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Attorney Grievance Commission v. Coppock

Court of Appeals of Maryland

July 9, 2013

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION
v.
JOHN EDWARD COPPOCK, JR.

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

OPINION

McDonald, J.

Most lawyers prize their integrity. The Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Responsibility ("MLRPC") enforce that ideal by requiring truthfulness in statements to others during the course of representation[1] and candor toward tribunals[2] and by prohibiting dishonest conduct.[3] Human frailty being what it is, not all lawyers tell the truth all the time. It falls to this Court in its capacity as the principal regulator of the legal profession in Maryland to distinguish those untruths that violate the MLRPC from those that do not. For example, this Court has held that a lawyer who lies to his mistress about his fidelity in matters of the heart does not violate the MLRPC, even if the mistress is also a client.[4] On the other hand, a lawyer who knowingly submits false documents to enhance an insurance claim concerning the lawyer's home is subject to discipline, even if the claim is not related to the lawyer's practice and the lawyer is not otherwise prosecuted.[5]

In this case, the Respondent, John E. Coppock, Jr., found himself in personal financial distress. Mr. Coppock sought a short-term loan, and represented that the funds would be used to defray litigation expenses in a case from which he anticipated a large attorney's fee. He ultimately obtained the loan from a private lender at a high interest rate and entered into a loan agreement that confirmed that the loan related to the litigation and that gave the lender a security interest in his attorney's fees from that case. The disbursement of his fee was later delayed, and the anticipated amount was reduced, as a result of a prolonged battle between Mr. Coppock and a former co-counsel over the division of the attorney's fees in the case. When Mr. Coppock ultimately received a portion of the fee owed to him – the funds in which he had given the lender a security interest – he used the money to make payments on other debts and misled the lender concerning the status of the fee dispute.

After receiving a complaint from the attorney for the lender, the Attorney Grievance Commission (the "Commission"), acting through Bar Counsel, charged Mr. Coppock with violating several of the MLRPC, including Rule 4.2(a) (communication with person represented by counsel), Rule 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation) and Rule 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice). The alleged violations arise out of Mr. Coppock's interactions with the attorney and the creditor.

Pursuant to Maryland Rules 16-752(a) and 16-757, we referred the matter to Judge Nancy M. Purpura of the Circuit Court for Baltimore County to conduct a hearing and provide findings of fact and recommended conclusions of law.

The parties agreed to nearly all of the material facts of the case. Based on those facts, the hearing judge concluded that, in communicating directly with the lender on his own behalf, Mr. Coppock had not communicated with a represented person on behalf of a client and therefore did not violate Rule 4.2. The hearing judge also concluded that, although Mr. Coppock had admittedly deceived the lender, his misrepresentations were unrelated to his fitness to practice law and therefore did not violate Rule 8.4(c) or 8.4(d). The Commission filed exceptions with respect to the judge's conclusions concerning alleged violations of Rule 8.4(c) and 8.4(d).

We sustain the Commission's exception as to the violation of Rule 8.4(c) and hold that Mr. Coppock's admitted misrepresentations were sufficiently related to his practice of law to merit professional discipline. Under the circumstances of this case and in light of the mitigating facts found by the hearing judge, the appropriate sanction is a reprimand.

Background[6]

After a career in the United States Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland National Guard, Mr. Coppock was admitted to the Maryland Bar on June 24, 1999. He practiced for a year in Bel Air, until his National Guard unit was mobilized and sent to Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of a multinational peacekeeping force. In November 2011, he was featured in an article in the military publication Stars And Stripes for his work to protect Bosnian children from land mines.

The Thurmont Litigation

Mr. Coppock returned to Maryland in 2002 and joined a firm that handled personal injury cases. In 2003, he began representation of eight families from Thurmont in a lawsuit against the Town concerning damages to their homes allegedly caused by improperly installed and maintained sewer systems. In his previous career with the Army Corps of Engineers, Mr. Coppock had experience installing such systems and therefore felt qualified to investigate the situation and to represent the families in their claims against the Town. He subsequently left the law firm and began a solo practice in which he continued to represent the Thurmont families.

In connection with the Thurmont case, Mr. Coppock hired engineering and real estate experts and enlisted as co-counsel Brian Jablon, an attorney whose practice dealt with construction and real estate issues. Mr. Jablon was surprised to find that Mr. Coppock's fee agreement was uncommonly advantageous to the clients. According to Mr. Jablon, contingency arrangements in such cases typically provide for a fee of between one-third to 40 percent of the award, but Mr. Coppock had agreed to accept only 25 percent of any recovery.

Mr. Jablon estimated that the case consumed most of Mr. Coppock's time and that he spent hundreds of hours in preparation for trial, to the exclusion of other potential legal work. Ultimately, this made it increasingly difficult for Mr. Coppock to pay his debts, including student loans, multiple mortgages on two properties, and credit card balances. However, Mr. Coppock remained confident that the fee from the Thurmont litigation would eventually prove these efforts and sacrifices worthwhile.

Two weeks before the trial of the Thurmont case, Mr. Coppock obtained the help of a third attorney, Loyd Hopkins, [7] who had successfully represented plaintiffs in a similar sewage-related case. After a 10-day trial in May 2007, a jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs against the Town in the amount of $3.5 million – an amount later remitted by the trial court to $2.6 million. The Town appealed, and the plaintiffs cross-appealed concerning the remission. As the appeal delayed Mr. Coppock's collection of his fee, he sought a loan from a bank in order to cover his mounting personal expenses.

Loan Agreement and Mr. Levine's Fee

Mr. Coppock's efforts to obtain a bank loan proved unsuccessful. In early December 2007, he sought assistance from a physician acquaintance in locating other sources of funds. In an e-mail to the physician, Mr. Coppock indicated that the loan was related to the Thurmont litigation. Mr. Coppock wrote that he and Mr. Jablon had agreed to advance costs for various experts in the Thurmont case, that they were making payments with respect to those costs, and that they now wished to pay off those costs. Mr. Coppock wrote that he was seeking a $125, 000 "advance" on the anticipated attorneys' fees, was willing to pay a "20% flat rate, " and anticipated that the matter would be resolved in three or four months.

The physician put Mr. Coppock in touch with Stephen Simons, who was engaged in the business of making high-risk, high-interest loans. Mr. Simons agreed to provide a loan in the amount of $125, 000 and the transaction was consummated on December 18, 2007, under documents drafted by Mr. Simons' attorney, Stuart Levine. Pursuant to the promissory note, Mr. Coppock promised to pay back the principal plus $25, 000 in interest by June 18, 2008, with the right to extend the due date by 30 days up to six times by paying $2, 500 for each extension.[8]

In a related loan and security agreement, Mr. Coppock also agreed to pay Mr. Levine's fees related to preparing the loan documents and agreed to a confessed judgment in the event of default. The loan and security agreement recited that the funds were to be used for Mr. Coppock's expenses related to the Thurmont litigation and it provided Mr. Simons with a guaranteed first security interest on any attorney's lien Mr. Coppock had on the Thurmont plaintiffs' recovery.[9] It further provided that Mr. Coppock would not create or permit any other encumbrance on that lien. In the agreement, Mr. Coppock promised to keep Mr. Simons informed of the status of the Thurmont litigation, including the resolution of the appeal, the defendant's payment of the judgment, and the collection of attorney's fees.

Later that month, Mr. Levine sent Mr. Simons an invoice for work performed in connection with the loan, which Mr. Simons forwarded to Mr. Coppock for payment per the loan and security agreement. Two months later Mr. Levin had not received payment and he inquired as to the status of the payment. Mr. Coppock initially e-mailed Mr. Levine that he had already sent him a check for the amount of the invoice, but in fact he had not done so. When Mr. Levine wrote back that he had not received the check, Mr. Coppock responded in an e-mail questioning the accuracy of the invoice. Mr. Levine responded with an angry and insulting e-mail that repeatedly called Mr. Coppock a "liar."[10] Mr. Coppock paid Mr. Levine's ...


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