Argued: February 4, 2016
Reargued: June 2, 2016
Court for Baltimore County Case No. 03-C-14-013918.
Barbera, C.J., [*] Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald
Watts Hotten, JJ.
the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland
("Commission"), filed in this Court on December 15,
2014, a Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action against
Respondent, Rhonda I. Framm. The Commission charged
Respondent with violating Maryland Lawyers' Rules of
Professional Conduct ("MLRPC") 1.1 (competence);
1.2 (scope of representation); 1.3 (diligence); 1.4
(communication); 1.5 (fees); 1.7 (conflict of interest); 1.15
(safekeeping property); 3.3 (candor toward the tribunal);
8.4(a), (c), and (d) (misconduct), and Maryland Rule 16-606.1
(attorney trust account record-keeping). Those charges
arise from Respondent's representation of Robert L.
Wilson and her subsequent suit against Mr. Wilson for
attorney's fees. On December 16, 2014, this Court
transmitted the matter to the Circuit Court for Baltimore
County and designated the Honorable John J. Nagle, III
("the hearing judge") to conduct an evidentiary
hearing and make findings of fact and conclusions of law.
hearing judge presided over a hearing on June 1, 2, and 3,
2015, at which Respondent testified and presented evidence.
On September 1, 2015, the hearing judge issued written
findings of fact and conclusions of law, concluding that
Respondent violated MLRPC 1.4, 1.7, 1.15, 3.3, 8.4(a) and
(c), and Maryland Rule 16-606.1(a), but did not violate MLRPC
1.1, 1.2, 1.3, or 1.5. The hearing judge drew no conclusion
on the charged violation of MLRPC 8.4(d).
Petitioner and Respondent filed exceptions. Bar Counsel, on
behalf of Petitioner, excepted to the hearing judge's
failure to make certain findings of fact and render a
conclusion as to MLRPC 8.4(d). Petitioner also excepted to
the hearing judge's conclusion that Respondent did not
violate MLRPC 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 1.5 and the hearing
judge's failure to find the presence of certain
aggravating factors. Respondent challenged the hearing
judge's conclusions that she violated any of the charged
rules of professional conduct, aside from MLRPC 1.15 and
Maryland Rule 16-606.1(a).
oral argument on February 4, 2016, we issued an Order of
Remand instructing the hearing judge to make additional
findings of fact and clarify his conclusions of law regarding
MLRPC 3.3(a)(1), 8.4(c), and 8.4(d). Thereafter, the hearing
judge issued Supplemental Findings and Conclusions of Law
("supplemental findings"), finding additional facts
as set forth in Petitioner's exceptions, finding that
Respondent's actions that constituted violations of MLRPC
3.3(a)(1) and 8.4(c) were done intentionally, and concluding
that Respondent violated MLRPC 8.4(d).
and Respondent each filed responses to the supplemental
findings. Petitioner withdrew its exception to the hearing
judge's failure to make findings of fact and render a
conclusion as to MLRPC 8.4(d) and renewed its remaining
exceptions. Respondent renewed her previously filed
exceptions and excepted to all of the additional findings and
conclusions made in the supplemental findings.
reasons we shall explain, we agree with the hearing judge
that Respondent violated MLRPC 1.4; 1.7; 1.15; 3.3; and
8.4(a), (c), and (d); as well as Maryland Rule 16-606.1(a),
but did not violate MLRPC 1.3. Moreover, we agree with
Petitioner that Respondent's misconduct also violated
MLRPC 1.1, 1.2, and 1.5.
hearing judge made the following findings of fact by clear
and convincing evidence. Respondent was admitted to the Bar of
the Court of Appeals of Maryland on December 1, 1981, and
maintains a solo law practice in Baltimore County.
Respondent's interaction with Robert L. Wilson began
subsequent to a then-recently entered judgment of divorce in
the Circuit Court for Baltimore County before the Honorable
Sherrie R. Bailey ("the divorce case"). On June 17,
2010, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, through their respective counsel,
had negotiated the terms of a settlement agreement in the
divorce case, in which, relevant here, Mr. Wilson would pay
Mrs. Wilson $55, 000 plus interest over the next five years
or $50, 000 within sixty days. Judge Bailey accepted the
settlement agreement and entered accordingly a judgment of
Wilson first met Respondent for an initial consultation on
June 23, 2010, to assist him in vacating the divorce judgment
because he did not understand the settlement agreement and
was dissatisfied with its terms. He retained Respondent on
June 24, 2010. Mr. Wilson signed a retainer agreement
providing that he would pay an initial retainer of $10, 000
and Respondent would bill at an hourly rate of $425. On June
25, 2010, Mr. Wilson paid Respondent $10, 125. Respondent
admitted that she failed to create and maintain records of
Mr. Wilson's payments and consequently conceded that she
violated Maryland Rule 16-606.1(a).
Wilson typically sought and received help from his friend,
Sandra McLean-Stewart ("Ms. Stewart"), and his
cousin, Kevin Griggs, in understanding complex information,
including legal documents. As described by Mr. Griggs, Mr.
Wilson was able to understand "not too complicated
matters" if they were broken down and explained slowly.
Ms. Stewart accompanied Mr. Wilson to one of the three
initial meetings with Respondent, but not the meeting at
which he signed the retainer agreement.
Case: Psychological Evaluation and Motion to Vacate
consulting with Mr. Wilson, Respondent concluded that Mr.
Wilson had significant claims to a portion of Mrs.
Wilson's marital property. Respondent also recognized
that Mr. Wilson had a diminished capacity to understand
information and explained to him that, although vacating the
settlement agreement underlying the divorce judgment would be
difficult, he might be successful if he could prove that he
was incapacitated. Respondent referred Mr. Wilson to a
psychologist, Morris S. Lasson, Ph.D., P.A., to determine
whether there were sufficient grounds for Mr. Wilson to file
a motion to vacate the settlement agreement on the ground of
28, 2010, Dr. Lasson conducted an initial evaluation of Mr.
Wilson and concluded in a written report that Mr. Wilson had
a neuro-cognitive disorder that impaired his ability to
comprehend complex information. Dr. Lasson noted that Mr.
Wilson suffered a stroke around 1964 that affected his speech
and memory. Dr. Lasson explained in his report:
[Mr. Wilson]'s physical appearance was satisfactory. At
the same time, his orientation to time, person and place was
erratic. He had difficulty absorbing details and showed
lapses of attention. He was unable to maintain concentration
explaining, "I need time to think it out." Mr.
Wilson recited the alphabet incorrectly on his fingers. He
did not know the name of the U.S. president nor was he aware
of today's date. He showed both expressive and receptive
aphasia and speech stammering. His memory was flawed. He
showed difficulty with encoding, retrieval and focusing
skills. This man cannot process information fluidly and has
sensory integration problems.
With reasonable psychological certainty, Robert Wilson has a
neuro-cognitive disorder and cannot be held responsible to
fully understand complex information and details.
1, 2010, Respondent, on behalf of Mr. Wilson, filed a motion
to vacate the divorce judgment and attached Dr. Lasson's
report. In the motion, Respondent argued that Mr. Wilson
lacked the capacity to understand the settlement agreement
and consequently could not consent to it. Respondent further
requested an extension of time for a complete psychological
evaluation of Mr. Wilson to determine whether he required a
guardian. Mrs. Wilson, through her attorney, Diana Denrich,
filed a response in opposition to the motion to vacate the
Lasson conducted a complete evaluation of Mr. Wilson and
issued a report, dated August 9, 2010, in which he opined
that Mr. Wilson should have a legal guardian. In the August
2010 report, Dr. Lasson explained that Mr. Wilson has a
cognitive impairment that affects "his ability to
understand and comprehend both the written and spoken word.
He should be counseled constantly not to sign any documents
and, even in a verbal encounter, he should have guidance and
direction to be absolutely certain that he understands to the
best of his ability[.]" Dr. Lasson also stated that,
"[w]hen asked to count from 20 to 0 backwards, [Mr.
Wilson] forgot specific numbers." On August 16, 2010,
Respondent wrote to Ms. Denrich to explain that she was in
the process of having a guardian appointed for Mr. Wilson.
Respondent attached to that correspondence Dr. Lasson's
August 2010 report.
Case: The First Petition
April 20, 2011, Respondent filed a Petition for Appointment
of Guardian of the Property of Robert Wilson in the Circuit
Court for Baltimore County ("the guardianship
case"). In that petition, Respondent listed Mr. Wilson
as the Petitioner and named Mr. Griggs as the person Mr.
Wilson wished to be appointed as his guardian. Respondent
attached certificates from Dr. Lasson and Mr. Wilson's
treating physician, Beth Marcus, M.D., to show that Mr.
Wilson had capacity to consent to a guardian. Those
certificates were not verified and did not include the
doctors' full names, qualifications, history with Mr.
Wilson, or opinions as to the cause and extent of his
days later, the Circuit Court rejected the petition because
it did not comply with Maryland Rule 10-301 and the
certificates did not comply with Maryland Rule 10-202. Before
the hearing judge, Respondent testified that she did not
receive the court's rejection until it was produced in
the disciplinary investigation. Yet, by August 4, 2011,
Respondent had known that the petition ("the first
petition") had been rejected, as she drafted a new
petition for guardianship naming Mr. Griggs as the
Petitioner. Mr. Griggs signed and returned the new petition
to Respondent on August 10, 2011. Respondent, however, did
not file that petition ("the second petition")
until November 2011.
Case: Petition for Civil Constructive Contempt
on October 26, 2011, Mrs. Wilson, having received no
communication from Respondent for more than a year after the
filing of the motion to vacate the judgment of divorce,
filed, through her counsel, Ms. Denrich, a Petition for Civil
Constructive Contempt seeking to advance the case and obtain
a hearing before Judge Bailey on the motion to vacate.
November 2, 2011, the Circuit Court issued a Show Cause Order
why Mr. Wilson should not be found in contempt. Respondent
mailed Mr. Wilson a copy of the Order on November 8, 2011,
and stated in a cover letter that Mr. Wilson had to pay her
$7, 500 to answer the petition and defend him at the hearing.
Mr. Wilson paid the requested amount. Later that month,
Respondent filed a motion to strike the petition for contempt
and, insofar as the record reflects, there was no further
action taken on the petition and Mr. Wilson ultimately was
not held in contempt.
Case: The Second Petition
November 18, 2011, Respondent filed the second petition for
guardianship, this time naming Mr. Griggs as the Petitioner.
A few days later, the Circuit Court rejected the second
petition because once again the physicians' certificates
failed to comply with the applicable rules. On January 10,
2012, Respondent filed amended certificates. The court
thereafter accepted that petition.
January 17, 2012, the court appointed Katherine Linzer, Esq.
to represent Mr. Wilson in the guardianship proceeding. On
March 14, 2012, Ms. Linzer, on behalf of Mr. Wilson, filed an
answer in opposition to the petition. In the answer, Mr.
Wilson denied that he was disabled and requested that the
petition be dismissed. Attached to the answer was a
certificate from Mr. Wilson's treating physician, Dr.
Marcus, attesting to his capacity to understand certain legal
April 10, 2012, Respondent, on behalf of Mr. Griggs, filed an
opposition to the answer arguing that Mr. Wilson is incapable
of making decisions on his own and requires a guardian to act
on his behalf. Respondent asserted that, "contrary to
the assertions made by attorney Katherine Linzer on Mr.
Wilson's behalf, Mr. Wilson suffers from a mental
disability that his psychologist states causes cognitive and
processing deficiencies that render Mr. Wilson incapable of
both comprehending and making decisions on his own."
Respondent also argued that "Mr. Wilson presently cannot
sufficiently process nor make decisions concerning the
management of his property and investments when [the] same
involve holding several facts in [his] mind, " nor is it
"clear that Mr. Wilson would even have sufficient
capacity to designate a power of attorney."
Circuit Court issued a writ of summons to Mr. Wilson and
scheduled trial for June 26, 2012. Respondent sent Mr. Griggs
a letter dated May 16, 2012, informing him of the
guardianship trial and attaching the writ of summons.
Griggs and Mr. Wilson received conflicting advice from Ms.
Linzer and Respondent. Ms. Linzer advised them that, if a
guardian were appointed, Mr. Wilson would lose his ability to
make financial decisions. In contrast, Respondent advised
that Mr. Wilson would retain some of his rights even if Mr.
Griggs became his guardian. Mr. Griggs and Mr. Wilson decided
that they no longer wanted to pursue the guardianship. On
June 1, 2012, Mr. Griggs faxed Respondent a hand-written
letter notifying her that he wanted to withdraw the
guardianship petition immediately. Upon receiving Mr.
Griggs's letter, on June 19, 2012, Respondent filed a
motion to withdraw the guardianship petition, which was
granted. Respondent never told Mr. Griggs or Mr. Wilson that
there was a potential for a conflict of interest.
Linzer subsequently filed a request for attorney's fees,
which Respondent did not oppose. On October 19, 2012, the
court ordered Mr. Wilson to pay Ms. Linzer $1, 120.06 in
attorney's fees. Respondent took no further action to
pursue the guardianship.
Case: Dr. Lasson's Deposition
in December 2011, Judge Bailey scheduled a hearing on the
motion to vacate the settlement agreement and judgment of
divorce to be held on February 24, 2012. On January 5, 2012,
Respondent informed Mrs. Wilson's counsel, Ms. Denrich,
that she intended to introduce Dr. Lasson's reports at
that hearing. Ms. Denrich objected to the introduction of Dr.
Lasson's reports without his testimony. Respondent then
unilaterally scheduled Dr. Lasson's deposition for
February 7, 2012. On January 13, 2012, Respondent's
paralegal sent an email to Ms. Denrich, informing her of the
scheduled deposition and asking her to provide other dates if
she was unavailable.
Denrich responded on January 16, 2012, advising that she was
not available on February 7, 2012, and proposing six
alternate dates prior to the hearing. Respondent refused to
reschedule the deposition because Dr. Lasson was only
available on February 7, 2012. On January 24, 2012, Ms.
Denrich served by first-class mail a motion for a protective
order seeking to stop Dr. Lasson's deposition and a
motion to shorten time to respond. On February 2, 2012,
Respondent opposed the motion for a protective order, but the
court had no opportunity to rule on it prior to the scheduled
deposition because the motion had not been docketed. On
February 7, 2012, Respondent took Dr. Lasson's de
bene esse deposition in Ms. Denrich's absence. Dr.
Lasson testified that Mr. Wilson lacks the cognitive capacity
to understand basic information. Dr. Lasson emphasized that
Mr. Wilson had difficulty processing "basic information
much less complicated ones." He explained that:
[I]f you said, sign here, he would be able to do it. But if
you tell him, now, before you sign here, I just want to
explain to you what this is, and you get involved in some
type of detailed explanation, I believe he would lose you and
not understand. He may even be embarrassed to say that he
doesn't understand at times. . . . But he would not be
able to retain basic information that you have given him and
just not understand what he has to do.
legal matters, Dr. Lasson said that, "if something is
involved either legally or any other way with a lot of
different facts and information, [Mr. Wilson] would have
extreme difficulty processing that and understanding
hearing on February 24, 2012, Judge Bailey granted the motion
for a protective order, prohibiting Respondent from using Dr.
Lasson's deposition and postponing the matter to allow
the parties to retake the deposition. The court did not enter
a written order to that effect at that time. Between February
2012 and May 2012, Respondent did not reschedule Dr.
Lasson's deposition, as she did not believe that she was
obligated to do so because that responsibility was borne by
Ms. Denrich at Mrs. Wilson's expense.
4, 2012, upon Ms. Denrich's request, Judge Bailey entered
an order that prohibited the use of Dr. Lasson's
deposition, ordered Dr. Lasson to be deposed within sixty
days at Ms. Denrich's convenience, required Mr. Wilson to
pay the costs of the deposition, and ordered that the failure
to comply with the order would result in Dr. Lasson's
being precluded from testifying at trial.
Wilson asked Respondent for clarification regarding that
order. By letter dated May 31, 2012, Respondent wrote to Mr.
Wilson: "As Dr. Lasson has to be paid before the
deposition is to occur, and as Ms. Denrich was given at least
one month's notice of [Dr. Lasson's] deposition (with
no objection ever noted from her), I took Dr. Lasson's
deposition as planned and sent her a copy of my questioning
and Dr. Lasson's responses." The hearing judge found
that this was an intentional misrepresentation to Mr. Wilson.
30, 2012, Ms. Denrich and Respondent agreed to reschedule Dr.
Lasson's deposition for August 8, 2012, despite being
outside of the court's sixty-day timeframe. Yet, on June
18, 2012, Respondent noted Dr. Lasson's deposition by
3, 2012, Ms. Denrich filed a motion to strike the deposition
by written questions. Respondent filed an opposition to the
motion to strike, in which she claimed that she had tried to
schedule a date for Dr. Lasson's second deposition after
the court's May 4, 2012, order but "Ms. Denrich
again would not supply dates on which she would commit to
being available for [Dr. Lasson's] deposition." The
hearing judge found that this statement was an intentional
misrepresentation to the court because Ms. Denrich responded
to Respondent and the parties agreed upon a new date. On July
24, 2012, Judge Bailey granted the motion to strike, ordered
that Mr. Wilson was prohibited from using Dr. Lasson's
deposition or calling Dr. Lasson at trial, and awarded Mrs.
Wilson $600 in attorney's fees, for which Respondent and
Mr. Wilson were jointly and severally liable. On August 2,
2012, Respondent filed a motion to vacate and reconsider the
court's order prohibiting Dr. Lasson's testimony and
Case: Motion to Withdraw and Court Psychiatrist
August 21, 2012, Mr. Wilson discharged Respondent. In
response, Respondent sent Mr. Wilson a letter informing him
of her intent to withdraw as counsel in the divorce case.
Respondent mailed to the court a motion to withdraw, but
neither the court nor Ms. Denrich received the motion.
September 14, 2012, Judge Bailey held a hearing on
Respondent's motion to vacate the divorce judgment and
her motion to vacate and reconsider Judge Bailey's order
dated May 4, 2012. At the outset of the hearing, Respondent
gave Judge Bailey a copy of her motion to withdraw. In
support of that motion, Respondent explained that Mr. Wilson
has a diminished capacity and that, pursuant to MLRPC 1.14,
had obtained a medical report stating that Mr. Wilson
requires a guardian, and she had attempted to have one
appointed. Respondent further argued, "I cannot
represent Mr. Wilson because I do not have any source of
competent explanation of what he wants and if he has even
understood what it is that he wants me to do for him."
Respondent called Ms. Stewart and Mr. Griggs to testify that
Mr. Wilson lacks capacity to handle his medical and financial
decisions. Mr. Wilson, evidently changing his mind, testified