Argued: May 12, 2015
Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 24-C-14-004854
Barbera, C.J. [*] Harrell, Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald Watts, JJ.
There is a saying, sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln, that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. A corollary, perhaps, is that such a client has a lawyer who may be blinded by self-interest to the standards of professional conduct. This case concerns an attorney who represented herself for a time in her own divorce litigation, and who made some unfortunate choices that included misrepresentations to the court, a mortgage lender, and others, and the deceptive alteration of draft settlement documents for her own advantage. As a result, she loses her license to practice law in Maryland.
A. Procedural Context
On August 1, 2014, the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland ("Commission") filed a Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action against Shauntese Curry Trye alleging several violations of the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC") arising out of an alleged fraudulent power of attorney, alleged fraudulent transfer of real property, misrepresentations to a mortgage lender, misconduct in her divorce litigation (including the fraudulent alteration of a draft settlement agreement and consent order), misrepresentation in a military service affidavit, and the failure to file income tax returns for several years. The Commission alleged that Ms. Trye violated MLRPC 3.2 (expediting litigation) 3.3(a)(1) & (4) (false statement to tribunal), 3.4(c) & (d) (fairness to opposing party), 4.1(a) (false statement to third party), 4.2 (communication with person represented by counsel), 8.4(c) (dishonest conduct) and 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice).
This Court designated Judge Videtta Brown of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City to conduct an evidentiary hearing, and to provide findings of facts and recommended conclusions of law regarding the alleged violations.
Following the hearing, the hearing judge issued a memorandum detailing her findings of fact and conclusions of law. The hearing judge found clear and convincing evidence that Ms. Trye committed some, but not all, of the alleged violations of the MLRPC. Ms. Trye filed exceptions to both the findings of fact and conclusions of law. The Commission excepted to some of the conclusions of law, arguing that the facts found by the hearing judge proved all of the charged violations. This Court held oral argument on May 12, 2015, to consider the parties' exceptions and recommendations as to sanction.
We accept the hearing judge's findings of fact unless clearly erroneous. Maryland Rule 16–759(b)(2)(B). The hearing judge's findings of facts and the undisputed matters in the record provide the basis for the facts which follow. Ms. Trye's exceptions to the findings of fact are discussed below with the findings to which they relate.
Ms. Trye was admitted to the Maryland Bar on December 16, 2003. Since her admission, she has practiced law in Baltimore as a solo practitioner and as a partner in various law firms.
In September 2003, Ms. Trye married Stephen Trye. To their union, one child was born. In June 2012, Ms. Trye filed for divorce in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. According to court records, a judgment of absolute divorce was ultimately entered on April 23, 2015.
Real Property Related to Allegations of Misconduct
Pertinent to this case, Ms. Trye and Mr. Trye maintained the following two properties during their marriage: (1) 1304 Idylwood Road, Pikesville, Maryland ("Idylwood Road property") and (2) 11 Whispering Court, Owings Mills, Maryland ("Whispering Court property"). Mr. Trye had owned the Idylwood Road property prior to the marriage. During the marriage, Mr. Trye alone purchased the Whispering Court property, in which the couple resided together for a time.
Transfer of Title to Idylwood Road Property
Mr. Trye was incarcerated for a period of time during the years 2002 through 2005.During his imprisonment, Mr. Trye executed at least two powers of attorney ("POA") naming Ms. Trye as his agent. On June 23, 2004, the Idylwood Road property was conveyed from Mr. Trye to Mr. and Ms. Trye as tenants by the entirety. On October, 14, 2004, the property was again conveyed, this time from Mr. and Ms. Trye to Ms. Trye alone. Ms. Trye prepared this deed and signed her name as Mr. Trye's attorney in fact.
The Commission alleged that Ms. Trye had fraudulently re-titled the property to encumber it with loans for her own benefit. Based on the testimony of both Mr. and Ms. Trye, the hearing judge concluded that they were both trying to re-finance the Idylwood Road property at a time when Mr. Trye was in prison and that the POAs and title transfers were related to that effort. The hearing judge concluded that there was no evidence of fraud on Ms. Trye's part in the creation of the POAs and the deeds – in particular, that there was not clear and convincing evidence that the transfer of title to the Idylwood Road property to Ms. Trye alone was fraudulent.
False Representation on Loan Modification Request for Idylwood Road Property
During 2013, Ms. Trye submitted applications for loan modifications with respect to the Idylwood Road property to GMAC Mortgage ("GMAC") and OCWEN Loan Servicing, LLC. ("OCWEN"). In connection with those applications, Ms. Trye represented, on various occasions, to GMAC, OCWEN, or both that the Idylwood Road property was owner- occupied, her primary residence, not a rental property, or vacant at the time of the application. The hearing judge found that all of those representations were false.
In fact, at the time of applications, Ms. Trye did not live in the Idylwood Road property, but rented it to Melvin and Rebecca Truesdale. Although the Truesdales had originally dealt with Mr. Trye as their landlord, in August 2012 Ms. Trye directed them to make rental payments directly to her bank account. She never terminated their lease or evicted them. From January to March 2013 and May to September 2013, Ms. Trye received and accepted rental payments from the Truesdales. During her testimony in her divorce case on June 6, 2013, in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, she stated that she intended for the Truesdales to remain in the Idylwood Road property.
The hearing judge found that, from 2006 to 2013 (except for a short period of time), Ms. Trye lived exclusively at the Whispering Court property and intended to stay there. In an email dated March 15, 2013 relating to the foreclosure of the Whispering Court property, Ms. Trye explained, "I currently reside in the home with my four year old son… I anticipate the Court awarding me three years use and possession of the family home… In addition, I have been granted exclusive use and possession of the home until December 17, 2014… I am interested in continuing to live in the home…"
The hearing judge found that Ms. Trye knowingly misrepresented that the Idylwood Road property was her primary residence, was owner-occupied, was not a rental property, or was vacant at the time of her loan modification application in order to obtain a more favorable modification. Ms. Trye testified that she believed that the term "primary residence" meant "property you own." The hearing judge found that her testimony was not credible and found that Ms. Trye knew the Idylwood Road property was not her primary residence and that she never intended for it to be her primary residence.
Discovery Violations in Divorce Case
In June 2012, Ms. Trye filed for divorce from Mr. Trye in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. Ms. Trye represented herself for much of the case, although she eventually retained Anthony Butler as her attorney. During the proceedings pertinent to this case, Mr. Trye was represented by Michael Hamburg.
On March 5, 2013, Mr. Hamburg filed a motion for sanctions against Ms. Trye for her failure to respond to discovery. Mr. Hamburg submitted documentation that Ms. Trye had been served with interrogatories and a request for production of documents, yet failed to respond. When Ms. Trye failed to respond to a second request for production of documents and failed to appear for deposition scheduled for March 22, 2013, and after attempting to resolve the discovery issues by letter and e-mail, Mr. Hamburg filed additional motions for sanctions.
On June 6, 2013, the Circuit Court for Baltimore County held a motions hearing. Upon questioning about whether she had responsive documents in her possession, Ms. Trye stated she had issued three subpoenas, one of which she had sent to E-Mortgage Management Corporation ("E-Mortgage"). Ms. Trye said that she did not receive any documents from E-Mortgage. However, Mr. Hamburg noted that she had attached documents from E-Mortgage in a previous pleading. Ms. Trye then admitted that she had received documents from E-Mortgage in response to the subpoena and claimed to have sent these documents to Mr. Hamburg via e-mail. The circuit court in the divorce proceeding ordered Ms. Trye to provide evidence of that e-mail, but Ms. Trye failed to produce such an e-mail.
At the June 6, 2013 hearing, the circuit court also inquired as to whether Ms. Trye had subpoenaed other documents and whether she had produced any such documents to Mr. Hamburg. Ms. Trye answered that she had issued only three subpoenas. Mr. Hamburg then provided evidence that Ms. Trye had issued an additional subpoena for Mr. Trye's bank records at Bank of America. Ms. Trye had not provided a copy of that subpoena to Mr. Hamburg.
At the conclusion of the June 6, 2013 hearing, the circuit court ordered Ms. Trye to produce the requested documents and ordered her to attend a deposition in the courthouse scheduled for July 19, 2013 at 9:30 a.m. Ms. Trye failed to provide the documents required by the order and failed to attend the deposition. On September 17, 2013, following the filing of yet another motion for ...