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Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Narasimhan

Court of Appeals of Maryland

May 23, 2014

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND
v.
SUDHA NARASIMHAN

Argued March 10, 2014.

Circuit Court for Montgomery County. Case No. 28288-M. Eric M. Johnson, JUDGE.

ARGUED BY: Lydia E. Lawless, Assistant Bar Counsel (Glenn M. Grossman, Bar Counsel, Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland) FOR PETITIONER.

ARGUED BY: Irwin R. Kramer, Esquire (of Kramer & Connolly of Reisterstown, MD) FOR RESPONDENT.

ARGUED BEFORE: Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ.

OPINION

Page 513

[438 Md. 641] Watts, J.

This attorney discipline proceeding concerns a Maryland lawyer who: (1) misrepresented her legal experience on her résumé and a job proposal to gain employment and appear attractive to a potential client; (2) established a law practice with an attorney in a specific field without verifying his expertise and experience in the field; (3) provided incompetent representation; and (4) failed to promptly, adequately, and fully respond to and inform a client of the client's case status and available options.

Sudha Narasimhan (" Narasimhan" ), Respondent, a member of the Bar of Maryland, was retained by the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (" the MPD" ) to secure a permanent residency for its employee, Dr. Laurie Samuel (" Dr. Samuel" ), a Canadian citizen whom the MPD had hired as a project specialist to oversee a new program. Dr. Samuel filed a complaint against Narasimhan with the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland (" the Commission" ), Petitioner.

On December 28, 2012, in this Court, Bar Counsel filed a " Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action" against Narasimhan, charging her with violating Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct (" MLRPC" ) 1.1 (Competence), 1.3 (Diligence), 1.4 (Communication Generally), 7.1 (Communications Concerning a Lawyer's Services), 8.4(a) (Violating MLRPC), 8.4(c) (Dishonesty, Fraud, Deceit or Misrepresentation), and 8.4(d) (Conduct Prejudicial to the Administration of Justice). On January 9, 2013, we referred this attorney discipline proceeding to the Honorable Eric M. Johnson (" the hearing judge" ) of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County (" the circuit court" ). On June 3, 4, 5, and 6, 2013, the hearing judge conducted a hearing. On July 26, 2013, the hearing judge filed in this Court findings of fact

Page 514

and conclusions of [438 Md. 642] law, concluding that Narasimhan violated MLRPC 1.1, 1.3, 1.4(a) and (b), 7.1, 8.4(a), 8.4(c), and 8.4(d).

On March 10, 2014, we heard oral argument. For the below reasons, we suspend Narasimhan from the practice of law in Maryland for sixty days.

I. Hearing Judge's Findings of Fact

In his opinion, the hearing judge found the following facts, which we summarize.

On June 11, 2007, this Court admitted Narasimhan to the Bar of Maryland. For the next year and a half, Narasimhan took temporary jobs at a personal injury firm and as a contract attorney completing document review. In January 2009, Narasimhan met Edmundo Gordon Rogers, Esquire (" Rogers" ) through an advertisement on the website Craig's List. Rogers represented that he was an experienced immigration attorney who had been practicing law for sixteen years. Eventually, Narasimhan and Rogers established The Immigration Law Group (" ILG" ) by executing a Joint Venture Master Agreement (" the Agreement" ). Under the Agreement, Narasimhan was to be " primarily responsible for the conduct of the office, business development, control of finances, [and the] practice of law[,]" and Rogers was to provide " advice and legal expertise" and to research " legal issues that will arise in the conduct of the law practice." Under the Agreement, Narasimhan and Rogers were to equally share ILG's profits.

In 2009, the MPD sought an immigration attorney to assist in securing permanent residency for its employee, Dr. Samuel, through the completion of the EB-2 Permanent Residency process. Dr. Samuel, a Canadian citizen who was in the United States pursuant to a work visa that would not lead to permanent residency, had been hired by the MPD as a project specialist tasked with overseeing a new program. On November 4, 2009, only three months after forming ILG, Narasimhan, on behalf of ILG, answered the MPD's request for a proposal seeking representation for Dr. Samuel by submitting [438 Md. 643] a Request for Quotation, Proposal, her résumé, and Rogers's résumé .

In the Proposal, Narasimhan stated that she was " well-versed" in, and had " a good knowledge of[,] the immigration laws." In her résumé, Narasimhan stated that she had represented " immigration clients in documentary immigration processes and litigation" and had " handled Family petitions and Citizenship applications." Significantly, though, Narasimhan had never: (1) represented clients in the " documentary immigration processes" ; (2) represented clients in immigration litigation; or (3) " handled Family petitions and Citizenship applications." Thus, Narasimhan's résumé contained several misrepresentations about her legal experience.

The MPD chose ILG to assist in establishing permanent residency for Dr. Samuel based on Rogers's experience and Narasimhan's ability to provide local services as a member of the Bar of Maryland. ILG was to be paid a total of $2,800 for the representation, which was to commence on November 20, 2009. ILG's primary liaison at the MPD was Diane Haines Walton (" Haines" ), the MPD's Director of Human Resources; Haines authorized Narasimhan to speak with Dr. Samuel about the representation.

Shortly after the MPD selected ILG, Narasimhan traveled to India, where she remained from December 3, 2009, until January 31, 2010.[1] Narasimhan was

Page 515

" largely unavailable" during the time that she was in India and asked Rogers to " take the lead" on the representation while she was out of the country.

On December 10, 2009, a conference call was held; Narasimhan did not participate in the conference call. The hearing judge determined that the December 10, 2009, conference call " would eventually prove to be essential." Narasimhan did not [438 Md. 644] respond to the MPD's request for a second conference call on December 21, 2009.

On January 20, 2010, Narasimhan advised the MPD that ILG was ready to file " Form 9089" [2] online " next week." Narasimhan failed to file Form 9089 online, however, and gave no explanation for the failure. Between February 1, 2010, and March 15, 2010, Narasimhan, Rogers, and Dr. Samuel prepared multiple paper drafts of Form 9089. On March 23, 2010, Narasimhan mailed an incomplete and incorrect version of Form 9089 to the Department of Labor (" the DOL" ). On April 2, 2010, Narasimhan submitted an invoice to the MPD for $1,800 for filing Form 9089. On or about May 27, 2010, the Government of the District of Columbia paid the invoice.[3]

On April 15, 2010, Dr. Samuel e-mailed Narasimhan and Rogers a series of questions concerning the labor certification process and requested available options, as her work visa would expire in January 2011. Narasimhan replied to Dr. Samuel's e-mail, assuring her that Rogers would provide answers to her questions. Narasimhan did not answer any of Dr. Samuel's questions, but instead asked Rogers to respond " ASAP." On or about April 26, 2010, Dr. Samuel telephoned Narasimhan and left a voicemail stating that she had not received any substantive answers to her questions. Narasimhan thereafter advised Dr. Samuel that the delay was due to Rogers's travel schedule and other assignments. On May 2, 2010, Rogers provided a partial response to Dr. Samuel's e-mail.

In a letter dated May 3, 2010, the DOL advised the MPD that it was denying certification of Form 9089. Almost all the reasons for denial by the DOL were the result of Narasimhan's failure to: (1) adequately inform the MPD of the requirements [438 Md. 645] of the recruitment process; (2) obtain the necessary information to complete Form 9089; and (3) file the correct version of Form 9089 with the information she had obtained. Even if Narasimhan had mailed the correct version of Form 9089, the DOL still would have denied certification because of substantial omissions and misinformation.

On May 8, 2010, Narasimhan and Rogers met with Dr. Samuel and Haines to discuss the denial letter and Dr. Samuel's options. At the meeting, Narasimhan advised the MPD that a corrected Form 9089 could be filed with the DOL. On May 12, 2010, Narasimhan, for the first time, filed Form 9141, requesting a prevailing wage determination. The DOL requires that Form 9141 be completed prior to, and as part of, the submission of Form 9089. On May 27, 2010, at the request of Dr. Samuel and the MPD, Narasimhan submitted a handwritten Form 9089 that Dr. Samuel had completed. On June 3, 2010, Narasimhan filed a typewritten Form 9089 with the DOL to " clarify any illegible section or portions

Page 516

of the handwritten document." On June 8, 2010, Narasimhan mailed a letter to the DOL requesting review of the May 3, 2010, denial of certification. On June 21, 2010, Narasimhan mailed another letter to the DOL regarding the refiled Form 9089 and request for review.

On June 15, 2010, and July 14, 2010, Haines and Dr. Samuel, respectively, requested information from ILG about obtaining a one-year extension to Dr. Samuel's current work visa. Neither Haines nor Dr. Samuel received a response from Narasimhan or Rogers with information regarding an extension of Dr. Samuel's current work visa.

In June 2010, the MPD received a second invoice from ILG. At that time, the MPD advised Narasimhan that it would not pay for additional work related to the refiling of Form 9089 that resulted from her errors and omissions. In response, Narasimhan submitted a modified invoice.

On July 14, 2010, Dr. Samuel and Haines requested a conference call with Narasimhan and Rogers to receive an update on the status of the case and to discuss the appeals [438 Md. 646] process. The requested conference call never occurred, and neither Dr. Samuel nor the MPD was provided with the requested information concerning the appeals process. On July 20, 2010, the MPD sent an e-mail terminating ILG's representation.

In September 2010, the DOL again denied Dr. Samuel's certification. On November 15, 2011, the Board of Labor Certification Appeals affirmed denial of the certification.

Before the hearing judge, the Commission called Michael L. Kabik, Esquire (" Kabik" ) as an expert in immigration law. Kabik opined, with a reasonable degree of professional certainty, that Narasimhan lacked the necessary and required legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation to represent the MPD. Kabik further opined that the MPD was unable to make informed decisions regarding the permanent residency process due to Narasimhan's failure to adequately explain the representation and the residency process. The hearing judge credited Kabik's opinions.

II. Evidence Adduced at the Hearing

The following evidence was adduced at the hearing of June 3-6, 2013.

The Proposal and Narasimhan's résumé were admitted into evidence.[4] In the Proposal, Narasimhan described herself as follows: " Being an immigrant [myself, I am] well-versed and ha[ve] a good knowledge of the immigration laws in this country[.]" [5] In her résumé, under her job description with [438 Md. 647] ILG, Narasimhan stated that she had represented " Immigration clients in documentary

Page 517

immigration processes and litigation" and had handled " Family petitions and Citizenship applications." Specifically, Narasimhan's job description with ILG appeared on her résumé as follows:

EXPERIENCE
THE IMMIGRATION LAW GROUP (A Joint Venture), Alexandria, VA Attorney/Joint Venturer, July 20, 2009 -- Present Representation of Immigration clients in documentary immigration processes and litigation. Handled Family petitions and Citizenship applications.[6]

Before the hearing judge, Narasimhan testified that the job description under ILG stating " Representation of immigration clients, and documentary immigration processes and litigation" was not intended to describe her job experience, but instead " was the description of [ILG] and what it was formed to do" and was meant to be a prospective statement of the work she anticipated ILG to complete. When asked whether she informed anyone at the MPD that her " intention with that first sentence on [her] r[é ]sum[é ] was p[ro]spective and [] didn't reflect any actual experience that [she] had[,]" Narasimhan answered that she " assumed they knew already[.]"

Narasimhan testified that, at the time she submitted her résumé to the MPD, ILG had not handled any matters that had resulted in litigation. Narasimhan admitted that there is no such thing as a " Citizenship application" as stated on her résumé, and that " [w]hat [she] meant in layman terms is basically an N-400 Application for Naturalization." Narasimhan [438 Md. 648] testified that she had handled only two Applications for Naturalization, one in 2007 and one in 2008, both before she formed ILG. When asked why she listed that she had experience with " Citizenship applications" under her job description with ILG, Narasimhan stated: " Because it was immigration experience, it was related experience, and my intent was to communicate the nature of my limited immigration experience in layman's terms basically." Narasimhan explained that the two Applications for Naturalization she had completed were done for her friends, and that she never received compensation for her work, was not retained by the individuals, and never entered her appearance with any government agency related to the applications. As to the statement on her résumé that she had handled " Family petitions," Narasimhan admitted that she had completed only one family petition and that the plural word " petitions" on her résumé " was a typo." Narasimhan admitted that the family petition that she listed on her résumé was actually prepared by Rogers, and her assistance was clerical.

On November 30, 2009, after ILG's representation of the MPD commenced, Narasimhan sent an e-mail to Haines outlining the " labor certification steps." Narasimhan's e-mail was forwarded to Rogers, who sent a reply e-mail to Narasimhan, stating: " This is good [Narasimhan]. Well done. I like your prompt response and dedication to customer service." These two e-mails were admitted into evidence.

As to the December 10, 2009, conference call in which Narasimhan did not participate, the hearing judge admitted into evidence an exchange of e-mails among Rogers, Haines, Dr. Samuel, and Narasimhan ranging from December 8, 2009, through December 10, 2009. In an e-mail dated December 8, 2009, Rogers provided Haines with a brief outline of the EB-2 permanent

Page 518

residency classification and requested " some necessary information" to be discussed during the December 10, 2009, conference call, including Dr. Samuel's professional and academic background and her current job description. Narasimhan was copied on the e-mail. The following day, Haines e-mailed Rogers, Narasimhan, and Dr. Samuel, and advised [438 Md. 649] that she would be sending documents requested by Rogers, including a job description, copy of a proposed advertisement to be placed in a local newspaper, and a statement of work outlining Dr. Samuel's duties. On December 10, 2009, Narasimhan responded that she would be unable to join the conference call, but stated that Rogers would share " both his and my thoughts[.]"

The hearing judge admitted into evidence an e-mail sent by Haines after the conference call occurred, memorializing the topics discussed during the call. In the e-mail, Haines wrote that, among other things: (1) Rogers stated he would " review employment ads submitted by prior clients to see if the employment ad [that the MPD] sent [him] is sufficient" ; (2) the parties had " discussed the interview process and whether [the MPD] can share the names of applicants who apply for jobs" ; (3) Dr. Samuel had already completed Form 9089; and (4) Dr. Samuel would send information and documents for review.

The hearing judge admitted into evidence a May 3, 2010, letter, in which the DOL advised the MPD that it was denying certification of Form 9089, and provided the following reasons for the denial: (1) six different items were incomplete on the application, including boxes to identify the occupation title and prevailing wage; (2) Form 9089 indicated that no notice of filing for a permanent employment certification application was posted in a conspicuous location at the place of employment for ten business days; and (3) the newspaper advertisement placed by the MPD was not placed on a Sunday.

The hearing judge admitted into evidence a February 2, 2012, letter, in which Narasimhan replied to Bar Counsel's request for a response to Dr. Samuel's complaint by denying any violation of the MLRPC and stating the following:

Throughout the period that I represented the MPD, I consulted repeatedly with [] Rogers in order to check my conclusions, obtain his review of the documents, and the like, before I communicated advice to the MPD.
* * *
[438 Md. 650] [] On the same day that ILG received the contract for legal services from the MPD, I sent a detailed e[-]mail of the Labor certification process to the MPD[.]
* * *
[] I, in conjunction with [] Rogers, worked with Dr. Samuel to complete the initial Form 9089 in four review cycles[.]

III. Standard of Review

In an attorney discipline proceeding, this Court reviews for clear error the hearing judge's findings of fact, and reviews without deference the hearing judge's conclusions of law. See Md. R. 16-759(b)(1) (" The Court of Appeals shall review de novo the circuit court judge's conclusions of law." ); Md. R. 16-759(b)(2)(B) (" The Court shall give due regard to the opportunity of the hearing judge to assess the credibility of witnesses." ); see also Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Fader, 431 Md. 395, 426-27, 66 A.3d 18, 36-37 (2013).

IV. Discussion

A. Exceptions

The Commission filed no exceptions to the hearing judge's findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Page 519

Narasimhan filed " Recommendations and Exceptions" taking exception to certain findings of fact and the hearing judge's conclusions that she violated MLRPC 1.3, 1.4(a) and (b), 7.1, and 8.4(c) and (d). For the below reasons, we overrule Narasimhan's exceptions, determine that the hearing judge's findings of fact are not clearly erroneous, and uphold all of the hearing judge's conclusions of law.

B. Violations of MLRPC

MLRPC 1.1 (Competence)

" A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation." MLRPC 1.1. " Compliance with [438 Md. 651] [MLRPC 1.1] requires more than knowing what to do. It requires applying the knowledge to the client's problem. . . . 'Evidence of a failure to apply the requisite thoroughness and/or preparation in representing a client is sufficient alone to support a violation of [MLRPC] 1.1.'" Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. McCulloch, 404 Md. 388, 397-98, 946 A.2d 1009, 1015 (2008) (quoting Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Guida, 391 Md. 33, 54, 891 A.2d 1085, 1097 (2006)); see also Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Brady, 422 Md. 441, 457, 30 A.3d 902, 911 (2011) (" The finding of a violation [of MLRPC 1.1] does not depend upon a showing that the attorney lacked the requisite legal knowledge. Rather, it can be established by evidence that the attorney was not sufficiently thorough or prepared." (Citations omitted)).

Comment [2] to MLRPC 1.1 recognizes, however, that a lawyer need not have been in practice for years to be competent to handle a legal matter; specifically, Comment [2] provides:

A lawyer need not necessarily have special training or prior experience to handle legal problems of a type with which the lawyer is unfamiliar. A newly admitted lawyer can be as competent as a practitioner with long experience. Some important legal skills, such as the analysis of precedent, the evaluation of evidence and legal drafting, are required in all legal problems. Perhaps the most fundamental legal skill consists of determining what kind of legal problems a situation may involve, a skill that necessarily transcends any particular specialized knowledge. A lawyer can provide adequate representation in a wholly novel ...

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