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Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Shuler

Court of Appeals of Maryland

June 30, 2015

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND,
v.
MELODIE VENEE SHULER

Argued: May 6, 2015.

Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County Case No. 02-C-14-188377

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

OPINION

Watts, J.

This attorney discipline proceeding involves a lawyer who essentially abandoned her representation of a client before the Court of Special Appeals.

Melodie Venee Shuler ("Shuler"), Respondent, a member of the Bar of Maryland, agreed to represent Kevin Wilson ("Wilson") as the appellant in an appeal in a civil case. Shuler failed to appear before the Court of Special Appeals at the oral argument that had been scheduled in Wilson's case. On that morning, Shuler telephoned the Office of the Clerk of the Court of Special Appeals to state that she felt too ill to travel that morning and to request that oral argument be rescheduled. Sometime afterward, Shuler telephoned the Office of the Clerk of the Court of Special Appeals to check the status of Wilson's case. Shuler failed to take any further action in Wilson's case. For example, Shuler failed to file a written explanation for her absence or a written request that oral argument be rescheduled. After the Court of Special Appeals treated Wilson's case as "submitted on brief" and affirmed the trial court's judgment, Shuler failed to inform Wilson that he had not prevailed in the appeal. Wilson filed a complaint against Shuler with the Attorney Grievance Commission ("the Commission"), Petitioner.

On May 27, 2014, on the Commission's behalf, Bar Counsel filed in this Court a "Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action" against Shuler, charging her with violating Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC") 1.3 (Diligence), 1.4 (Communication), 8.4(d) (Conduct that is Prejudicial to the Administration of Justice), and 8.4(a) (Violating the MLRPC).

On June 12, 2014, this Court designated the Honorable Michele D. Jaklitsch ("the hearing judge") of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County to hear this attorney discipline proceeding. On September 11, 2014, the hearing judge conducted a hearing. On November 18, 2014, the hearing judge filed in this Court an opinion including findings of fact and conclusions of law, concluding that Shuler had violated MLRPC 1.3, 1.4, 8.4(d), and 8.4(a).

On May 6, 2015, we heard oral argument. For the below reasons, we suspend Shuler from the practice of law in Maryland for thirty days, with a condition precedent to reinstatement that Shuler satisfactorily demonstrate, by the report of a health care professional (acceptable to the Commission and, ultimately, this Court) or other appropriate evidence, that she is mentally and physically competent to resume the practice of law.[1]

BACKGROUND

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

On December 19, 2002, this Court admitted Shuler to the Bar of Maryland.

On July 17, 2012, Wilson retained Shuler to represent him as the appellant in an appeal in a civil case. On July 24, 2012, on Wilson's behalf, Shuler timely filed a brief in the Court of Special Appeals. On January 31, 2013, Shuler e-mailed Wilson to state that oral argument had been scheduled for February 5, 2013, and that she would "be there[.]"[2]

On February 5, 2013, Shuler failed to appear at oral argument. Shuler had intended to appear at oral argument, but felt too ill to travel that morning.[3] Shuler testified that, on that morning, she telephoned the Office of the Clerk of the Court of Special Appeals to state that she felt too ill to travel that morning and to request that oral argument be rescheduled; according to Shuler, an employee of the Office of the Clerk of the Court of Special Appeals told her that the judges who had been assigned to Wilson's case did not think that oral argument would be necessary. Sometime afterward, Shuler telephoned the Office of the Clerk of the Court of Special Appeals to check the status of Wilson's case. Shuler failed to take any further action in Wilson's case; for example, Shuler failed to file a written explanation for her absence or a written request that oral argument be rescheduled. Thus, Shuler failed to advance Wilson's interests.

On April 10, 2013, in an unreported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment in Wilson's case. Shuler failed to inform Wilson that he had not prevailed in the appeal. Thus, Shuler caused Wilson to lose the opportunity to timely petition for writ of certiorari in this Court. Shuler's mental state was one of carelessness.

On July 23, 2013, Bar Counsel of the District of Columbia informally admonished Shuler for violating, among others, [4] District of Columbia Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(d) ("It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to . . . [e]ngage in conduct that seriously interferes with the administration of justice[.]") by failing to appear at a court-ordered mediation and two hearings and by appearing late and unprepared at a third hearing, all within one case other than Wilson's, approximately between October 2012 and January 2013; at one of the hearings at which Shuler failed to appear, another lawyer appeared on Shuler's behalf and stated that Shuler was ill. Thus, Shuler has demonstrated a pattern of misconduct.

On June 19, 2014, Shuler was served with the Commission's interrogatories and requests for production of documents. On July 6, 2014, Shuler mailed to the Commission answers to the Commission's interrogatories, but failed to respond to the Commission's requests for production of documents. On both July 14, 2014 and July 21, 2014, Bar Counsel e-mailed Shuler to outline deficiencies in her answers to the Commission's interrogatories. Shuler failed to respond to Bar Counsel's e-mails. On August 15, 2014, the Commission filed a motion to compel and a motion to shorten the time to respond to the motion to compel. The hearing judge granted the motion to shorten time, and ordered that Shuler respond to the motion to compel by August 22, 2014. Shuler failed to respond to the motion to compel. On August 25, 2014, the hearing judge granted the motion to compel, and ordered that Shuler provide new answers to the Commission's interrogatories and respond to the Commission's requests for production of documents by August 30, 2014. Shuler intentionally failed to provide the discovery materials; instead, on August 27, 2014, Shuler filed a motion to dismiss in which she contended that she did not need to provide the discovery materials. Thus, Shuler engaged in bad faith obstruction of this attorney discipline proceeding.

As to mitigating circumstances, Shuler lacked a dishonest or selfish motive with respect to the MLRPC violations that the Commission charged, and had personal problems in the form of a history of physical illnesses.

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. Marcalus, 442 Md. 197, 202, 112 A.3d 375, 378 (2015) ("[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 ...


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