Argued: September 4, 2014.
Circuit Court for Dorchester County Case No. 09-C-13-020497.
Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ.
On May 14, 2013, Petitioner, the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, acting through Bar Counsel, filed with this Court a Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action (the "Petition") against Respondent, attorney Ronald Claude Brigerman, Jr. The Petition alleged violations of the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC") in connection with Respondent's abandonment of one client, failure to communicate with several clients, misrepresentation to a client and Petitioner, and failure to cooperate with Petitioner's investigation. Specifically, the Petition alleged that Respondent violated MLRPC 1.1 (competence); MLRPC 1.2 (scope of representation and allocation of authority between client and lawyer); MLRPC 1.3 (diligence); MLRPC 1.4(a) and (b) (communication); MLRPC 1.15(a), (c), and (d) (safekeeping property); MLRPC 1.16(d) (declining or terminating representation); MLRPC 8.1(a) and (b) (bar admission and disciplinary matters); MLRPC 8.4(a), (c), and (d) (misconduct); and Maryland Rule 16-604 (trust account – required deposits).
On May 20, 2013, this Court designated the Honorable Leah J. Seaton of the Circuit Court for Dorchester County (the "hearing judge") to conduct an evidentiary hearing and render written findings of fact and conclusions of law. Respondent was served with process, in compliance with Maryland Rule 16-753, and, after he requested and was granted an extension, filed an Answer to the Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action on August 1, 2013.
The evidentiary hearing was held before the hearing judge on October 16, 2013. Thereafter, the hearing judge issued written findings of fact and conclusions of law, in which she concluded, by clear and convincing evidence, that Respondent had violated MLRPC 1.1; MLRPC 1.3; MLRPC 1.4(a) and (b); MLRPC 1.15(a), (c), and (d); MLRPC 1.16(d); MLRPC 8.1(a) and (b); MLRPC 8.4(a), (c), and (d); and Maryland Rule 16-604. On December 20, 2013, Petitioner filed Petitioner's Exceptions and Recommendation for Sanction ("Petitioner's Exceptions"), excepting to one of the hearing judge's legal conclusions. Respondent filed no exceptions.
On September 4, 2014, this Court held oral argument. On September 10, 2014, we issued an Order of Remand, directing the hearing judge to clarify part of her discussion of the alleged mitigating circumstances in Respondent's case. The hearing judge then issued Supplemental Findings and/or Conclusions of Law as to Mitigating Factors ("Supplemental Findings") on September 30, 2014. Petitioner filed its response to the Supplemental Findings on October 9, 2014, and Respondent filed his response on October 14, 2014, in which he recommended a reprimand as the appropriate sanction for his misconduct.
Upon this Court's review of the hearing judge's findings of fact and conclusions of law, as well as the Supplemental Findings, we hold that Respondent violated MLRPC 1.1; MLRPC 1.3; MLRPC 1.4(a) and (b); MLRPC 1.15(a), (c), and (d); MLRPC 1.16(d); MLRPC 8.1(a) and (b); MLRPC 8.4(a), (c), and (d); and Maryland Rule 16-604. We further hold, under the particular circumstances of this case, that the appropriate sanction is indefinite suspension.
We summarize, below, the hearing judge's written findings of fact and conclusions of law:
Respondent graduated from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 1989. Thereafter and until sometime in 1993, he worked in a non-lawyer capacity for State Farm Insurance Company. From 1993 to 2001, Respondent handled bodily injury claims for Nationwide Insurance Company. Respondent was admitted to the Bar of this Court on December 16, 2003.
The current disciplinary matter stems from three separate complaints brought by three of Respondent's former clients, Kent Brummell, Renee Copper, and Terry Holden.
Complaint of Kent Brummell
In 2010, Kent Brummell ("Mr. Brummell") retained Respondent to defend him in a criminal prosecution. Mr. Brummell was found guilty and sentenced to 35 years of incarceration.
On January 11, 2012, Mr. Brummell filed a complaint with Petitioner, citing Respondent's failure to provide him with copies of documents from his case file. Mr. Brummell alleged that he had requested those documents several times prior to filing his complaint with Petitioner but had received no reply from Respondent. Thereafter, Petitioner commenced an investigation.
In a letter to Petitioner dated February 2, 2012, Respondent wrote that he never received Mr. Brummell's requests for the documents, adding that he would forward the documents upon his receiving Mr. Brummell's written request for the case file that included instructions on where to mail the file. On February 23, 2012, Mr. Brummell sent Respondent a request for the documents and provided Respondent with instructions on where to send the file documents. Respondent did not reply to Mr. Brummell's request.
Petitioner sent letters dated May 17, 2012, June 6, 2012, and July 11, 2012, to Respondent at his P.O. Box mailing address, at which Respondent was able to receive mail. The letters requested that Respondent respond to Mr. Brummell's complaint. Respondent received the letters, but did not reply.
An investigator for Petitioner visited Respondent's office on August 7, 2012, and left his business card. That same day, Respondent called the investigator and said that he would send the documents to Mr. Brummell and respond to Petitioner's letters. In a subsequent e-mail, the investigator told Respondent to notify Petitioner if there would be a delay in sending the documents. On August 17, 2012, Respondent mailed Mr. Brummell's documents, via certified mail, to the correctional facility in which Mr. Brummell was incarcerated, yet Respondent did not inform Petitioner or the investigator that he had done so until the evidentiary hearing.
On August 8, 2012, Petitioner sent a letter to Respondent stating that the case would be formally docketed for an investigation and possible disciplinary action. Petitioner followed up with a certified letter on August 20, 2012, but the letter was returned unclaimed and without a response. Both letters were sent to Respondent's physical office address, at which Respondent claimed he had difficulty receiving mail. Respondent, however, had instituted mail forwarding from the physical address to his correct P.O. Box mailing address. The hearing judge found that Respondent had received the letters but failed to respond to Petitioner.
Based on these facts, the hearing judge concluded that Respondent violated MLRPC 1.16(d); MLRPC 8.1(a) and (b); and MLRPC 8.4(a), (c), and (d).
Complaint of Renee Copper
In or about March 2010, Renee Copper ("Ms. Copper") retained Respondent to represent her in a personal injury claim resulting from an August 14, 2009, automobile accident. Respondent filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Copper on September 22, 2011. A trial date was set for June 22, 2012.
In or about April 2012, Respondent advised Ms. Copper that the defendant's insurance company, Progressive Insurance Company ("Progressive"), provided a settlement offer of $10, 000. Ms. Copper authorized Respondent to accept the offer and dismiss the case. Respondent told Ms. Copper that he would do so and then inform her when the case was dismissed.
In May 2012, Progressive sent Respondent a $10, 000 settlement check made payable to Respondent. On June 21, 2012, Respondent and defense counsel filed a Joint Line of Dismissal of Ms. Copper's case. Respondent did not inform Ms. Copper of ...