Argument: September 6, 2017
Court for Prince George's Coun Case No. CAE16-27559
Barbera, C.J., Greene Adkins McDonald Watts Hotten Getty, JJ.
who has practiced law for any appreciable time can claim to
have never made a mistake in that practice. A mistake in the
practice of law is not necessarily professional misconduct.
However, once aware of a mistake that harms another and given
the opportunity to mitigate it, a lawyer who decides to do
nothing may be guilty of misconduct.
Benjamin Woolery was appointed as personal representative for
an estate that had a single asset - real property that had
served as the decedent's home. There were five heirs -
adult children of the decedent - with different ideas as to
how to dispose of that property. In handling this difficult
estate, Mr. Woolery made a mistake. In preparing the property
for sale, he came upon a tractor that had been stored there
by one of the adult children. Without determining the
tractor's ownership or value, he impulsively sold it to
an individual who happened to be present for what turned out
to be a small fraction of the tractor's actual value.
thereafter, Mr. Woolery became aware of his mistake. Mr.
Woolery was promptly informed of the ownership and value of
the tractor. Given the opportunity to remedy the situation,
Mr. Woolery chose not to do so, apparently out of personal
animus toward its owner. We hold that the choice that Mr.
Woolery made was misconduct that merits a reprimand.
24, 2016, the Attorney Grievance Commission
("Commission") through Bar Counsel filed a Petition
for Disciplinary or Remedial Action with this Court against
Mr. Woolery. The Commission charged Mr. Woolery with
violations of the following Maryland Lawyers' Rules of
Professional Conduct ("MLRPC"): 1.1 (Competence);
1.3 (Diligence); 1.7 (Conflict of Interest); 3.3 (Candor
toward the Tribunal); and 8.4(a)-(d)
(Misconduct). On August 10, 2016, Mr. Woolery filed an
answer to the petition in which he admitted most of the
factual allegations, qualified his agreement with a few of
them, and denied the conclusion of the petition that those
facts constituted professional misconduct.
accordance with Maryland Rule 19-722(a), we designated Judge
Hassan A. El-Amin of the Circuit Court for Prince
George's County to conduct a hearing concerning the
alleged violations and to provide findings of fact and
recommended conclusions of law.The hearing took place over three
days on December 7 - 8, 2016 and January 13, 2017. At the
hearing, the parties submitted a detailed stipulation of
facts and introduced in evidence various documentary
exhibits, including much of the record of Orphans' Court
and District Court proceedings related to the charges against
Mr. Woolery. Several witnesses, including Mr. Woolery,
March 20, 2017, the hearing judge issued a memorandum opinion
in which he made detailed findings of fact and recommended
conclusions of law. In his recommended conclusions of law,
the hearing judge concluded that Mr. Woolery violated MLRPC
8.4(d). The hearing judge found that the Commission failed to
prove by clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Woolery
violated MLRPC 1.7, 3.3, and 8.4(a), (b), and (c). He also
found in Mr. Woolery's favor for the most part with
respect to the alleged violations of MLRPC 1.1 and 1.3.
party filed exceptions to the hearing judge's findings of
fact. Mr. Woolery filed exceptions to the hearing judge's
conclusions of law to the extent that the hearing judge found
violations of the MLRPC. This Court held oral argument on
September 6, 2017.
party contests the hearing judge's findings of fact and,
accordingly, we treat those findings as established. Maryland
Rule 19-741(b)(2)(A). We summarize those findings, along with
the parties' stipulations and admissions, and other
matters uncontested in the record.
Woolery's Law Practice
Woolery has been a member of the Maryland Bar since December
1988. During the period pertinent to this case, Mr. Woolery
was a junior partner in the firm of McGill and Woolery in
Upper Marlboro. Mr. Woolery has had substantial experience in
the field of estates and trusts law.
Roy Chambers Estate
3, 2006, Roy L. Chambers, Jr., a resident of Prince
George's County, passed away. His wife having predeceased
him, Mr. Chambers was survived by five adult children:
Carolyn Bowman, Mary Nicodemus, David Lee Chambers, Kenneth
J. Chambers, and Thomas Chambers. Mr. Chambers had executed a
will on January 23, 1985. According to Mr. Chambers'
will, his five surviving children were to receive equal
shares of his residuary estate. A few days after Mr.
Chambers' death, the Register of Wills for Prince
George's County opened the Estate of Roy L. Chambers,
Jr., Estate No. 00000007907.
Woolery becomes Personal Representative of the Estate
estate had a succession of personal representatives,
including two stints by Mr. Woolery. Initially, one of Mr.
Chambers' daughters - Carolyn Bowman - was appointed
personal representative of the estate pursuant to the terms
of the will. Mr. Woolery was appointed as a successor
personal representative on December 13, 2007, until he was
replaced by another attorney on April 28, 2008. He was later
reappointed as personal representative of the estate on March
18, 2010, and served until his final accounting in late 2016.
Property of the Estate
Mr. Woolery became personal representative of the estate for
the second time, it had one asset - a parcel of real property
that Mr. Chambers had owned free of any encumbrances at the
time of his death. The property was located at 7301 Webster
Lane, Fort Washington, Maryland 20744 ("the Webster Lane
property"). The Webster Lane property consisted of 1.95
acres which was improved by a house, a garage with a
residential apartment, and a large shed. Mr. Chambers and his
wife had once resided in the house. Other than the Webster
Lane property, the estate had no other assets.
among the surviving children hindered the efforts of Mr.
Woolery and the prior personal representatives to dispose of
the Webster Lane property and close the estate. The heirs had
split into two groups. One group, which the hearing judge
referred to as the "Bowman Camp, " included Carolyn
Bowman, Kenneth J. Chambers (who both lived in Michigan), and
David Lee Chambers (who lived in Virginia). The Bowman Camp
wanted to sell the property and split the proceeds of the
property among all five children.
other group, referred to as the "Nicodemus Camp, "
included Mary Nicodemus and Thomas Chambers, who lived in
Prince George's County and Charles County, respectively.
The Nicodemus Camp contended that the Webster Lane property
should be conveyed to Mary Nicodemus and Thomas Chambers
because members of the Bowman Camp had already received the
benefit of Mr. Chambers' brokerage accounts by operation
of law outside of the estate.
the years after Mr. Chambers' death, the Nicodemus Camp
made various efforts to procure the Webster Lane property,
including suing the estate to force conveyance of the
property, requesting dismissal of personal representatives,
and objecting to accountings. Those efforts made it difficult
for any of the personal representatives to resolve the
Woolery's Effort to Sell the Webster Lane Property
became personal representative for the estate the second time
in March 2010, Mr. Woolery intended to sell the Webster Lane
property. He encountered several problems in this effort. In
addition to the family discord over whether to sell the
property at all, the estate had no other assets to finance
the expense of preparing and advertising the property for
sale. Mr. Woolery's effort to obtain a bank loan was
rejected and he was unwilling to advance money to the estate
himself. Thus, for any professional services
related to the property, Mr. Woolery would have to hire those
professionals on a contingency basis. Moreover, by the time
Mr. Woolery became personal representative for the estate the
second time, Thomas Chambers had begun renting one or more of
the buildings on the property to various tenants. While
Thomas Chambers and the tenants thus helped maintain the
property, their presence became an obstacle to Mr.
Woolery's effort to dispose of it.
Mr. Woolery pursued the possibility of subdividing the
property but ultimately dropped that idea. In September 2011,
he obtained permission from the Orphans' Court to sell
the Webster Lane property "as is" with a 10%
commission. Over the next two and a half years, Mr. Woolery
made a few visits to the property and entered into
discussions with a realtor. At the hearing of this case, Mr.
Woolery testified that, in light of the ongoing dispute among
Mr. Chambers' adult children concerning disposition of
the property, he had decided to "lay low in the
grass." As the hearing judge noted, Mr. Woolery adopted
a "go slow, stealth-like, indirect, and
non-confrontational approach." Mr. Woolery felt that
this approach was best, having developed some concern, based
on statements of David Chambers and Carolyn Bowman, that
Thomas Chambers might resort to violence, and therefore
wished to avoid contact with Thomas Chambers.
Woolery Visits the Property in April 2014 to Take
April 2014, Mr. Woolery decided to proceed with selling the
Webster Lane property. The property had remained under the
control of Thomas Chambers. A tenant named Earlmont Bell was
then living in the garage apartment on the property. On April
25, 2014, Mr. Woolery visited the Webster Lane property to
secure possession of the property by changing the locks and
posting "no trespassing" signs. He spoke with Mr.
Bell that day and agreed to let him remain on the property
for three months while a sale was accomplished.
Woolery had invited a locksmith to the property that day to
change the locks. He also hoped to sell surveying equipment
that had belonged to the decedent and that he believed might
still be on the property. To that end, Mr. Woolery had
invited an acquaintance, Andrew Duley, a surveyor who Mr.
Woolery thought might be interested in purchasing that
equipment. Mr. Duley invited another surveyor, Stephen
Wilson, to accompany him. Mr. Woolery met Mr. Wilson for the
first time that day.
Woolery Discovers and Sells a Tractor and Backhoe for
at the Webster Lane property that day, Mr. Woolery found a
Kubota tractor with an attached backhoe stored inside the
large shed. Mr. Woolery had not seen the tractor and backhoe
on the property before and did not know who owned it or how
much it was worth. He asked Mr. Duley and Mr. Wilson if they
were interested in purchasing the tractor and backhoe. Mr.
Duley was not interested, but Mr. Wilson was. Mr. Woolery
sold the tractor and backhoe to Mr. Wilson for $500 cash; Mr.
Wilson arranged for a tow truck to remove it from the
property. Mr. Woolery did not create any
documentation of the sale. Asked at the hearing why he had
sold the tractor and backhoe in that manner, Mr. Woolery
testified: "There [was] no real thought process at all.
It [was] an automatic now let's get rid of that
thing." After selling the ...