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Hall v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 23, 2016

L. Hall
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;

         Dear Counsel:

         On April 2, 2015, Plaintiff L. Hall petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) final decision terminating her Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits in December 2005, because her income exceeded the limits of the need-based disability program. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment and Plaintiff’s reply memorandum. (ECF Nos. 25, 30, 35). After the motions for summary judgment were filed and fully briefed, Ms. Hall’s counsel, Leslie R. Stellman and Adam E. Konstas, filed a Motion for Leave to Withdraw as Counsel, (ECF No. 36), which was granted on July 5, 2016, (ECF No. 37). Accordingly, I have also considered Ms. Hall’s Motion for Reconsideration of the Court’s order granting her attorneys leave to withdraw, her counsel’s response in opposition, and her reply. (ECF Nos. 40, 41, 42). I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons discussed below, I will deny Ms. Hall’s motion for reconsideration. I will also deny Ms. Hall’s motion for summary judgment, grant the Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment, and affirm the Commissioner’s judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter explains my rationale.

         I. Motion for Reconsideration

         Mr. Stellman and Mr. Konstas, represented Ms. Hall in her appeal to this Court of the Agency’s decision that she was no longer eligible for SSI benefits. (ECF No. 1). In the course of their representation, Mr. Stellman and Mr. Konstas filed a motion for summary judgment on Ms. Hall’s behalf, (ECF No. 25), and filed a response in opposition to the Commissioner’s cross-motion for summary judgment, (ECF No. 35).

         On June 23, 2016, Mr. Stellman and Mr. Konstas notified Ms. Hall via electronic mail and overnight mail of their intention to withdraw as her counsel in the present matter.[1] (ECF No. 36-2). The letter further advised that if Ms. Hall did not respond by close of business on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, Mr. Stellman and Mr. Konstas would withdraw their appearance as counsel. Id. Ms. Hall did not respond, and Mr. Stellman and Mr. Konstas filed a motion for leave to withdraw as counsel on July 1, 2016. (ECF No. 36). In so doing, Mr. Stellman and Mr. Konstas fully complied with the procedural requirements of the local rules. See Loc. R. 101(2)(a) (requiring withdrawing counsel to file a certificate stating the name and last known address of the client and that a written notice has been served on the client at least seven days prior to the withdrawal); (ECF No. 36-2). This Court granted Mr. Stellman and Mr. Konstas’s motion for leave to withdraw as counsel on July 5, 2016. (ECF No. 37). Ms. Hall filed a motion for reconsideration of the decision on July 14, 2016, (ECF No. 40). Mr. Stellman and Mr. Konstas filed their opposition on July 20, 2016, (ECF No. 41), and Ms. Hall filed her reply on August 8, 2016, (ECF No. 42).

         Ms. Hall argues that Mr. Stellman misrepresented his reasons for seeking to withdraw as counsel, and Mr. Konstas’s availability to remain as counsel of record. Specifically, Ms. Hall contends that Mr. Stellman told her that he was withdrawing as counsel for reasons related to his health and well-being. (ECF No. 40 at 2); see also (ECF No. 42 at 14) (“I cannot risk this to my life and my health on a daily basis, so I will have to transition all pending matters out of this office.”). Ms. Hall contends that she did not understand these reasons to affect whether Mr. Konstas would remain as counsel of record, (ECF No. 40 at 1-2), nor was she notified of the “[d]ifferences” which Mr. Stellman and Mr. Konstas alleged made it “impossible . . . to continue representing Plaintiff in these proceedings.” (ECF No. 36 at 1). Furthermore, Ms. Hall asserts that Mr. Stellman and Mr. Konstas’s decision to withdraw from representation may have been economically driven. See (ECF No. 42 at 2) (“In essence, some months into the Firm’s representation a conflict was discovered within the Firm such that the MedStar case was jettisoned and with it the prospect of a flow of funds such that the SSA/SSI matter as a standalone case could no longer be justified on economic grounds.”).

         Ms. Hall also cites Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.16(d), which provides that:

Upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall take steps to the extent reasonably practicable to protect a client’s interests, such as giving reasonable notice to the client, allowing time for employment of other counsel, surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled and refunding any advance payment of fee or expense that has not been earned or incurred.

         Along these lines, Ms. Hall asserts that, “Attorney Stellman should and could have known that especially on a holiday weekend there was virtually no possibility that replacement counsel could be identified and engaged.” (ECF No. 40 at 2). She further asserts that Mr. Stellman failed to follow the proper procedures for sending case records to her current address, and as a result, that “four binders” of case records are missing. Id. Finally, she alleges that Mr. Stellman has not made an accounting of any escrow funds or returned any unused funds to her. Id. Ultimately, Ms. Hall argues that allowing Mr. Stellman and Mr. Konstas to withdraw as counsel is detrimental because it deprives her of counsel “Possessing Unique and Irreplaceable Knowledge of the Highly Relevant Predecessor Case, ” and because it could lead to the “Loss of Access to Health Care Benefits with Potentially Lethal Consequences.”[2] (ECF No. 42 at 6-8).

         “The decision to grant or deny an attorney’s motion to withdraw is committed to the discretion of the district court.” Abbot v. Gordon, No. DKC-09-0372, 2010 WL 4183334, at *1 (D. Md. Oct. 25, 2010) (citing Whiting v. Lacara, 187 F.3d 317, 320 (2d Cir. 1999)); see also Fleming v. Harris, 39 F.3d 905, 908 (8th Cir. 1994); Washington v. Sherwin Real Estate, Inc., 694 F.2d 1081, 1087 (7th Cir. 1982). Local Rules 703 and 704 provide that lawyers practicing in this Court are subject to the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct (“MRPC”). MRPC 1.16, which is substantially the same as ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.16 cited by Ms. Hall, provides a benchmark for when withdrawal is permitted. MRPC 1.16 (a) addresses mandatory withdrawal, and subsection (b) addresses permissive withdrawal. Subsection (b) states, in relevant part:

Except as stated in paragraph (c) a lawyer may withdraw from representing a client if:
(1) withdrawal can be accomplished without material adverse effect on the interests of the client; . . .
(7) other good cause for withdrawal exists.

MRPC 1.16(b). Subsection (c) provides that, “[a] lawyer must comply with applicable law requiring notice to or permission of a tribunal when terminating representation. When ordered to do so by a tribunal, a lawyer shall continue representation notwithstanding good cause for terminating the representation.” MRPC 1.16(c).

         While there is little case law defining what constitutes “material adverse effect, ” this Court has held that there is no material adverse effect or prejudice “where there [are] ‘no impending deadlines’ and it [i]s ‘clear that the attorney-client relationship has broken down.’” Respess v. Travelers Cas. & Sur. Co., No. ELH-10-2937, 2011 WL 1344137, at *4 (D. Md. Apr. 7, 2011) (quoting Abbott, 2010 WL 4183334, at *3). Likewise, the Court has declined to extend an attorney-client relationship merely on the grounds that a plaintiff “may later attempt to file another suit.” Id.

         In the instant case, both parties’ motions for summary judgment are fully briefed. Thus, as in Abbott, there are no impending deadlines. Accordingly, Ms. Hall would only need the continued assistance of an attorney if she disagrees with this decision, and wishes to file an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. However, I decline to extend the attorney-client relationship on those grounds.[3] In so holding, I note that I have fully considered Ms. Hall’s status as a person with a disability, but nevertheless find that she is not prejudiced by the withdrawal of her attorneys in the present matter since there is no further work to be performed in this Court.[4] In addition, I note that MRPC 1.16(d) outlines the obligations of an attorney “[u]pon termination, ” and does not govern whether an attorney should be granted leave to withdraw in the first instance. While I agree that Mr. Stellman and Mr. Konstas should do everything possible to comply with their obligations under MRPC 1.16(d), I find that those obligations have no impact on whether their withdrawal would prejudice Ms. Hall in this case.

         II. Motions for Summary Judgment

         This case has a lengthy procedural history. In December 2001, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Ms. Hall had been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act since July 2000, and awarded her SSI benefits. (Tr. 1061, 1348-51). In March 2003, SSA notified Ms. Hall that it was reviewing her continuing eligibility for SSI benefits. (Tr. 1463, 1465). Based on the findings from a redetermination interview, the Agency recommended terminating Ms. Hall’s benefits as of June 2003, finding that her income exceeded the statutory limits of the SSI program beginning in April 2003. (Tr. 1061). Ms. Hall requested reconsideration of the Agency’s decision to terminate her benefits, and elected to continue receiving benefits until that request was adjudicated. (Tr. 478); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.996(f), 416.1336(b). In November 2005, SSA ruled on Ms. Hall’s request for reconsideration, upholding its earlier determination that her SSI benefits should be terminated. (Tr. 461). Accordingly, Ms. Hall’s SSI benefits were terminated in December 2005. (Tr. 1061). Ms. Hall then requested a hearing challenging the termination of her benefits. A hearing was held in August 2006, and a second, supplemental hearing was held in May 2007. (Tr. 910-30, 931-69). In January 2008, the ALJ issued a decision upholding the termination of Ms. Hall’s SSI benefits, and finding that her income exceeded the requirements for receiving SSI benefits. (Tr. 14-19). Specifically, the ALJ held that funds Ms. Hall had received from four ...

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