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Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Bellamy

Court of Appeals of Maryland

June 21, 2017

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND
v.
DENISE LEONA BELLAMY

          Argued: April 3, 2017

         Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No. CAE16-18400 CAE16-25921

          Barbera, C.J., Greene Adkins McDonald Watts Hotten Getty, JJ.

          OPINION

          Barbera, C.J.

         The Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, acting through Bar Counsel, filed two Petitions for Disciplinary or Remedial Action against Respondent, Denise Leona Bellamy, in connection with seven separate complaints filed against her. Bar Counsel later moved to consolidate the two petitions for judicial hearing, post-hearing proceedings, and disposition, and we granted that motion. Pursuant to Maryland Rules 19-722(a) and 19-727, this Court transmitted both cases to the Circuit Court for Prince George's County and designated the Honorable John Paul Davey to conduct an evidentiary hearing and make findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         Respondent failed to respond to the charges filed against her, and therefore the hearing judge entered an Order of Default on October 19, 2016. A hearing was held on December 2, 2016. Respondent did not appear at the hearing and has not presented any evidence or arguments on her behalf at any point throughout these proceedings.

         Bar Counsel filed Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and presented the Commission's case before the hearing judge. The hearing judge granted Bar Counsel's request for admission of facts and genuineness of documents and treated the factual assertions included therein as established. On January 23, 2017, the hearing judge signed an Order adopting Bar Counsel's Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. Respondent has filed no exceptions.

         We summarize here those findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         I

         The Hearing Judge's Findings of Fact

         Respondent's Prior Disciplinary History

         Respondent was admitted to the Maryland Bar on December 13, 2005. She was suspended from the practice of law in Maryland by consent for a period of ninety days, beginning October 11, 2012, due to a prior disciplinary proceeding in which she was found to have violated Rules 1.3, 1.15, and 1.16(d) of the former Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC").[1] It was determined in that proceeding that Respondent, after being discharged in two matters, failed to return retainer fees to which she was not entitled. Respondent was reinstated to the practice of law on January 15, 2013.

         On March 24, 2016, Respondent was temporarily suspended for failure to pay her annual assessment to the Client Protection Fund of Maryland. She remained suspended as of the filing date of the two Petitions for Disciplinary or Remedial Action that are before us in this proceeding. Complaint of Cindy Kamara

         On or about April 2, 2014, Cindy Kamara hired Respondent to represent her in a civil matter before the District Court sitting in Prince George's County. They executed a retainer agreement, and Ms. Kamara paid Respondent $500. Respondent did not deposit that money into an attorney trust account and did not maintain records pursuant to former Maryland Rule 16-606.1. Instead, she converted the money to her own use before earning it. Respondent did little to no work in connection with the case, failing to enter her appearance on behalf of Ms. Kamara or file an action on her behalf. Respondent failed to return Ms. Kamara's phone calls in May and June 2014 and, after arranging to meet Ms. Kamara in July, canceled the meeting and failed to reschedule. On or about October 29, 2014, Ms. Kamara demanded a refund. Respondent never refunded the retainer fees and never gave Ms. Kamara her client file.

         Ms. Kamara filed a complaint against Respondent with the Attorney Grievance Commission. Bar Counsel three times forwarded the complaint with a request for information, but Respondent never replied. A Commission investigator later hand-delivered all three of Bar Counsel's letters to Respondent. Respondent told the investigator she would contact Bar Counsel that day but did not do so, and she has never contacted Bar Counsel regarding the Kamara matter. Complaint of Eraina Dixon

         On or about October 31, 2014, Respondent and Eraina Dixon executed a retainer agreement, in which Respondent agreed to represent Ms. Dixon in her petition for legal guardianship of her grandson in order to pursue his enrollment in her local public school. Ms. Dixon paid Respondent a retainer fee of $750, which Respondent converted to her own use before earning it, failing to deposit it in a client trust account or maintain financial records. Respondent did little to no work on the case, failing to enter her appearance or file any court documents in the matter. Although she told Ms. Dixon that she had prepared an affidavit for her, Respondent never provided such a document to Ms. Dixon. Respondent ignored Ms. Dixon's many attempts to contact her throughout the Fall. On December 29, 2014, Respondent e-mailed Ms. Dixon promising to meet with her in two days, but failed to meet with Ms. Dixon on the appointed day. Ms. Dixon eventually discharged Respondent and requested a refund. Respondent failed to refund the retainer fee or give Ms. Dixon her client file.

         On July 21, 2015, Ms. Dixon filed a complaint against Respondent with the Attorney Grievance Commission. Respondent ignored Bar Counsel's multiple attempts to contact her regarding the complaint and never replied to the request for information. Complaint of Yolanda Curtis

         In or about August 2014, Yolanda Curtis retained Respondent to represent her as plaintiff in a suit in the District Court sitting in Prince George's County, seeking recovery of Ms. Curtis's home rental security deposit arising from a previous tenancy. Respondent told Ms. Curtis that her fee would be approximately $1, 000 to $3, 000 and would be deducted from the recovery in the action. Respondent did not explain to Ms. Curtis the basis of this fee nor did she execute a written agreement regarding the fee with Ms. Curtis.

         On or about September 5, 2014, Respondent failed to appear in court in Ms. Curtis's action and a judgment was entered against Ms. Curtis. Respondent filed a "Motion to Vacate the Judgment and Set the Matter back in for Trial", claiming that she had not received notice of an alleged time change in the hearing. The court granted the motion and set a new date for the hearing. Respondent was late to court for that hearing. Nevertheless, the court entered judgment in favor of Ms. Curtis and against defendant Earl White, Jr., in the amount of $1, 054, costs of $68, and attorney's fees of $1, 375, coming to a total payment due from defendant of $2, 497.

         Mr. White contacted Respondent seeking to satisfy the judgment. Roughly three weeks later Respondent replied, stating that Ms. Curtis had authorized her to accept the judgment on behalf of Ms. Curtis. Mr. White paid Respondent, who then converted the money to her own use without informing Ms. Curtis that the judgment had been satisfied. Respondent falsely advised Mr. White that she had filed a notice of satisfaction with the court, and she ignored his subsequent attempts to contact her with a request that she file the notice of satisfaction. Mr. White eventually asked the court to enter a notice of satisfaction, which it did on March 30, 2015.

         Meanwhile, unaware that Mr. White had satisfied the judgment, Ms. Curtis filed a Request for Garnishment of Mr. White's wages. She then learned that Mr. White had paid the judgment. On July 6, 2015, Ms. Curtis filed a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission against Respondent. Bar Counsel made multiple attempts to contact Respondent and request information regarding this matter, and, though in one instance Respondent signed the return receipt on Bar Counsel's message, she never replied to Bar Counsel. Complaint of Angela D. Alsobrooks, State's Attorney for Prince George's County

         On or about February 20, 2004, United States Park Police conducted a traffic stop of Respondent and performed a Standardized Field Sobriety Test, which Respondent failed. She was arrested and charged with Driving Under the Influence ("DUI") and other violations including speeding, driving on an expired license and driving with a suspended registration. She pleaded guilty before the United States District Court for the District of Maryland and was sentenced to supervised probation with additional conditions of probation.

         On March 31, 2013, Maryland State Police found Respondent in her vehicle, crashed into a roadside ditch. Respondent failed a field sobriety test and was charged with DUI, reckless driving, and driving on a suspended license. On March 20, 2014, Respondent appeared in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County on those charges, and, when asked by the court whether she had any prior criminal convictions, she lied, replying "no" despite her previous DUI conviction. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to unsupervised probation before judgment.

         The State's Attorney's Office for Prince George's County, upon discovering the falsehood, filed a motion to strike the judgment; the motion was granted. The State's Attorney also notified Bar Counsel of this matter, who docketed a complaint against Respondent and sent a letter to her home and office notifying her and seeking information. Respondent requested a ten-day extension of time to respond, which was granted. Respondent failed to respond before the extended deadline. Complaint of Beverly Christina Bradley-Topping

         Ms. Bradley-Topping retained Respondent to represent her in the filing of a divorce action and paid a retainer fee of $2, 145. Respondent converted this fee to her own use before earning it, did not deposit it into a client trust fund, and did not maintain an accounting. Respondent filed a complaint for divorce on behalf of Ms. Bradley-Topping on October 27, 2014, without first discussing with her the grounds for divorce or providing her with a draft of the complaint. After the document was filed, Ms. Bradley-Topping contacted Respondent and asked her to amend the grounds for divorce to "desertion". Respondent told Ms. Bradley-Topping that she would amend the complaint but never did so.

         Respondent failed repeatedly to communicate with Ms. Bradley-Topping. She scheduled phone calls with Ms. Bradley-Topping on November 17, November 22, and December 11, 2014, yet failed to call her client as promised. Meanwhile, the court set a scheduling conference for March 3, 2015. Respondent delayed until the day before that conference to inform Ms. Bradley-Topping of it.

         The court then entered a Scheduling Order, which Respondent repeatedly violated. She failed to provide required documents by the deadline, failed to file a Joint Statement of Marital and Non-marital Property by the deadline, failed to respond to discovery or inform Ms. Bradley-Topping of the discovery requests, and failed to timely contact the assigned Court Appointed Mediator. Opposing counsel filed, and the court granted, a Motion to Compel Discovery and/or for Sanctions. Respondent never provided discovery, causing the court to enter an order of sanctions against Ms. Bradley-Topping for $693. Respondent never informed her client of the motion to compel or the sanctions entered against her.

         Respondent continued her pattern of failing to respond to Ms. Bradley-Topping's requests for information, told Ms. Bradley-Topping that she had prepared a draft settlement agreement though she had not done so, and took no steps to settle the matter despite Ms. Bradley-Topping's wishes. She delayed until the day before the merits hearing to inform Ms. Bradley-Topping of the hearing and advise her that she would need to bring a witness.

         After the merits hearing, the court granted a limited divorce and ordered Respondent to submit a proposed Judgment of Limited Divorce Order. Respondent prepared a draft order and shared it with Ms. Bradley-Topping, who stated that it was "imperative that [her] proper grounds be reflected" in the order (i.e., desertion) and asked Respondent to strike the $693 owed to the opposing party, stating that she had "no knowledge what this fee [was] for." Respondent, however, filed the proposed order with no material changes.

         Ms. Bradley-Topping discharged Respondent on July 30, 2015, and requested that she withdraw her appearance, refund the retainer fee, and provide Ms. Bradley-Topping with her client file. Respondent did none of those things.

         Ms. Bradley-Topping filed a complaint against Respondent with the Attorney Grievance Commission. Bar Counsel twice requested information from Respondent regarding the complaint, but Respondent failed to reply. On November 20, 2015, Bar Counsel issued a subpoena to obtain Respondent's bank records, and later a Commission investigator made contact with Respondent, requesting the name of her current bank. Respondent refused to answer, stating: "You're the investigator, you figure it out." Complaint of Courtney Smith Lamar

         On May 27, 2015, Ms. Lamar signed a retainer agreement with Respondent in connection with a complaint for divorce filed against Ms. Lamar. The parties agreed to an hourly rate of $250, and Ms. Lamar paid Respondent a retainer of $1, 800. Respondent committed to providing monthly billing invoices but never provided them. Respondent failed to deposit this money into an attorney trust account, did not maintain records of the fee, and converted the fee to her own use before earning it.

         At some point during Respondent's representation, Ms. Lamar sought reconciliation with her husband. Respondent promised she would send a letter to opposing counsel regarding the possibility of reconciliation, but she never did so. Respondent filed an Answer and a Certificate Regarding Discovery, and entered her appearance in the case. Respondent thereafter failed to perform any meaningful work in the action. Respondent failed to reply to Ms. Lamar's requests for information, failed to notify her about or respond to discovery requests, and failed to respond to four attempts by the court to contact Respondent to clear court dates. The court then set a scheduling conference, and Respondent failed to inform Ms. Lamar of the conference or prepare a financial statement in advance of the conference.

         After repeated attempts by Ms. Lamar to contact Respondent, on November 10, 2015, Respondent finally sent Ms. Lamar a message. Ms. Lamar then discharged her and requested a refund and her client file. Despite having been fired by her client, Respondent appeared in court for the scheduling conference on November 12, 2015, and failed to withdraw from the case. She failed to refund her retainer fee or provide the client file.

         On November 17, 2015, Ms. Lamar filed a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission regarding this conduct. Bar Counsel sent a letter to Respondent and she requested a ten-day extension of time ...


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