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Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Butler

Court of Appeals of Maryland

October 23, 2017

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND
v.
LANCE BUTLER, III

          Argued: September 7, 2017

         Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No. CAE16-25945

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

          OPINION

          BARBERA, C.J.

         On June 22, 2016, Petitioner, the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland ("AGC"), acting through Bar Counsel, filed in this Court a Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action ("Petition") against Respondent, Lance Butler, III. The Petition alleged violations of the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC") 3.3 (Candor Toward the Tribunal) and 8.4 (Misconduct).[1] Those violations stemmed from Respondent materially misrepresenting the existence of his private law practice and the status of his personal finances; falsifying his time sheets at his job with a federal agency; submitting false testimony during his deposition and hearing in a prior disciplinary proceeding; making material misrepresentations to the Inspector General of the federal agency at which Respondent was employed; and, for multiple years, failing to file certain tax returns and making misrepresentations on others.

         Pursuant to Maryland Rules 16-752(a) and 16-757, this Court designated the Honorable Beverly J. Woodard ("the hearing judge") to hold an evidentiary hearing and make findings of fact and conclusions of law. On September 6, 2016, Respondent was served, pursuant to Rule 19-723(b), with the Petition and "Petitioner's Request for Admission of Facts and Genuineness of Documents." Respondent failed to respond to either. On October 6, 2016, Bar Counsel filed a Motion for Order of Default and Military Service Affidavit. On November 28, 2016, the hearing judge entered an Order of Default and mailed a copy to Respondent. The order included notice to the parties of the scheduled hearing. Respondent did not move to vacate the Order of Default.

         The hearing judge held a hearing on January 13, 2017. Respondent did not appear at that hearing. The hearing judge deemed Respondent to have admitted both the averments in the Petition and the facts set forth in Exhibits 1-37 attached to Bar Counsel's Request for Admission of Facts and Genuineness of Documents, and treated all matters admitted as conclusively established. See Md. Rules 2-323(e), 2-424(b), (d); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Bellamy, 453 Md. 377, 385 (2017); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Harmon, 433 Md. 612, 619 (2013). The hearing judge issued written findings of fact and proposed conclusions of law, concluding that Respondent had violated MLRPC 3.3 and 8.4(a), (b), (c), and (d).

         No exceptions were filed. Respondent made no written recommendation regarding sanction; Bar Counsel recommended disbarment. On September 7, 2017, we heard oral argument, at which only Bar Counsel appeared. On that same date, we issued a per curiam order disbarring Respondent. Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Butler, ___ Md. ___ (2017), 2017 WL 3910147, at *1 (Md. Sept. 7, 2017). We explain in this opinion the reasons for that action.

         I

         A. The Hearing Judge's Findings of Fact

         1. Background

         In 1984, when he was seventeen years old, Respondent began working for the United States Agency for International Development ("USAID") as a typist. From 1984 to 2015, he held various non-legal positions at USAID. He continued to work in a non-legal capacity at USAID while attending law school and after being admitted to the Bar of Maryland in 2007 and the District of Columbia Bar in 2010.

         In addition to his employment at USAID, Respondent maintained a law office in Prince George's County, Maryland. Respondent was temporarily suspended from the practice of law in Maryland on March 20, 2014, for failure to pay the required annual Client Protection Fund and AGC assessments. He remained in that status at the time of the hearing.

         2. The First AGC Complaint

         In April 2012, the USAID Office of the Inspector General received a complaint about Respondent. The complaint, which was submitted anonymously, alleged, among other things, that Respondent falsified his time sheets and purported to attend fabricated USAID meetings in order to spend time furthering his private law practice; improperly rendered, and received payment for, legal advice to his co-workers during work hours; provided false information about unemployment to his federal loan servicer to obtain a deferral; and failed to pay back income taxes.

         The Inspector General referred the matter to the AGC, which sought to contact Respondent to elicit a reply to the allegations. After multiple attempts over many months, Bar Counsel's investigator finally made contact. Bar Counsel subsequently charged Respondent with violating MLRPC 8.1(b)[2] for knowingly failing to respond to a disciplinary authority. Following an evidentiary hearing in January 2014, the hearing judge found, by clear and convincing evidence, that Respondent violated MLRPC 8.1. In an opinion filed on January 27, 2015, this Court reprimanded Respondent. Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Butler, 441 Md. 352 (2015). As we shall see, the substance of the allegations in the anonymous complaint, rather than Respondent's failure to reply to Bar Counsel's inquiries regarding that complaint, are the subject of the current proceeding.

         3. The USAID Inspector General's Investigation

         In April 2014, while the prior AGC proceedings were ongoing, the Inspector General began its own investigation of Respondent's conduct. The Reporting Agent assigned to the case reviewed documents and records and conducted interviews related to the allegations. Among those documents and records analyzed were Respondent's OGE Form 450 ("Confidential Financial Disclosure Report"); search results from Maryland Judiciary Case Search and Public Access Court Electronic Records (PACER); the websites of the District of Columbia and Maryland State Bar Associations; documents provided by Access Group, Inc., the federal loan processing company referenced in the anonymous complaint; documents, emails, and personal tax return forms found on Respondent's government computer; data from Respondent's parking logs; and records from Respondent's personnel security file at USAID. The Reporting Agent interviewed numerous witnesses, including Respondent's former clients and employees of USAID.

         On March 10, 2015, the Reporting Agent interviewed Respondent. During the first hour, Respondent made multiple material misrepresentations to the Reporting Agent. The Reporting Agent then revealed that she had been investigating Respondent since early 2014 and asked if he would like to revise his prior statements. Respondent admitted that he had provided untruthful answers.

         After its investigation was complete, the Inspector General transmitted a final report to the AGC.

         4. Additional Findings

         a. Financial disclosure form

         From 2007 to 2014, in addition to being employed full time by USAID, Respondent maintained a private law practice in Maryland and represented clients in roughly fifty separate matters in court. Respondent also worked part time as a personal fitness trainer from 2010 to 2014.

         As a federal government employee, Respondent was required to file an annual ethics disclosure form with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics to report certain financial information and outside activities that might present a conflict of interest. On February 16, 2012, he signed and filed a Confidential Financial Disclosure Report in which he falsely stated that he had no reportable assets or sources of income, liabilities, outside positions, agreements, or arrangements for himself outside of USAID, and he certified that those statements were "true, complete, and correct to the best of [his] knowledge." Moreover, he failed to file the required financial disclosure reports for the years 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014.

         b. Unemployment deferment request

         In June 2014, the Inspector General reviewed documents provided by Access Group, Inc., Respondent's student loan servicer. In September 2010, Respondent became delinquent on his student loan payments. He filled out and signed an Unemployment Deferment Request, which indicated that as of September 25, 2010, he qualified to have his payments deferred because he "became unemployed or began working less than full time" and was "diligently seeking but unable to find full-time employment in the United States . . . in any field or at any salary or responsibility level." Respondent also certified that he had "made at least 6 diligent attempts to find full-time employment in the most recent 6 months."

         In January 2011, Respondent faxed a copy of the Request to Access Group, Inc. He certified that the information he provided was "true and correct, " despite a clear warning on the form that "[a]ny person who knowingly makes a false statement or misrepresentation on this form" would be "subject to penalties that may include fines, imprisonment, or both[.]" Respondent later admitted to the Reporting Agent that he was employed full-time when he ...


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