 448.55, while the remaining $5, 551.45 belonged to Mr. Carter.
On February 2, 2010, Respondent wrote check number 1137 from his trust account, made to "Cash, " in the amount of $15, 742.45. According to the client ledger for Lloyd Carter, check number 1137 represented attorney's fees earned from the Lloyd Carter case, however this amount is $1, 243.55 greater than the amount actually earned on the Carter matter. When confronted about the discrepancy between attorney's fees actually earned on the Carter matter and money received, Respondent admitted that "[he] was mistaken." On February 2, 2010, Respondent did write a cashier's check to Mr. Carter in the amount of $5, 551.45, however the funds for this check did not originate from Respondent's trust account.

B. Briana Green

On September 2, 2009, Respondent deposited $3, 500.00 into his trust account for the Briana Green case. Between September 8, 2009 and September 11, 2009, Respondent made the following disbursements from his trust account, ...


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