Argued: October 3, 2014.
Circuit Court for Montgomery County Case No. 29702M.
Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ.
On February 19, 2014, 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 Talieb Nilaja Wills. The Petition alleged violations of the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC") in connection with Respondent's misappropriation of funds belonging to his client, Mrs. Millicent Goode, and his deceitful responses to questions, from Bar Counsel and others, concerning both his use of those funds and his representation of Mrs. Goode. Specifically, the Petition alleged that Respondent violated MLRPC 1.5 (fees); MLRPC 1.15(a) (safekeeping property); MLRPC 4.1(a) (truthfulness in statements to others); MLRPC 8.1 (a) and (b) (Bar Admission and Disciplinary Matters); and MLRPC 8.4(a), (b), (c), and (d) (misconduct).
On February 20, 2014, this Court designated the Honorable David A. Boynton of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County ("hearing judge") to conduct an evidentiary hearing and issue written findings of fact and conclusions of law. On March 20, 2014, Respondent was served with process, in compliance with Maryland Rule 16-753. Respondent did not file a response to the Petition, timely or otherwise. On April 23, 2014, the hearing judge entered a default order against Respondent.
Respondent did not move to vacate the order, although he appeared, unrepresented, at the subsequent hearing on the Petition, which occurred on July 16, 2014. The hearing judge heard evidence from Petitioner and one complainant testifying for Petitioner— Steven Weinberg, the personal representative of Mrs. Goode's estate. Respondent cross-examined Mr. Weinberg but did not testify or present any witnesses. On August 6, 2014, the hearing judge issued written findings of fact and conclusions of law, in which he concluded, by clear and convincing evidence, that Respondent had violated MLRPC 4.1(a); MLRPC 8.1(a) and (b); and MLRPC 8.4(a), (b), (c), and (d). Neither party filed exceptions to either the hearing judge's underlying factual findings or his legal conclusions. Respondent did not make a recommendation for sanction; Petitioner recommended disbarment.
On October 3, 2014, we heard oral argument, at which only Petitioner appeared. The same day, we entered a per curiam order disbarring Respondent. Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Wills, 440 Md. 182 (2014). We explain in this opinion the reasons for that action.
As summarized, the hearing judge found the following facts.
Respondent was admitted to the Maryland Bar on December 19, 2002. He maintained an office for the practice of law, Wills Law, PC, in Montgomery County, Maryland. Sometime in 2009, Mrs. Millicent Goode, who was in her 80s, entered into an attorney-client relationship with Respondent. No formal retainer agreement was ever executed. During his representation, Mrs. Goode was residing in a retirement home. Her health was poor, so she relied on Respondent to care for her finances.
On or about April 8, 2010, Respondent prepared, and Mrs. Goode executed, a "Durable Power of Attorney for Financial and Business Matters of Millicent R. Goode" ("Power of Attorney"). The Power of Attorney "appointed the Respondent as Mrs. Goode's agent to make financial and health care decisions" and provided that all of Mrs. Goode's future tax returns were to be prepared, executed, and filed by Respondent.
The same day Mrs. Goode signed the Power of Attorney, Respondent added his name as a joint owner of Mrs. Goode's Bank of America bank account ("joint bank account" or "account"). At that time, the account had a balance of $14, 157.06. According to bank records, for the most recent years immediately prior to 2009, Mrs. Goode received approximately $3, 000 each month in retirement benefits and spent approximately that same amount each month on her personal finances. There was no history of her making cash withdrawals or using a check card.
Once Respondent had his name added to the joint bank account, he began withdrawing cash and making debit card purchases for his personal use. By the end of June 2010 (less than three months after Respondent added his name to the account), the account balance was $2.92.
On June 30, 2010, Mrs. Goode sold her home, located in Washington, D.C., for $245, 971.71. That sum was deposited into the joint bank account. Respondent began accessing those funds for his own use. He wrote himself multiple checks from the account and withdrew tens of thousands of dollars in cash. Respondent used account funds to pay his personal utility and cellular phone bills, to buy clothes, meals at restaurants, and alcohol, as well as to purchase plane tickets to Miami, Las Vegas, and Hawaii, and pay for hotels while on those trips.
In or about March 2011, Mrs. Goode suffered a stroke and was admitted to Howard University Hospital. After the stroke and until her death on June 10, 2012, Mrs. Goode lived in various rehabilitation and assisted living facilities. During that time, she returned often to Howard University Hospital for ongoing care and treatment.
By the time of Mrs. Goode's death, there were no funds left in the joint bank account. Respondent nevertheless wrote several checks from the account to cover Mrs. Goode's funeral and burial expenses. Those checks were returned for insufficient funds.
Following Mrs. Goode's death, the civil service annuity payments she had been receiving monthly in the amount of $3, 000 continued to be deposited into her account. Respondent did not return the ...