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Attorney Grievance Com'n of Maryland v. Colton-Bell

Court of Appeals of Maryland

September 26, 2013

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND
v.
Julia COLTON-BELL.

Page 1097

Fletcher P. Thompson, Assistant Bar Counsel (Glenn M. Grossman, Bar Counsel, Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland), for Petitioner.

No argument on behalf of Respondent.

Argued before BARBERA, C.J., HARRELL, BATTAGLIA, GREENE, MURPHY [*], ADKINS and BELL [**], JJ.

BELL, C.J. (Retired).

[434 Md. 555] The petitioner, the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland (" AGC" ), filed, pursuant to Maryland Rule 16-751, a [434 Md. 556] Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action against Julia Colton-Bell, the respondent. Therein, the petitioner alleged tat the respondent violated Rules 1.1, [1] 1.3, [2] 1.4,[3] 1.5,[4] 1.15,[5] [434 Md. 558] 1.16, [6] 5.5,[7] 8.1,[8] AND 8.4 [9] OF the

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Maryland Lawyers' Rules of [434 Md. 560] Professional Conduct (" MLRPC" ) as adopted by Maryland Rule 16-812; Maryland Rules 16-604[10] and 16-606; [11] and [434 Md. 561]Maryland Code §§ 10-304[12] and 10-306 [13] of the Business Occupations and Professions Article (" BP" ). We ordered, pursuant to Maryland Rule 16-752(a), that the matter be

Page 1101

transmitted " to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County to be heard and determined by Judge Robert A. Greenberg, of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, in accordance with Maryland Rule 16-757."

The petitioner was unable to serve the respondent with the Petition for Disciplinary Action at any of her listed mailing addresses and, therefore, pursuant to Maryland Rule 16-753, served the Administrator of the Client Protection Fund. The respondent neither filed an answer to the Petition, nor a motion to vacate the consequent Order of Default issued by the Circuit Court pursuant to Maryland Rules 2-613(b) and 16-754(c). Following a hearing, at which the respondent failed to appear, the Circuit Court made the following findings of fact:

[434 Md. 562] " Respondent was admitted to the bar of Maryland on June 5, 1996. On or about December 4, 2005, Complainant, who is presently serving a life sentence at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, retained Respondent for representation in a habeas corpus proceeding. On that date, Complainant signed a retainer agreement that obligated him to pay Respondent a flat fee of $20,000.00, which would be placed in her operating account and considered earned upon undertaking the representation. Complainant, however, did not give informed consent, confirmed in writing, for Respondent to immediately place the fee in her operating account. The retainer agreement also provided that the Complainant would make an advance payment of $10,000.00, which would be non-refundable once earned, regardless of the case's outcome. In exchange, Respondent agreed to file a successive habeas corpus petition.
" Pursuant to the parties' fee agreement, the following payments were made: $8,225.00 on August 15, 2005; $1,550.00 on May 23, 2006; $500.00 on August 7, 2006; and $10,000.00 on September 21, 2006, for a total of $20,275.00. All of the payments, except for the $500.00 installment, were deposited in Respondent's operating account, which was titled ‘ IOLTA.’ [[14]]
" Respondent never filed a habeas corpus petition on Complainant's behalf. On March 18, 2008, Respondent sent Complainant a letter stating that, because of health issues, she could no longer represent him, but could solicit the assistance of another attorney on his behalf. She also stated that Complainant could terminate her as his counsel, at which time they would ‘ discuss the terms of refunding his fee.’ Complainant did not respond to this letter. Respondent wrote him again on May 5, 2008, inquiring how he wished to proceed. This was her last correspondence to Complainant.
" On April 8, 2008, the Court of Appeals decertified Respondent for failure to pay the Client Protection Fund assessment. [434 Md. 563] Despite being stripped of her ability to legally practice law in Maryland, Respondent subsequently entered her appearance in three cases: Waterton v. Waterton, 0602SP029202008, in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County; Rose v. Daneri, 713338-FL, in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County; and Shumate v. Duren, CAL 0814488, in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County.
" Complainant sent a letter to Bar Counsel on May 11, 2008, lodging a complaint against Respondent. He stated that he had retained Respondent as counsel for his habeas corpus proceeding, and paid her flat fee for her services, but she had not performed the agreed-upon work. Further, he alleged that, despite numerous attempts, he had not been able to

Page 1102

get in contact with her and speak about the status of the case. On May 28, 2008, Assistant Bar Counsel Kathleen McLaughlin forwarded to Respondent a copy of the complaint, requesting a response to the allegations within 15 days. Respondent did not answer this letter. On June 24, 2008, Ms. McLaughlin sent her another request for a response.
" On June 26, 2008, Respondent answered Ms. McLaughlin's correspondence, and enclosed copies of her letters to Complainant to demonstrate her attempts at communication. Ms. McLaughlin, in turn, wrote to Respondent on July 8, 2008, stating that Complainant no longer required her services, but emphasized that he wanted his fee returned. This letter was unanswered, so on July 21, 2008, Ms. McLaughlin again wrote to Respondent, requesting copies of her billing statements, evidence that the retainer payment was placed in her escrow account, and documentation concerning disbursement of Complainant's funds, within 10 days.
" On July 17, 2008, Complainant wrote to Ms. McLaughlin, and enclosed a letter from Gary Roehm, Esq., dated July 14, 2008, indicating that he had been hired by Respondent to work on Complainant's habeas corpus proceeding. However, in his correspondence to Ms. McLaughlin, Complainant stressed that he did not want, nor did he agree to, Respondent [434 Md. 564] hiring substitute counsel and still desired the refunding of his fee. This letter was forwarded to Respondent on July 31, 2008, and on August 18, 2008, Gary Huggins, Esq., sent Bar Counsel a response on her behalf. Mr. Huggins stated that Respondent had already paid $3,750.00 to another attorney and a private investigator for Complainant's case. Mr. Huggins, however, failed to provide the documents previously requested by Mr. McLaughlin. Therefore, on August 28, 2008, Ms. McLaughlin wrote to Mr. Huggins, requesting evidence of Complainant's consent to Respondent depositing the $20,000.00 fee immediately into her operating account. In a letter, dated September 10, 2008, Respondent stated that the retainer agreement itself authorized placement of the advance fee payment in her operating account. Respondent never returned any portion of Complainant's fee.
" In light of the Complaint and Respondent's failure to comply with Petitioner's requests, Bar Counsel assigned Dennis Biennas, its investigator, to look into the matter. As part of his investigation, Mr. Biennas arranged to interview Respondent on November 20, 2008. Respondent, however, canceled the appointment on the morning of the interview, and rescheduled for December 3, 2008. On December 3, Respondent again canceled the appointment, after Wendy Hartman, a Virginia-barred attorney, advised her to seek counsel and arrange for a new interview date. Mr. Biennas did not hear from Respondent after December 3, so on December 16 he wrote her a letter, seeking a new appointment date and reciting his previous efforts to set up a meeting. Because Respondent failed to answer this letter, Mr. Biennas ceased the investigation on January 9, 2009.
" On February 9, 2009, Albert Wilson, Jr., Esq., wrote to Ms. McLaughlin and Glenn Grossman, Deputy Bar Counsel, regarding Respondent's disciplinary investigation, stating that she had performed substantial work on Complainant's case (138.5 hours), and in support of this contention, enclosed [434 Md. 565] a record log of the time spent on the case, for which she billed at an hourly rate of $225.00."

From these facts, the hearing judge drew conclusions of law, as follows:

Page 1103

" 1. M[L]RPC 1.1— Competence, M[L]RPC 1.2(a)[ [15]]— Duty to Consult with Client and M[L]RPC 1.3— Diligence
" Although Respondent may have been competent to represent Complainant in his habeas corpus proceeding, the facts demonstrate a complete failure to file a habeas corpus petition, the purpose of Respondent's representation. The Court of Appeals has held that an attorney's complete failure to file a petition on behalf of his/her client, such as an emergency or adoption petition, constitutes a violation of the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct (" M [L]RPC" ) 1.1 (See Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. McCulloch, 404 Md. 388 [946 A.2d 1009] (2008); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Guida, 391 Md. 33 [891 A.2d 1085] (2006)). This court [434 Md. 566] similarly finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that Respondent's complete disregard for Complainant's case and the habeas corpus petition violated M[L]RPC 1.1.
" Additionally, in violation of M[L]RPC 1.2(a) and 1.3, Respondent failed to exercise reasonable diligence on Complainant's behalf and consult with him about the case. After Mary, 2008, Respondent simply walked away from the matter, and, although she initially stated that Complainant might be entitled to a refund of his fee, she subsequently ended all communication. Then, from November, 2008, until January, 2009, Respondent canceled several appointments and failed to meet with Mr. Biennas, thus ignoring her duty to cooperate with the disciplinary investigation.
" This court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that Respondent's complete abandonment of her duties and responsibilities to Complainant constituted a violation of M[L]RPC 1.1, 1.2(a) and 1.3.
" 2. M[L]RPC 1.4(a)(3)— Communication
" In July, 2008, Bar Counsel forwarded Complainant's letters to Respondent, indicating that he no longer wished to retain her as counsel, but wanted his fee returned, pursuant to her March, 2008, offer. Respondent never answered this correspondence, nor did she refund any portion of the money.
" M[L]RPC 1.4(a)(3) requires an attorney to promptly comply with a client's reasonable request for information. Complainant was entitled to be apprised of Respondent's position on the refund and, at the very least, a general response to his correspondence. This court finds

Page 1104

clear and convincing evidence that Respondent's absolute lack of attention to Complainant's inquiries and communications constituted a violation of M[L]RPC 1.4(a)(3).
" 3. M[L]RPC 1.5(a)— Unreasonable Fee
" The court in Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Briscoe, 357 Md. 554 [745 A.2d 1037] (2000), held that a non-refundable fee, obtained for unperformed work, would most likely violate M[L]RPC 1.5, which prohibits an attorney from [434 Md. 567] making an agreement for, charging, or collecting an unreasonable fee.
" Contrary to the Rules, Respondent entered into a fee agreement with Complainant that entitled her to $20,000.00, simply by signing the agreement, and without performing the agreed-upon work. This court finds clear and convincing evidence that Respondent's actions, in connection with the fee agreement, violate M[L]RPC 1.5(a).
" 4. M[L]RPC 1.15 [ (c) ], Md. Rule 16-604 and Md.Code Ann., Bus. Occ. & Prof. § 10-304— Placing Client's Payments Immediately Into Operating Account
" In Respondent's September, 2008, letter to Assistant Bar Counsel, she contends that the fee agreement itself authorized her to immediately deposit the money into her operating account. Additionally, Mr. Wilson forwarded to bar Counsel Respondent's record of the time she spent on the case, reflecting an hourly charge of $225.00. This log, however, did not indicate that Respondent even drafted, much less filed, Complainant's habeas corpus petition. A substantial portion of the work allegedly performed on Complainant's behalf occurred before the retainer agreement was signed. Further, pursuant to the parties' agreement, Complainant was to pay a flat fee of $20,000.00 for the entire representation, and was not to be billed at an hourly rate.
" This court finds that although Complainant agreed to the fee arrangement, he did not give the requisite informed, written consent, pursuant to M[L]RPC 1.15(c). Complainant should have been advised of his right to insist upon placement of the money in trust, the risks associated with direct deposit into an operating account, and then confirmed his consent in writing. Additionally, Md. Rule 16-604 and Md.Code Ann., Bus. Occ. & Prof. § 10-304 require an attorney to deposit a client's fee immediately into an attorney trust account, in an approved financial institution.
" By failing to obtain the requisite consent when entering into the subject agreement, and later failing to preserve these monies in trust, this court finds, by clear and convincing [434 Md. 568] evidence, that Respondent violated M[L] RPC 1.15(c), Md. Rule 16-604 and Md.Code Ann., Bus. Occ. & Prof. § 10-304.
" 5. M[L]RPC 1.16(d)— Failure to Return an Unearned Fee
" M[L]RPC 1.16(d) provides that, upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall take steps, to the extent reasonably practicable, to protect a client's interests, such as giving reasonable notice to the client, allowing time for employment of other counsel, surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled and refunding any advance payment of fee or expense that has not been earned or incurred. This court in Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Tinsky, 777 [377] Md. 646 [835 A.2d 542] (2003), held that an attorney violates M[L]RPC 1.16(d) when he or she abandons his or her practice and fails to return fees to a client for an uncompleted case.
" In the instant case, Respondent abandoned the case and failed to refund any

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portion of Complainant's $20,000.00 fee, despite alluding to this possibility in March 2008. Because Respondent's performance did not entitle [ ] her to the fee deposited into her account, this court finds clear and convincing evidence that her failure to return the money constitutes a violation of M[L]RPC 1.16(d).
" 6. M[L]RPC 5.5(a)— Unauthorized Practice of Law
" M[L]RPC 5.5(a) prohibits an attorney from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law or assisting in such activity. Although, she was no longer authorized to practice law in Maryland, Respondent continued to enter her appearance in three Maryland cases after her April, 2008 decertification. This court finds clear and convincing evidence that Respondent's continued practice of law, subsequent to her decertification, constitutes a violation of M[L] RPC 5.5(a).
" 7. M[L]RPC 8.1(b)— Failure to Cooperate With Disciplinary Matters
" After scheduling an appointment to meet with Bar Counsel's investigator, Mr. Biennas, Respondent canceled the [434 Md. 569] November 20th meeting and failed to make herself available for future dates. Her refusal to cooperate with the disciplinary authority caused Mr. Biennas to cease the investigation. However pursuant to M[L]RPC 8.1(b), Respondent was required to respond to a lawful demand for information from the disciplinary authority, in connection with an investigation. This court finds clear and convincing evidence that this obstruction of the disciplinary investigation violates M[L]RPC 8.1(b).
" 8. M[L]RPC 8.4(c)— Attorney Misconduct
" Pursuant to M[L]RPC 8.4(c), it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation. This court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that by expending Complainant's entire fee, without preserving funds in trust, or performing the agree[d-]upon work, Respondent violated M[L]RPC 8.4(c).
" 9. Md. Rule 16-606— Name and Designation of Account
" Pursuant to Md. Rule 16-606, an attorney shall maintain each attorney trust account with a title that includes the name of the attorney or law firm and that clearly designates the account as ‘ Attorney Trust Account,’ ‘ Attorney Escrow Account,’ or ‘ Client's Funds Account,’ on all checks and deposit slips. The title shall distinguish the account from any other fiduciary account that the attorney or law firm may maintain and from any personal or business account for the attorney or law firm.
" In the instant case, the court finds clear and convincing evidence that Respondent violated Md. Rule 16-606, by titling the subject account ‘ IOLTA,’ rather than ‘ Attorney Trust Account,’ ‘ Attorney Escrow Account,’ or ‘ Client's Funds Account,’ as permitted by the Rules."

As indicated, the respondent did not appear or participate in these proceedings. Therefore, she has not filed any exceptions to the hearing judge's Findings of Fact and Conclusions [434 Md. 570] of Law. Neither has the petitioner. On the other hand, the petitioner has filed a recommendation as to sanction. It is that the respondent be disbarred.

This Court exercises original and complete jurisdiction over attorney disciplinary proceedings. Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Maignan, 390 Md. 287, 292, 888 A.2d 344, 347 (2005); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. James, 385 Md. 637, 654, 870 A.2d 229, 239 (2005);

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Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. O'Toole, 379 Md. 595, 604, 843 A.2d 50, 55 (2004); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Glenn, 341 Md. 448, 470, 671 A.2d 463, 473 (1996); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Kent, 337 Md. 361, 371, 653 A.2d 909, 914 (1995); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Joehl, 335 Md. 83, 88, 642 A.2d 194, 196 (1994). The responsibility of conducting disciplinary proceedings is delegated to circuit court judges, but this Court reviews the resulting findings of fact and conclusions of law to ensure they are supported by clear and convincing evidence. Maryland Rule 16-759 provides guidance for such review.

Maryland Rule 16-759(b) provides:

" (1) Conclusions of Law. The Court of Appeals shall review de novo the circuit court judge's conclusions of law.
" (2) Findings of Fact.
" (A) If no Exceptions Are Filed. If no exceptions are filed, the Court may treat the findings of fact as established for the purpose of determining appropriate sanctions, if any.
" (B) If Exceptions are filed. If exceptions are filed, the Court of Appeals shall determine whether the findings of fact have been proven by the requisite standard of proof set out in Rule 16-757(b). The Court may confine its review to the findings of fact challenged by the exceptions. The Court shall give due regard to the opportunity of the hearing judge to assess the credibility of witnesses."

[434 Md. 571] Explicating this Rule, we said in Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Goff, 399 Md. 1, 27-28, 922 A.2d 554, 569-70, reinstatement granted, 400 Md. 97, 928 A.2d 795 (2007):

" Thus, we review de novo the hearing court's conclusions of law. Rule 16-759(b)(1); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Mahone, 398 Md. 257, 265-66, 920 A.2d 458, 463, 2007 WL 1051696, (2007); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Mba-Jonas, 397 Md. 690, 700, 919 A.2d 669, 675 (2007); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Hodgson, 396 Md. 1, 6-7, 912 A.2d 640, 644 (2006); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. McLaughlin, 372 Md. 467, 493, 813 A.2d 1145, 1160 (2002); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Joehl, 335 Md. 83, 88, 642 A.2d 194, 196 (1994) (noting that the ultimate decision as to whether an attorney has engaged in professional misconduct rests with this Court). When the factual findings are not clearly erroneous and the conclusions drawn from them are supported by the facts found, exceptions to conclusions of law will be overruled. Mba-Jonas, 397 Md. at 700, 919 A.2d at 675; Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Manger, 396 Md. 134, 146-147, 913 A.2d 1, 8 (2006). Moreover, a hearing court's findings of fact will not be overruled unless we determine that they are clearly erroneous. Mahone, 398 Md. at 265, 920 A.2d at 463; Guida, 391 Md. at 50, 891 A.2d at 1095. ‘ Weighing the credibility of witnesses and resolving any conflict in the evidence are tasks proper for the fact finder.’ State v. Stanley, 351 Md. 733, 750, 720 A.2d 323, 331 (1998)."

See also Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Tanko, 408 Md. 404, 418-19, 969 A.2d 1010, 1019 (2009); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Harris, 403 Md. 142, 155-56, 939 A.2d 732, 740 (2008) (noting that, " [a]s to the hearing judge's conclusions of law, such as whether the provisions of the MLRPC were violated, our consideration is essentially de novo." ); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Zuckerman, 386 Md. 341, 363, 872 A.2d 693, 706 (2005) reinstatement granted sub nom. Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Zuckerman, 387 Md. 326, 875 A.2d 132 (2005). Indeed, in such proceedings, we deem the factual findings of the hearing judge to be prima facie correct, which is why we will not disturb them on review unless they are [434 Md. 572] proven to be

Page 1107

clearly erroneous. Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Ward, 394 Md. 1, 15, 904 A.2d 477, 486 (2006); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Kahn, 290 Md. 654, 678, 431 A.2d 1336, 1349 (1981). As to the legal conclusions, " [a]ny conclusions of law made by the hearing judge, such as whether provisions of the MLRPC were violated, are subject to our de novo review." O'Toole, 379 Md. at 604, 843 A.2d at 55 (citing Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. McLaughlin, 372 Md. 467, 493, 813 A.2d 1145, 1160 (2002)).

We shall exercise our discretion under Maryland Rule 16-759(b)(2)(A) and treat the findings of fact as established. Upon a de novo review of each of the hearing judge's conclusions of law, as required by Maryland Rule 16-759(b)(1), we conclude that each conclusion is supported by the facts found. Accordingly, we adopt the hearing judge's conclusions.

Lastly, we must determine the appropriate sanction for the established violations. MLRPC 8.5(a) [16] authorizes this Court to impose sanctions for attorney misconduct. We do so, however, aware that the purpose of attorney discipline is the protection of the public, not the punishment of the erring attorney. E.g., Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Robertson, 400 Md. 618, 642, 929 A.2d 576, 590; Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Hill, 398 Md. 95, 103, 919 A.2d 1194, 1198 (2007); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Holt, 391 Md. 673, 682, 894 A.2d 602, 607 (2006). " Because an attorney's character must remain beyond reproach, this Court has the duty, since attorneys are its officers, to insist upon the maintenance of the integrity of [434 Md. 573] the bar and to prevent the transgressions of an individual lawyer from bringing its image into disrepute." Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Sheridan, 357 Md. 1, 27, 741 A.2d 1143, 1157 (1999) (quoting Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Deutsch, 294 Md. 353, 368-69, 450 A.2d 1265, 1273 (1982)). Therefore, this Court must exercise its disciplinary authority " to protect the public and its confidence in the legal profession." Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Goodman, 426 Md. 115, 131, 43 A.3d 988, 997 (2012).

When imposing sanctions that will best serve this purpose, we must look to the facts and circumstances underlying the misconduct. E.g., Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Siskind, 401 Md. 41, 74, 930 A.2d 328, 347 (2007); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Mahone, 398 Md. 257, 269, 920 A.2d 458, 465 (2007). This is because " [t]he severity of the sanction to be applied is measured by the egregiousness of the misconduct under the particular facts and circumstances of the case." Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Gisriel, 409 Md. 331, 386, 974 A.2d 331, 363 (2009) (citing Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Montgomery, 318 Md. 154, 165, 567 A.2d 112, 117 (1989)). Next, " we consider the nature of the ethical duty violated in light of any aggravating or mitigating circumstances." Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Nussbaum, 401 Md. 612, 643, 934 A.2d 1, 19 (2007) (citing

Page 1108

Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Sweitzer, 395 Md. 586, 598-99, 911 A.2d 440, 447-48 (2006)). Again, this is because it is only by imposing sanctions " that are commensurate with the nature and gravity of the violations and the intent with which they were committed," Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Gore, 380 Md. 455, 472, 845 A.2d 1204, 1213 (2004), that this Court may best protect the public, which is, as we have seen, the purpose of attorney sanctions authorized under MLRPC 8.5(a).

The petitioner recommends that the respondent be disbarred.[17] In support of this recommendation, the petitioner [434 Md. 574] emphasizes the hearing judge's finding that the respondent abandoned representation of the complainant without providing the agreed-upon representation and without returning any portion of the agreed-upon fee. Furthermore, it is troubled by the fact that the respondent deposited the complainant's fee directly into her operating account. The petitioner likens the respondent's conduct to the conduct for which the attorneys in Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. McCulloch, 404 Md. 388, 402-03, 946 A.2d 1009, 1018 (2008); Attorney Grievance Comm'n of Maryland v. Duvall, 384 Md. 234, 241, 863 A.2d 291, 295 (2004); and Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Tinksy, 377 Md. 646, 655, 835 A.2d 542, 547 (2003) were disbarred. It points out that, in each of the cases, the attorney " expended advance fee payments before completing the work for which [he or she was] paid and made no refunds to [his or her] client[ ]." In McCulloch, the misconduct consisted of placing an unearned fee in her operating account, spending the unearned fee for personal purposes, failing to return any portion of the unearned fee, and failing to respond to Bar Counsel's inquiries concerning her client's complaint. The misconduct in Duvall included failure to account for the unearned portion of [434 Md. 575] a retainer, failing to refund the unearned portion to the client, and using those funds for a purpose other than that for which it was entrusted to the respondent. In Tinsky, the misconduct involved, in addition to a lack of diligence and preparation and failing to communicate with clients, charging unreasonable fees, failing to account for, or return, unearned fees, misrepresentations, and failure to comply with Bar Counsel's requests for information.

We agree with, and will adopt, the petitioner's recommendation.

In Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Tun, we explained our approach to determining whether, in a given case, disbarment is an appropriate sanction:

" This Court strives to impose internally consistent sanctions for similar attorney

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misconduct. Thus, we evaluate our precedents to determine the appropriate sanction for [the respondent's] admitted misconduct. Under Maryland's two-tiered system, intentional misappropriation warrants disbarment ordinarily, but where the conduct was unintentional or due to negligence, indefinite suspension is the appropriate sanction usually." See, e.g., [ Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. ] Cafferty, 376 Md. [700,] 724, 831 A.2d 1042,] 1057 [ (2003) ] (" [D]isbarment is presumed to be the appropriate sanction for any intentional dishonest misconduct, including the intentional misappropriation of funds." ); Att [ orney ] Griev [ ance ] Comm'n v. Santos, 370 Md. 77, 87, 803 A.2d 505, 511 (2002) (noting that disbarment is the preferred sanction in cases involving misappropriation but imposing an indefinite suspension because the hearing judge had concluded that the attorney's misappropriation was not " dishonest or fraudulent or done with intent to defraud" )."

428 Md. 235, 246, 51 A.3d 565, 572 (2012), reconsideration denied (Dec. 11, 2012).

Consistently, in a recent case, involving similar misconduct, we disbarred the respondent, explaining:

" In the absence of mitigation ... disbarment is the appropriate sanction when an attorney abandons a client by [434 Md. 576] failing to pursue the client's interests, failing to communicate with the client, ignoring a client's repeated requests for status updates, terminating the representation without notice by failing wholly to provide effective services, ... failing to return unearned fees, [and] fail[ing] to cooperate with Bar Counsel's lawful demands for information[.]"

Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Costanzo, 432 Md. 233, 257, 68 A.3d 808, 822 (2013) (quoting Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Heung Sik Park, 427 Md. 180, 196, 46 A.3d 1153, 1162 (2012)). Costanzo was found to have violated MLRPC 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4(a)(2), 1.15(a), 1.16(d), 8.4(c), BP § 10-306, and Maryland Rule 16-609. Costanzo, 432 Md. at 257, 68 A.3d at 822. We concluded that Costanzo's misconduct was a pattern, which we characterized as egregious and deserving of disbarment in the absence of any mitigation. Id. at 257, 68 A.3d at 822. See Heung Sik Park, 427 Md. at 196, 46 A.3d at 1162 (" In the absence of mitigation (as here), disbarment is the appropriate sanction when an attorney abandons a client by failing to pursue the client's interests, failing to communicate with the client, ignoring a client's repeated requests for status updates, terminating the representation without notice by failing wholly to provide effective services, and failing to return unearned fees." ).

In the present case, the respondent's misconduct also is egregious and deserving of disbarment. In addition to the grounds reflected and enumerated in Costanzo, McCulloch , Duvall, and Tinksy, the respondent's misconduct includes charging an unreasonable fee, continuing to practice law after decertification, and obstructing Bar Counsel's disciplinary investigation. Moreover, the respondent has offered no mitigating factors in response to the Bar Counsel's charges or the hearing judge's Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. Disbarment is the appropriate sanction.

IT IS SO ORDERED; RESPONDENT SHALL PAY ALL COSTS AS TAXED BY THE CLERK OF THIS COURT, INCLUDING COSTS OF ALL TRANSCRIPTS, PURSUANT TO MARYLAND RULE 16-761, FOR WHICH SUM JUDGMENT IS ENTERED IN FAVOR OF THE ATTORNEY [434 Md. 577] GRIEVANCE COMMISSION AGAINST JULIA COLTON-BELL.


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