Argued: September 3, 2014
Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County Case No. C-13-179338
Barbera, C.J. Harrell Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald Watts JJ.
This attorney discipline matter concerns an attorney who accepted $2, 500 from a client as a retainer for a divorce case, had no further communication with her client, performed no work on the matter, and apparently abandoned her Maryland law practice. The attorney, who did not maintain a separate trust account, deposited the client's payment into a general account and never returned the unearned fee to the client. The attorney did not cooperate with Bar Counsel's disciplinary investigation, failed to respond to the disciplinary charges later filed against her, and did not participate in the proceedings before the hearing judge or our Court. As a result, we have no information that would mitigate the sanction for her misconduct. We hold that she violated multiple provisions of the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC") as well as related rules and statutes and, based on those violations, disbar her.
On June 5, 2013, the Attorney Grievance Commission ("Commission"), through Bar Counsel, filed with this Court a Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action against Christine Boco Gage-Cohen. The Commission charged Ms. Gage-Cohen with violating MLRPC 1.1 (competence), 1.2(a) (scope of representation and allocation of authority between client and lawyer), 1.3 (diligence), 1.4 (communication), 1.5(a) (fees), 1.15 (safekeeping property), 1.16(a) and (d) (declining or terminating representation), 8.1(b) (bar admission and disciplinary matters), and 8.4(a), (c), and (d) (misconduct). She was also charged with violating Maryland Rules 16-604 (trust account – required deposits), 16-606.1 (trust account recordkeeping), and 16-609 (a) (prohibited transactions); and Maryland Code, Business Occupations and Professions Article ("BOP"), §10-306 (misuse of trust money).
Pursuant to Maryland Rule 16-752(a), this Court designated Judge William C. Mulford, II, of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, to conduct a hearing and to provide findings of fact and recommended conclusions of law. After several unsuccessful attempts to locate Ms. Gage-Cohen, she was personally served in Tennessee on November 19, 2013. She did not respond to the summons and, on December 19, 2013, Bar Counsel filed a Motion for an Order of Default. The motion was granted on December 27 and entered on December 30, 2013; a hearing was scheduled for February 11, 2014. Ms. Gage-Cohen did not move to vacate the order; nor did she attend the hearing.
The hearing judge issued findings of fact and recommended conclusions of law on March 4, 2014. Neither party filed exceptions. This Court heard oral argument on September 3, 2014. Ms. Gage-Cohen did not appear.
Ms. Gage-Cohen was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1985. On March 13, 2013, while this matter was under investigation, she was suspended for failing to pay the Client Protection Fund assessment. See Maryland Rule 16-811.6(d).
As noted above, neither party excepted to the hearing judge's findings of fact concerning the alleged violations. We accept those findings as established. See Maryland Rule 16-759(b)(2)(A). Those findings concerned Ms. Gage-Cohen's failure to follow through with her agreement to represent a client in a divorce case, her mishandling of funds related to that representation, and her lack of responsiveness to Bar Counsel's inquiry.
On March 14, 2012, Mary L. Turner paid Ms. Gage-Cohen $2, 500 with the understanding that Ms. Gage-Cohen would seek a Limited Divorce Agreement and eventually an Absolute Divorce on Ms. Turner's behalf. Ms. Turner also gave Ms. Gage-Cohen several documents, including financial statements and a separation agreement.
Ms. Gage-Cohen did not deposit Ms. Turner's $2, 500 payment into a client trust account, and did not obtain Ms. Turner's informed, written consent to make other arrangements. The hearing judge found Ms. Gage-Cohen ...