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Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Barnett

Court of Appeals of Maryland

October 22, 2014

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND
v.
MICHAEL FRANCIS BARNETT

Circuit Court for Prince George’s County Case No. CAE13-20328

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

OPINION

Watts, J.

This attorney discipline proceeding concerns a Maryland lawyer who forged his client's signature on an affidavit submitted to a circuit court, failed to communicate with his client and notify her of hearing dates, and made several misrepresentations of material fact to Bar Counsel during an investigation of his conduct.

Michael Francis Barnett ("Barnett"), Respondent, a member of the Bar of Maryland, represented Sheila Wooden ("Wooden") in a child custody dispute. On October 12, 2011, Wooden filed a complaint against Barnett with the Attorney Grievance Commission ("the Commission"), Petitioner.

On June 28, 2013, on the Commission's behalf, Bar Counsel filed in this Court a "Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action" against Barnett, charging him with violating Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC") 1.1 (Competence), 1.2(a) (Allocation of Authority Between Client and Lawyer), 1.3 (Diligence), 1.4 (Communication), 3.3(a) (Candor Toward the Tribunal), 8.1(a) (Bar Admission and Disciplinary Matters), 8.4(b) (Criminal Act), 8.4(c) (Dishonesty, Fraud, Deceit, or Misrepresentation), 8.4(d) (Conduct That Is Prejudicial to the Administration of Justice), and 8.4(a) (Violating the MLRPC).

On July 5, 2013, this Court designated the Honorable Maureen M. Lamasney ("the hearing judge") of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County to hear this attorney discipline proceeding. On October 25, 2013, the hearing judge conducted a hearing, at which Barnett represented himself. On December 26, 2013, the hearing judge filed in this Court an opinion including findings of fact and conclusions of law, concluding that Barnett had violated MLRPC 1.1, 1.2(a), 1.3, 1.4, 3.3(a), 8.4(b), 8.4(c), 8.4(d), and 8.4(a).[1]

On October 3, 2014, we heard oral argument. Bar Counsel was present but Barnett failed to appear. Immediately following oral argument, we disbarred Barnett in a per curiam order. See Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Barnett, Md., A.3d, Misc. Docket AG No. 28, Sept. Term, 2013, 2014 WL 4955397, at *1 (Md. Oct. 3, 2014). We now explain the reasons for Barnett's disbarment.[2]

BACKGROUND

The hearing judge found the following facts, which we summarize.

On March 2, 2006, this Court admitted Barnett to the Bar of Maryland.

The facts relevant to the instant attorney discipline proceeding began on October 14, 2010, when Wooden, who was self-represented at the time, arrived late to a custody modification hearing before a Master. The Master prepared a Report and Recommendation in which he recommended that the Circuit Court for Prince George's County ("the circuit court") award custody of Wooden's minor child to the child's father. Upon her late arrival, Wooden was provided a "piece of paper" that stated she had ten days to submit "paperwork" to the circuit court to "change th[e] result."[3]

On October 22, 2010, Wooden retained Barnett, who was then associated with the law firm of Malik Shakur, as her lawyer in the child custody case.[4] Wooden paid Barnett $2, 500 in cash. Wooden retained Barnett for the sole purpose of excepting to the Master's Report and Recommendation. After their initial meeting, Wooden followed up with Barnett to confirm that he had timely submitted the "form." Wooden had no further contact with Barnett until January 2011, when she telephoned him to confirm that the necessary papers had been filed.

On October 27, 2010, as part of his representation of Wooden, Barnett filed Exceptions to the Master's Report and Recommendation ("the Exceptions"), a Motion to Accept Electronic Recordings of the Proceedings as the Transcript ("the Motion to Accept Electronic Recordings"), and an Affidavit of Indigency. Barnett forged Wooden's signature on the Affidavit of Indigency. Barnett did so without Wooden's knowledge. At no point during his representation did Barnett discuss with Wooden the filing of an Affidavit of Indigency. At the hearing, Wooden testified that she would have been able and willing to pay any fees associated with her case.

The circuit court scheduled a hearing on the Exceptions for March 3, 2011. Barnett failed to notify Wooden of the hearing date, which the circuit court postponed until April 22, 2011. Barnett again failed to notify Wooden of the hearing date. On April 22, 2011, Wooden failed to appear at the hearing, and Barnett withdrew the Exceptions without her knowledge.

In January or February 2011, Barnett and Shakur ended their professional relationship, but agreed that Barnett would continue to represent Wooden. Shakur believed that Barnett retained the Wooden file. Shakur notified Barnett via text message of the April 22, 2011, hearing date, after having received the hearing notice at his office. In addition to notifying Barnett of the hearing date, Shakur asked, "Do you have Shelia Wooden, right[?]" Barnett responded: "[O]kay."

On October 12, 2011, Wooden wrote a letter to the Commission, stating that she had not spoken with Barnett since January 2011. Bar Counsel, on the Commission's behalf, initiated an investigation during which Barnett made numerous intentional misrepresentations. Specifically, Barnett stated that he spoke with Wooden after January 2011 and notified her of both hearing dates. Barnett stated that he had not retained Wooden's client file after his professional relationship with Shakur ended, and that he regained possession of the file in October 2011, after Wooden filed a complaint. The hearing judge determined that Barnett's statements were inconsistent and not credible, and found that "it follows that [Barnett] knew he could not have contacted [] Wooden without [the file]."

STANDARD OF REVIEW

In an attorney discipline proceeding, this Court reviews for clear error a hearing judge's findings of fact, and reviews without deference a hearing judge's conclusions of law. See Md. R. 16-759(b)(2)(B) ("The Court [of Appeals] shall give due regard to the opportunity of the hearing judge to assess the credibility of witnesses."); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Reno, 436 Md. 504, 508, 83 A.3d 781, 783 (2014) ("[T]his Court reviews for clear error a hearing judge's findings of fact[.]" (Citations omitted)); Md. R. 16-759(b)(1) ("The Court of Appeals shall review de novo the [hearing] judge's conclusions of law."). This Court determines whether clear and convincing evidence establishes that a lawyer violated the MLRPC. See Md. R. 16-757(b) ...


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