Argued January 13, 2015.
Circuit Court for Baltimore County. Case No. 03-C-13-008954.
JaCina N. Stanton, Assistant Bar Counsel, Glenn M. Grossman, Bar Counsel, Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, for Petitioner.
Michael P. May, Esquire, Baltimore, MD, for Respondent.
Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ.
[441 Md. 706] Watts, J.
This attorney discipline proceeding involves a lawyer who mailed to his client
letters containing egregiously unprofessional language in which the lawyer called his client, among other things, " A TRUE C[**]T[.]"
Carl Stephen Basinger (" Basinger" ), Respondent, a member of the Bar of Maryland, and his sister-in-law, Rosina Keys (" Keys" ), entered into an attorney-client relationship. After learning that Keys had denied that she had retained him, Basinger mailed to Keys letters in which he called Keys " A TRUE C[**]T" who had " finally f[***]ed up one time too many" ; called Keys " a reprehensible human being" with " worthless progeny" and a " pathetic and dysfunctional world" ; accused Keys of being lazy and dishonest, engaging in " defamation" and " absolute evil behavior[,]" and " trying to weasel [her] way out of paying the full amount of [a funeral chapel]'s bill" ; suggested that Keys perhaps was responsible for her grandson's death; stated that, if he ever saw her again, " it [would] be too soon" ; and wished Keys " only the worst from here on out." Keys filed a complaint against Basinger with the Attorney Grievance Commission (" the Commission" ), Petitioner.
On July 22, 2013, on the Commission's behalf, Bar Counsel filed in this Court a " Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action" against Basinger, charging him with violating Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct (" MLRPC" ) 1.4 [441 Md. 707] (Communication), 1.16(a) (Declining or Terminating Representation), 8.4(d) (Conduct That is Prejudicial to the Administration of Justice), and 8.4(a) (Violating the MLRPC).
On December 16, 2013, this Court designated the Honorable Judith C. Ensor (" the hearing judge" ) of the Circuit Court for Baltimore County to hear this attorney discipline proceeding. On February 25 and 26, 2014, the hearing judge conducted a hearing. On April 17, 2014, the hearing judge filed in this Court an opinion including findings of fact and conclusions of law, concluding that Basinger had not violated MLRPC 1.4(b), 1.16(a)(3), or 8.4(d).
On January 13, 2015, we heard oral argument. For the below reasons, we reprimand Basinger for violating MLRPC 8.4(d).
The hearing judge found the following facts, which we summarize.
On June 6, 1983, this Court admitted Basinger to the Bar of Maryland. Since approximately 2005, Basinger has been a solo practitioner. Keys worked as a legal secretary for Basinger off and on for several years, but was no longer doing so in 2012. Thus, at the time of his alleged misconduct, Basinger was Keys's brother-in-law, her former employer, and her lawyer.
On February 18, 2012, Keys's grandson died in motor vehicle accident. On that date, Keys telephoned her sister (Basinger's wife) and informed her of Keys's grandson's death. Basinger got on the telephone and offered legal assistance. Keys responded in the affirmative. Thus, on that date, Basinger and Keys entered into an attorney-client relationship. During the following weeks, Basinger mailed letters to third parties on Keys's behalf and investigated the circumstances of Keys's grandson's death.
[441 Md. 708] On March 8, 2012, an insurance company received from Keys a letter in which Keys denied that she had retained Basinger. On March 9, 2012, Basinger learned of Keys's letter. On March 12, 2012, Basinger mailed to Keys two letters, both of which were on his firm's letterhead. As of that date, Keys was either Basinger's client or his recently terminated former
client; Basinger testified that he " quit" through his first letter.
In his first letter, Basinger described what he had done on Keys's behalf; called Keys " A TRUE C[**]T" who had " finally f[***]ed up one time too many" ; accused Keys of being dishonest; and stated that, if he ever saw her again, " it [would] be too soon." In his second letter, Basinger shared what he had learned while investigating the circumstances of Keys's grandson's death; suggested that Keys perhaps was responsible for her grandson's death; called Keys " a reprehensible human being" with " worthless progeny" ; accused Keys of being lazy and dishonest; and wished Keys " only the worst from here on out."  On March 16, 2012, Basinger mailed to Keys a third letter, in which he accused Keys of " trying to weasel [her] way out of paying the full amount of [a funeral chapel]'s bill[,]" for her grandson's viewing and funeral.
The hearing judge stated: " It is abundantly clear that  Basinger wrote the letters to his sister-in-law and that, in her estimation, [Keys] received the letters from her sister's husband, not her attorney." There was no indication that Basinger's statements negatively impacted Keys's perception of the legal profession. At the hearing, Basinger denied that his conduct was wrongful.
[441 Md. 709]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. McDowell, 439 Md. 26, 35, 93 A.3d 711, 716 (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) ( " The [Commission] has the burden of proving the averments of the petition [for disciplinary or remedial action] by clear and convincing evidence." ).
(A) Findings of Fact
Basinger does not except to any of the hearing judge's findings of fact. The Commission does not except to any of the hearing judge's findings of fact, and asserts that Basinger mailed the three letters to Keys " within the ...