January 7, 2016.
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Circuit Court for Montgomery County. Case No. 30653-M.
BY Amy S. Paulick, Assistant Bar Counsel (Glenn M. Grossman,
Bar Counsel, Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland) FOR
BY David A. Martella, Esq. of Rockville, MD (Barry H.
Helfland, Esq. of Rockville, MD) FOR RESPONDENT.
C.J., Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, JJ.
Opinion by Watts, J.
Md. 304] Watts, J.
attorney discipline proceeding involves a lawyer who, in an
extensive amount of misconduct, failed to provide competent
[446 Md. 305] representation; failed to provide diligent
representation in time-sensitive immigration matters and
waited months to file documents in three separate immigration
cases; failed to keep her clients reasonably informed about
the status of their matters, promptly comply with her
clients' reasonable requests for information, and explain
matters to the extent reasonably necessary to permit her
clients to make informed decisions regarding the
representation; charged and collected attorney's fees for
services that she failed to provide to any meaningful degree
or at all; failed to deposit attorney's fees and filing
fees into an attorney trust account; failed to deposit
attorney's fees into an attorney trust account prior to
those fees' being earned and without the clients'
informed consent, confirmed in writing, to a different
arrangement; failed to reasonably protect her clients'
interests and timely surrender papers and property to which
the clients were entitled; and engaged in conduct that would
negatively impact the perception of the legal professional of
a reasonable member of the public.
Vetter Landeo (" Landeo" ), Respondent, a member of
the Bar of Maryland, represented three immigrants--Brenda
Castillo (" Castillo" ), Jenny Flores ("
Flores" ), and Binia Martinez-Ramos ("
Martinez-Ramos" )--in matters concerning their
immigration status. Landeo's clients and/or family
members filed complaints against Landeo with the Attorney
Grievance Commission (" the Commission" ),
December 30, 2014, on the Commission's behalf, Bar
Counsel filed in this Court a " Petition for
Disciplinary or Remedial Action" against Landeo,
charging her with violating Maryland Lawyers' Rules of
Professional Conduct (" MLRPC" ) 1.1 (Competence),
1.3 (Diligence), 1.4 (Communication), 1.5(a) (Reasonable
Fees), 1.15(a), 1.15(c), 1.15(d) (Safekeeping Property),
1.16(d) (Terminating Representation), 5.3(a), 5.3(b), 5.3(c)
(Responsibilities Regarding Nonlawyer Assistants), 8.4(c)
(Dishonesty, Fraud, Deceit, or Misrepresentation), 8.4(d)
(Conduct That is Prejudicial to the Administration of
Justice), 8.4(a) (Violating MLRPC).
Md. 306] On January 15, 2015, this Court designated the
Honorable Steven G. Salant (" the hearing judge" )
of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County to hear this
attorney discipline proceeding. On August 3, 4, and 5, 2015,
the hearing judge conducted a hearing. On September 28, 2015,
the hearing judge filed in this Court an opinion including
findings of fact and conclusions of law, concluding that: (1)
as to the Castillo matter, Landeo had violated MLRPC 1.3,
1.4, 1.15, 1.16, and 8.4, but had not violated MLRPC 1.5; (2)
as to the Flores matter, Landeo had violated MLRPC 1.3, 1.4,
1.15, 1.16, and 8.4, but had not violated MLRPC 1.5 or 5.3;
and (3) as to the Martinez-Ramos matter, Landeo had violated
MLRPC 1.1, 1.3, 1.4, and 8.4, but had not violated MLRPC
1.5, 1.16, or 5.3.
January 7, 2016, we heard oral argument. For the below
reasons, we indefinitely suspend Landeo from the practice of
law in Maryland with the right to apply for reinstatement
after ninety days.
hearing judge found the following facts, which we summarize.
December 12, 2001, this Court admitted Landeo to the Bar of
Maryland. Since January 2004, Landeo has worked at [446 Md.
307] Landeo and Capriotti, LLC, which focuses on immigration
law. Landeo is not fluent in any language other than English.
Thus, Landeo uses bilingual office assistants to communicate
with Spanish-speaking clients; none of the office assistants
are certified interpreters or translators.
2003, Castillo, a native and citizen of Guatemala, entered
the United States illegally. Castillo is fluent in Spanish,
speaks little English, and cannot read English. In 2009,
Castillo married Steven Keener, Jr. (" Keener" ), a
United States citizen. Keener is fluent in English, but not
February 23, 2012, Castillo and Keener met with Landeo for
the first and only time. Castillo and Keener retained Landeo
to file three documents on Castillo's behalf to assist
Castillo in obtaining legal permanent resident status. The
first document--Form I-130, or an " Immediate Family
Petition" --would, if granted, allow Castillo to obtain
a green card through " consular
processing," or applying in person at the United States
consulate in Guatemala. The second document--Form I-601, or a
" Waiver of Unlawful Presence" --would, if granted,
allow Castillo to return to the United States without being
subject to the rule that an illegal immigrant who returns to
his or her home country cannot
return to the United States for ten years. The third document
was a visa application.
paid Landeo a $600 retainer and agreed to pay $200 per month
for sixteen months, for a total of $3,800 in attorney's
fees, plus a $520 filing fee, for the Immediate Family
[446 Md. 308] Petition. Keener ended up paying Landeo a total
of $3,000 in attorney's fees and the $520 filing fee.
Landeo did not deposit the attorney's fees or filing fee
into an attorney trust account, nor did Landeo have
Castillo's and Keener's consent, confirmed in
writing, to deposit the fees into an account other than an
attorney trust account.
testified that she planned to refrain from filing the
Immediate Family Petition until after the Department of
Homeland Security promulgated an amendment to the regulation
regarding waiver of unlawful presence. Landeo failed to
adequately convey, either herself or through her staff, to
either Castillo or Keener that she planned to wait to file
the Immediate Family Petition.
provided Castillo and Keener with a retainer agreement that
was in English. Landeo did not provide a retainer agreement
that was in Spanish. The retainer agreement stated: "
I/We acknowledge that each and every part of this legal
services agreement has been explained to me in Spanish by the
person named below as an interpreter." The retainer
agreement, however, did not name an interpreter, and no
interpreter was present at the meeting; Castillo relied on
Keener to communicate with Landeo.
letter dated April 16, 2012, Landeo requested that Castillo
and Keener provide the $520 filing fee and the documents that
were necessary to file the Immediate Family Petition. As of
July 2012, Castillo and Keener had provided Landeo the filing
fee and all of the documents that were necessary to file the
Immediate Family Petition. On July 30, 2012, Landeo signed an
attorney appearance form to be attached to the Immediate
Family Petition. Landeo, however, did not file the Immediate
Family Petition with the United [446 Md. 309] States
Citizenship and Immigration Services (" USCIS"
) until nearly eight months later, on
March 28, 2013. In the interim, on January 3, 2013, the
Department of Homeland Security published the amendment to
the regulation regarding waiver of unlawful presence; and, on
March 4, 2013, the amendment became effective. The amendment
in no way affected the form or substance of Immediate Family
May 2012 and March 2013, Landeo never directly communicated
with Castillo or Keener, despite Castillo's multiple
attempts to speak with Landeo. Between May 2012 and March
2013, Castillo telephoned Landeo's office at least
fifteen times requesting status updates and information as to
the filing of the Immediate Family Petition. Castillo
requested that Landeo call her back, but Landeo failed to do
so. Keener also attempted to speak with Landeo by telephone.
Whenever Castillo and Keener telephoned Landeo's office
to speak with Landeo, a member of the firm's staff told
them that Landeo was " unavailable." When Keener
was unable to speak with Landeo by telephone and requested a
meeting with Landeo, the firm's office manager indicated
that, under the retainer agreement, Keener would need to pay
$250 for a meeting with Landeo.
and Keener decided to check the Immediate Family
Petition's status on USCIS's website, but discovered
that they needed the receipt number to monitor its progress.
When Castillo and Keener telephoned Landeo's office, the
firm's office manager told them that the Immediate Family
Petition was " in process," which they took to mean
that the Immediate Family Petition had been filed, and Landeo
was awaiting a receipt number. On multiple later occasions,
Castillo asked [446 Md. 310] Landeo's office for a
receipt number so that she could check the Immediate Family
Petition's status on USCIS's website, and a member of
the firm's staff told Castillo that Landeo was
unavailable and that the staff member was not in a position
to provide the receipt number. Landeo never explained to
Castillo or Keener why she delayed in filing the Immediate
March 2013, Castillo telephoned USCIS and learned that Landeo
had not yet filed the Immediate Family Petition. On March 20,
2013, Keener telephoned Landeo's office and stated that
he would stop paying fees until Landeo provided a receipt for
the filing of the Immediate Family Petition. Eight days
later, Landeo filed the Immediate Family Petition. Castillo
and Keener had been unaware of any plan on Landeo's part
to file the Immediate Family Petition in mid-March 2013. On
April 4, 2013, the firm's office manager telephoned
Keener to tell him that he had a receipt number for the
Immediate Family Petition. By that time, however, Keener had
already told Landeo's office that he and Castillo were
terminating Landeo's representation and were in the
process of retaining a new lawyer. After the termination of
her representation, Landeo sent Castillo and Keener a bill
April 5, 2013, Castillo and Keener retained a new immigration
lawyer, Xavier Racine (" Racine" ), to file an
Immediate Family Petition and a Waiver of Unlawful Presence.
On that day, Racine sent to Landeo a letter in which he
requested the contents of Castillo's file as well as a
refund of unearned fees. On April 8, 2013, Landeo received
the letter. In addition to sending the letter, Racine
telephoned Landeo's office to facilitate the transfer of
the file, but was unable to speak with Landeo; instead,
Racine was able to communicate with Landeo only through an
office assistant and via e-mail. Landeo's office
assistant told Racine that the file had been sent to him, but
it had not. On May 21, 2013, in response to an e-mail from
Racine, Landeo e-mailed Racine to state that the documents in
Castillo's file would be scanned and sent to his office.
Racine waited until June 13, 2013, but Landeo did not send
the documents in Castillo's file or provide a refund to
[446 Md. 311] Castillo and Keener; as such, Racine filed a
complaint with the Commission against Landeo. As of August 6,
2013, Racine had not received Castillo's file, and
Castillo and Keener had not received a refund.
2002, Flores, a native and citizen of El Salvador, entered
the United States illegally. Flores speaks English, but
prefers communicating in Spanish.
October 1, 2010, Flores met with Landeo and retained Landeo
to file two documents on her behalf. The first document--Form
I-360, or an " Abused Spouse Petition" --is a
petition filed by an immigrant who is protected under the
Violence Against Women Act, if he or she is married to a
United States citizen and is a victim of domestic
violence. The second document--Form I-485, or an
" Adjustment of Status" --would, if approved, allow
Flores to get a green card for work
retainer agreement, Flores agreed to pay Landeo $2,500 in
attorney's fees, plus a $1,170 filing fee. As of
June 1, 2011, Flores had paid Landeo $2,500. On August 30,
2012, Flores paid the filing fee. Landeo never placed the
fees in an attorney trust account.
Md. 312] As of June 27, 2011, Flores had provided Landeo with
all of the documents that were necessary to file the Abused
Spouse Petition, and Flores had signed the Abused Spouse
Petition; thus, as of that date, the Abused Spouse Petition
was ready for filing. Landeo, however, did not file the
Abused Spouse Petition until nearly three months later, on
September 22, 2011.
point after the filing of the Abused Spouse Petition,
Landeo's office forwarded to Flores letters in which
USCIS stated that it had made " a prima facie
determination" as to the Abused Spouse Petition. Between
July 6, 2012 and October 1, 2012, Landeo mailed to Flores
letters informing Flores that the " prima facie
determination" as to her classification as an abused
spouse of a United States citizen had been extended. Flores
requested from Landeo an explanation of USCIS's prima
facie determination as to the Abused Spouse Petition,
but Landeo never provided Flores with an explanation.
letter dated July 6, 2012, Landeo recommended filing the
Adjustment of Status before USCIS approved the Abused Spouse
Petition; the retainer agreement, however, provided that the
Adjustment of Status would be filed after USCIS approved the
Abused Spouse Petition. Although it was not possible to
obtain a work permit while the Abused Spouse Petition was
pending, in the July 6, 2012 letter, Landeo stated that
Flores " may wish to proceed with filing [her
A]djustment of [S]tatus application so that [she could]
work authorization while" the Abused Spouse petition was
pending. In a letter dated July 10, 2012, Flores agreed to
having the Adjustment of Status filed before USCIS approved
the Abused Spouse Petition. Landeo, however, never explained
the process to Flores.
Md. 313] As of September 27, 2012, Flores had provided Landeo
with all of the documents that were necessary to file the
Adjustment of Status. Landeo, however, never filed the
Adjustment of Status.
December 4 and 7, 2012, Flores telephoned Landeo's office
asking for a status update. During the latter telephone call,
a member of Landeo's staff told Flores that Landeo would
telephone her when the Adjustment of Status was " ready
for signature." On December 17, 2012, Flores visited
Landeo's office to ask for a copy of her file. At some
point between December 17 and 27, 2012, Flores terminated
Landeo's representation and retained a new lawyer,
Jonathan Bloom (" Bloom" ).
December 27, 2012, Bloom mailed and faxed to Landeo a letter
in which he requested Flores's file. On January 2, 2013,
Landeo mailed to Bloom a letter in which she stated that
would " scan and e[-]mail [Flores's] file before the
end of the week." As of January 18, 2013, Bloom had not
received anything else from Landeo; on that date, Bloom sent
to Landeo a second letter in which he requested Flores's
file. On January 24, 2013, a member of Landeo's staff
e-mailed to Bloom scanned copies of Flores's file. In a
letter dated February 7, 2013, Bloom reiterated his request
for the originals of Flores's file and requested a refund
of the $1,170 filing fee and $1,250 in unearned
attorney's fees. On February 22, 2013, Landeo mailed
to Bloom Flores's file and a statement of account,
according to which Flores owed Landeo $2,138.72. Landeo never
refunded attorney's fees to Flores.
1997, Martinez-Ramos, a native and citizen of Honduras,
entered the United States illegally. Martinez-Ramos does not
read or write English, and, at all relevant times,
communicated only in Spanish. On or about November 15, 1999,
Martinez-Ramos [446 Md. 314] was granted " Temporary
Protective Status," which allows an immigrant from a
country that is suffering from war or natural disaster to be
protected from deportation, obtain work authorization, and
obtain authorization to leave and return to the United
2009, without authorization from the United States
government, Martinez-Ramos left the United States and
returned to Honduras. Because Martinez-Ramos failed to get
advance permission to leave and re-enter the United States,
she was detained when she attempted to illegally re-enter the
United States at the Texas border in 2010. On August 21,
2010, an order for Martinez-Ramos's removal and
deportation was issued. Martinez-Ramos was released, however,
on an " Order of Supervision," which provided her
with a conditional grace period to remain in the United
States. To avoid removal, Martinez-Ramos had to get her
Temporary Protective Status reinstated; in December 2010,
USCIS reinstated Martinez-Ramos's Temporary Protective
letter dated June 14, 2012, USCIS informed Martinez-Ramos
that it had withdrawn her Temporary Protective Status. In the
letter, USCIS stated that Martinez-Ramos could appeal the
withdrawing her Temporary Protective Status by filing a Form
I-290B, or " Notice of Appeal or Motion," within
thirty-three days of the date of the letter; USCIS stated:
" If a motion or appeal is not filed within
[thirty-three] days[,] this decision is final." Thus,
the deadline for filing the Notice of Appeal or Motion was
July 17, 2012.
6, 2012, Martinez-Ramos met with Landeo, and communicated
with Landeo through one of Landeo's part-time assistants,
who acted as an interpreter. On that day, Martinez-Ramos
retained Landeo to file a " Motion to Reopen/Reconsider
Denied/Revoked" Temporary Protective Status on her
behalf. Landeo charged Martinez-Ramos $1,600 in
attorney's fees and $730 in filing fees and other costs.
Landeo did not deposit the $730 in filing fees and other
costs into an attorney trust account.
Md. 315] As of July 10, 2012, Landeo had completed a brief
for the Notice of Appeal or Motion. On July 14, 2012, Landeo
signed an attorney appearance form. Thus, the Notice of
Appeal or Motion was ready for filing three days before the
deadline. However, Landeo did not file the Notice of Appeal
or Motion until more than three months later, on October 23,
2012. The Notice of Appeal or Motion did not provide any
reasons for the late filing. Landeo never explained the late
filing to Martinez-Ramos. On December 13, 2012, USCIS denied
the untimely Notice of Appeal or Motion.
on September 12, 2012, Martinez-Ramos retained Landeo to file
a work permit application on her behalf. Landeo charged
Martinez-Ramos $350 in attorney's fees and $565 in filing
fees and other costs. Landeo never filed the work permit
application. Landeo did not deposit the $565 in filing fees
and other costs into an attorney trust account.
September 2012, Martinez-Ramos met with her immigration
officer. At the meeting, the immigration officer wrote
something on a paper and gave it to Martinez-Ramos; the note
was written in English, and Martinez-Ramos, who speaks and
writes only in Spanish, was unable to understand the note.
Accordingly, Martinez-Ramos went to Landeo's office to
ask for an explanation of the note, but Martinez-Ramos was
unable to meet with Landeo to have the note explained to her.
October 1, 2012, Martinez-Ramos visited Landeo's office
to ask for copies of documents so that she could show her
immigration officer that she was represented by a lawyer and
that she had filed a Notice of Appeal or Motion. On October
12, 2012, during a telephonic conversation, a member of
Landeo's staff told Martinez-Ramos that she could pick up
the documents that day. As of that date, however, Landeo had
not filed either the Notice of Appeal or Motion or the
attorney appearance form.
November 7, 2012, Martinez-Ramos visited Landeo's office
to ask whether Landeo had heard anything about the Notice of
Appeal or Motion, and to inform Landeo that she would be
meeting with her immigration officer on November [446 Md.
316] 26, 2012. On November 8, 2012, a member of Landeo's
staff informed Martinez-Ramos that Landeo's office had
not heard anything about the Notice of Appeal or Motion, and
that, if Landeo's office had still not heard anything by
November 26, 2012, Landeo would telephone
Martinez-Ramos's immigration officer. Landeo failed to
telephone Martinez-Ramos's immigration officer by
November 26, 2012. On November 26, 2012, during her meeting
with her immigration officer, Marinez-Ramos was detained for
purposes of deportation. Between July 6, 2012, when
Martinez-Ramos first retained Landeo, and November 26,
2012, when Martinez-Ramos was detained for purposes of
deportation, Martinez-Ramos had no direct contact with
Landeo. On November 28, 2012, in an e-mail, Landeo wrote that
she had spoken with Martinez-Ramos's immigration
November 27, 2012, one day after Martinez-Ramos had been
detained for purposes of deportation, Martinez-Ramos's
sister, Marcia Vasquez (" Vasquez" ), and
Vasquez's husband, Isaac Vasquez (" Isaac" ),
sought to retain Landeo for " initial evaluation,
review[,] and legal advice" concerning
Martinez-Ramos's detainment. On that day, Landeo signed
an attorney appearance form for an " alien
detained." Three days later, Vasquez and Isaac went to
Landeo's office to find out what Landeo had learned; at
that time, a member of Landeo's staff advised Vasquez and
Isaac that Landeo was unavailable and that it would cost $250
to set up an appointment with Landeo. At that point, Vasquez
requested the documents in Martinez-Ramos's file, but
Landeo's office was unable to provide the documents and
stated that Vasquez would need to wait five business days.
December 5, 2012, Vasquez retained Landeo to file a Form
I-246, or a " Motion to Stay Removal," on
Martinez-Ramos's [446 Md. 317] behalf. Landeo charged
Vasquez $600, which Vasquez paid on that date. On December 7,
2012, Landeo mailed the Motion to Stay Removal to the United
States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (" ICE"
). On December 10, 2012, ICE informed
Landeo that, per the instructions on Form I-246, the Motion
to Stay Removal needed to be hand-delivered to the ICE office
in Baltimore. On that day, Landeo telephoned Vasquez, told
her what ICE had stated, and said that she could travel to
Baltimore for another $600. Vasquez told Landeo to "
definitely go" to Baltimore, and provided her credit
card information to pay the additional $600.
Landeo's office could not process Vasquez's credit
card information. On December 11, 2012, Landeo's
assistant telephoned Vasquez about Landeo's office's
inability to process Vasquez's credit card, and stated
that to go to Baltimore Landeo needed the money to be paid.
Vasquez decided not to pay Landeo another $600 because she
believed that Landeo had done nothing since being retained.
On that date, Vasquez went to Landeo's office to retrieve
the documents from Martinez-Ramos's file.
December 14, 2012, Martinez-Ramos was deported.
Factors and Mitigating Factors
hearing judge found three aggravating factors: (1) " a
pattern of misconduct" ; (2) " multiple violations
of the" MLRPC; and (3) a refusal " to acknowledge
the wrongfulness of [Landeo's] misconduct[.]" The
hearing judge found at least one mitigating factor: " no
prior [attorney] disciplinary offenses."
expressly crediting the evidence, the hearing judge discussed
evidence of mitigating factors that Landeo had offered.
According to the hearing judge, Landeo testified as follows.
2007, Landeo had two sons. In August 2007, Landeo married her
current husband, with whom she has had [446 Md. 318] two more
children. Landeo's husband was physically abusive to her
and her children. At least two of Landeo's children had
either physical or developmental issues, such as attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder and pyloric
stenosis. In early 2014, Landeo separated from
suffers from chronic severe anemia, which causes fatigue,
mental cloudiness, and an inability to function. Landeo also
suffers from depression and anxiety, but denied that her
mental health affected her ability to represent her clients.
30, 2015-- i.e., four days before the hearing in
this attorney discipline proceeding began--Landeo mailed to
Flores a check for $1,170, and mailed to Vasquez a check for
$840. Landeo intended the checks to be refunds of filing
result of this attorney discipline proceeding, Landeo "
sets available dates for clients to meet with her for
questions[.]" However, Landeo's retainer agreement
still states that if requested by the client a meeting with
her after the initial meeting costs $250. Landeo and her law
partner are in the " process" of creating a Spanish
version of her retainer agreement, but, as of the hearing in
this attorney discipline proceeding, they had not completed
the Spanish version of the retainer agreement. Landeo no
longer charges large retainers up front, and instead charges
small monthly payments; Landeo puts only earned fees into her
operating account, and puts unearned fees in
trust. Landeo will no longer have a
part-time assistant, but instead will have a full-time
assistant who will contact Landeo with important messages or
if a client is upset or concerned.
Md. 319] According to Landeo's counsel, any delays that
occurred during Landeo's representation of Castillo,
Flores, and Martinez-Ramos were because Landeo was either
away from the office or sick with the flu, which became
pneumonia in January 2013.
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. Shuler, 443 Md. 494, 501, 117 A.3d
38, 43 (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 violated an
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