Argued: January 8, 2018
Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County Case No. C-02-CV-17-564
Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten,
about November 18, 2016, the Attorney Grievance Commission of
Maryland ("Petitioner"), directed that charges be
filed against Anna G. Aita ("Respondent"). On
February 16, 2017, Petitioner, acting through Bar Counsel,
filed in this Court a Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial
Action ("Petition") against Respondent. The
misconduct stemmed from Respondent's representation of
two former clients in immigration matters. Specifically,
Petitioner alleged that Respondent failed to represent these
clients competently and diligently, failed to communicate
with them regarding the status of their cases, failed to
appear in court on their behalf, failed to safeguard their
funds, charged the clients an unreasonable fee, failed to
refund unused immigration filing fees to the client,
misrepresented material facts to an immigration judge, failed
to ascertain the status of the clients' cases, and failed
to advise the clients of the status of their cases. Based on
the misconduct, Petitioner alleged violations of Maryland
Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct
("MLRPC") 1.1 (Competence), 1.3 (Diligence), 1.4
(Communication), 1.5 (Fees), 1.15 (Safekeeping property),
1.16(d) (Declining or Terminating Representation), 3.3(a)(1)
(Candor Towards the Tribunal), and 8.4(a), (c), and (d)
(Misconduct). Petitioner further averred violations of former
Maryland Rules 16-604 (Trust Account-Required Deposits) and
16-606.1 (Attorney Trust Account Record-Keeping).
February 27, 2017, this Court transferred the matter to Judge
Glenn L. Klavans ("the hearing judge"), of the
Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, to conduct an
evidentiary hearing ("the hearing"). The Clerk of
the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County issued a summons on
February 28, 2017. The Petition and summons were served on
Respondent on April 3, 2017. After receiving an extension of
time, an Answer was filed on May 3, 2017. Petitioner and
Respondent met with the hearing judge for a scheduling
conference on April 21, 2017. Petitioner filed an Amended
Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action on May 18, 2017.
Respondent filed a timely Answer on June 2, 2017. An
evidentiary hearing took place, from July 24, 2017, through
July 27, 2017. At the conclusion of the hearing, the hearing
judge directed the parties to file Proposed Findings of Fact
and Conclusions of Law by August 21, 2017.
HEARING JUDGE'S FINDINGS OF FACT
summarize the hearing judge's findings of fact.
Respondent was admitted to the Maryland Bar on June 19, 2002.
She began a solo law practice in May of 2003, and described
her areas of concentration as immigration, criminal, traffic,
family, and civil litigation. She speaks, reads, and writes
in both English and Spanish. Although Respondent resides in
Easton, Maryland, she maintains her office for the practice
of law in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Respondent testified that
she has experienced recurrent health problems, including
problems with sciatica on both sides, and bulging discs in
her back. She also testified that she had vertigo in 2013 and
micro colitis, which is similar to irritable bowel syndrome.
Respondent did not present any evidence confirming the
aforementioned diagnoses or treatment. The misconduct related
to this investigation by Bar Counsel involves
Respondent's representation of two clients, Isaac
Escalante and Ingris Ardon.
of Isaac Escalante
Escalante ("Escalante") is a native of Guatemala
who entered the United States in February of 2002. He resides
with his partner, Francisca Calmo Ramos ("Calmo
Ramos"), in Sudlersville, Maryland. They have five
children together who are all United States citizens.
Escalante does not speak or read English fluently. In March
of 2012, Escalante was arrested for traffic violations in
Queen Anne's County, Maryland, and was taken into custody
by the Department of Homeland Security ("DHS"),
Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Thereafter, Escalante
was placed in removal proceedings.
April of 2012, Calmo Ramos retained Respondent to represent
Escalante in his criminal and immigration matters. A retainer
agreement was provided to Escalante in both English and
Spanish. The total fee for representation in both cases was
$2, 500. Escalante paid Respondent $2, 500 in increments. The
funds were not held in an attorney trust account, and had not
been previously earned at the times of payment. Escalante did
not provide his informed consent, in writing, agreeing to the
deposit of his advance fee payments in a non-trust account.
Respondent contended that the payments were not placed in an
attorney trust account because they were received too close
in time to when they were earned, or alternatively, that such
incremental payments had been earned. However, Respondent
produced no account records, timesheets, or other evidence to
substantiate these claims. Escalante was satisfied with the
services that Respondent rendered regarding his traffic case.
Escalante's immigration case, Respondent filed an
Application for Cancellation of Removal with the immigration
court. Sometime in 2012, during Escalante's detention,
Respondent came to his house to sort through the family's
personal documents with Calmo Ramos, to ascertain which
documents would be helpful in supporting Escalante's
application for Cancellation of Removal. Respondent made
copies of the family's original documents, but never
returned the originals. Respondent also did not file any of
the documentation she collected from Calmo Ramos. During the
hearing, Respondent testified that these documents were not
helpful to Escalante's case, but also denied ever
receiving the supporting documentation.
Master Calendar hearing was scheduled in Escalante's case
for November 26, 2013 at 1:00 p.m. at the immigration court
in Baltimore, Maryland. At 1:05 p.m. that day, Respondent
sent Escalante a text message indicating that her partner
attorney, Charles Yates ("Yates"), would be
substituting for her in immigration court. In actuality,
Yates was not Respondent's partner, but rather an
independent attorney acting as a substitute.
replied to Respondent by text message, "[w]hen is my
court?" At 2:10 p.m., Respondent replied, "[t]oday
1:00 p[.]m." Escalante replied, "I didn't
know." At the time that he received Respondent's
text message at 2:10 pm, Escalante was working on the Eastern
Shore of Maryland. Yates appeared at the immigration court on
Respondent's behalf, but Escalante did not appear. Yates
contacted Respondent to alert her that Escalante had failed
to appear, but received no response. The immigration judge
ordered Escalante removed from the United States of America
in absentia. Escalante contacted Respondent on the
afternoon of November 26, 2013, through a text message saying
"I am Isaac, please answer me. I need to speak with
you." Respondent never replied. Escalante sent another
text message on November 27, 2013, inquiring about the status
of his case. Again, Respondent did not reply.
initially testified that she had a telephone conversation
with Escalante on the morning of November 26, 2013, and
advised him of the hearing and Yates' representation.
Later, Respondent changed her testimony and asserted that she
left Escalante a telephone message. Additionally, Respondent
testified that she failed to appear on behalf of Escalante in
immigration court because her cat died.
presented a copy of a letter in English from her client file,
addressed to Escalante, dated October 19, 2013. The letter
reflects that a Master Calendar hearing is scheduled for
November 26, 2013, at 1:00 pm. The letter also states
"[i]f you do not understand this document, I further
note that it is your responsibility to have it
translated." No proof was offered that the letter was
mailed. Escalante never received it.
January 20, 2014, Escalante again attempted to contact
Respondent by text and asked if he could reopen his
immigration case. Respondent replied, "[y]ou can. I am
going to need 295 dollars." On February 18, 2014,
Respondent filed a Motion to Reopen Escalante's case.
Escalante paid the $110 filing fee for the motion. Respondent
deposited Escalante's fees into her firm's operating
account. In the Motion to Reopen, Respondent falsely
represented to the immigration court that Escalante failed to
appear for his hearing on November 26, 2013, because
Escalante's "car broke down while he was over one
hour away in an area with no taxi service and no public
transportation. He was unable to find someone to bring him to
court on the day of his [M]aster [C]alendar hearing."
February 19, 2014, the immigration judge granted the Motion
to Reopen and set another hearing for March 11, 2014.
Respondent never informed Escalante that his case was
reopened and scheduled for another hearing. On March 11,
2014, both Escalante and Respondent failed to appear, and
Escalante was ordered removed in absentia for a
2015, Escalante was arrested by DHS, taken into custody, and
denied bond because of the final order of removal. After
learning of Escalante's arrest, Calmo Ramos telephoned
Respondent. Calmo Ramos paid Respondent $200 to file a second
Motion to Reopen on Escalante's behalf. Respondent did
not file the Motion to Reopen and later sent Calmo Ramos a
money order for $295, representing the motion filing fees,
the Cancellation of Removal application fee, and a DHS
biometrics fee. Escalante filed a complaint with the Attorney
Grievance Commission in July of 2015. Escalante first learned
that he was ordered removed in absentia after he
filed a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission.
subsequently retained Rene Swafford ("Swafford"),
Esquire. Swafford tried several times to contact Respondent
by telephone, and left two messages for her, but Respondent
never returned the calls. In September of 2015, Swafford
requested a copy of Escalante's client file from
Respondent, but received no response. Respondent contended
that she did not provide Escalante's file because
Swafford did not present a release signed by Escalante,
granting permission. In December of 2015, Bar Counsel
requested that Respondent provide Escalante's file to
Swafford. In January of 2016, Respondent complied.
of Ingris Ardon
Ardon ("Ardon") is a native of Guatemala, who does
not speak or read English fluently. She resides in
Reisterstown, Maryland with her three children, who are all
United States citizens. In July 2013, Ardon retained
Respondent to represent her at her individual calendar
hearing on October 29, 2013. Pursuant to the
retainer agreement, which was in both English and Spanish,
Respondent charged Ardon a flat fee of $3, 000 for the
representation, with $1, 000 due at signing, and the balance
due over a period of four months in installments of $500
each. Ardon paid Respondent a total of $2, 500 in increments.
The funds were not deposited into a trust account, and were
not previously earned at the times of payment.
also paid Respondent $185 on September 14, 2013, to be used
for the filing fee for the Application for Suspension of
Deportation and biometric fee charged by DHS. Respondent did
not deposit this payment into a trust account. Ardon did not
provide her informed consent, in writing, agreeing to the
deposit of her advance fee payments and filing fee in a
non-trust account. Respondent claimed that such payments were
not deposited into a trust account because they were received
so close in time to when they were earned, or alternatively,
that because they were paid in increments, the incremental
payments had been earned. However, Respondent could produce
no evidence, account records or timesheets to substantiate
instructed Ardon to bring documents to her office to
demonstrate her eligibility for Suspension of Deportation.
Ardon provided Respondent with 585 pages of documents.
Respondent also instructed Ardon to write out a personal
history. Ardon did not understand what she was supposed to
compose and sought clarification. Respondent replied that
Ardon should seek assistance from her children and canceled
several of their appointments. Respondent never filed any
applications, pleadings, or supporting documentation on
Ardon's behalf. According to Respondent, she was not
provided sufficient proof of continuous physical presence, or
proof of hardship to Ardon's children, should Ardon be
deported to Guatemala.
October 2013, Respondent reminded Ardon that a $500 payment
was due on October 20, 2013. On October 19, 2013, Respondent
granted Ardon an extension. On October 21, 2013, Ardon texted
Respondent that, "I sent the check by mail. I hope
it's not lost and you receive it." Ardon followed up
by text on October 24, 2013 by asking, "[t]ell me did
you get the check, " and Respondent replied,
"[y]es." However, Respondent later sent
correspondence to Ardon claiming that she never received the
$500 payment in October of 2013. No proof was presented
regarding receipt of the check, or process by any bank. Ardon
was supposed to be fingerprinted by DHS as a requirement for
her Application for Suspension of Deportation. Respondent
advised Ardon on the procedure for fingerprinting via text
message. After going to several administrative offices within
DHS to secure documents for fingerprinting, Ardon was unable
to do so.
October 29, 2013, Ardon and her three children appeared in
immigration court for the scheduled individual hearing.
Respondent sent Ardon a text message just prior to the
scheduled hearing that she would not be coming to court with
her because Respondent's family member had an emergency.
However, Respondent testified that her cat sustained a fatal
blood clot. Respondent informed Ardon that a substitute
attorney, Yates, would appear on her behalf and seek a
continuance. Ardon had never met Yates previously. When Yates
arrived, he told Ardon and her family "I know nothing
about your case." It appeared that the hearing had been
rescheduled due to a government shutdown. However, Respondent
was unaware of the rescheduling, and made no effort to
ascertain its status.
December 18, 2013, Respondent sent Ardon a letter releasing
her as a client because of Ardon's failure to make the
October and November 2013 payments pursuant to the retainer
agreement. The letter also indicates that Respondent was
going to withdraw from Ardon's case, but Respondent never
entered her appearance with the court. On December 20, 2013,
Respondent sent Ardon a letter informing her that Respondent
would apply the $185 filing fee towards Ardon's balance.
Ardon requested a refund of all of her money, but Respondent
failed to refund funds specifically paid to her in trust for
the payment of filing fees.
called John F. Gossart, Jr. ("Judge Gossart"), a
retired federal immigration Judge, as an expert in
immigration law and immigration court procedure. Judge
Gossart testified that Respondent's representation of
Escalante and Ardon was incompetent. Judge Gossart opined
that an Application for Cancellation of Removal is a
discretionary one, and while Escalante met the basic
requirements under the law, he would need supporting
evidentiary documents to demonstrate that removal to
Guatemala would result in extreme and unusual hardship to his
five children. According to Judge Gossart, the application
Respondent filed was bare bones, illegible in parts, and
lacked supporting evidence. The hearing judge did not accept
Judge Gossart's opinions regarding the merits of
Escalante's case, but conceded that the documents
Respondent did not file were relevant.
was conflicting evidence in Ardon's case regarding her
eligibility for relief, because Ardon could not demonstrate
seven years of continuous physical presence in this country.
Judge Gossart testified that Ardon had provided Respondent
with evidence to support an application for Suspension of
Deportation. Ardon provided Respondent with bank statements,
pay stubs, tax returns, personal references, and her
children's school records, among other things, which
would have been relevant evidence for such an application.
Judge Gossart opined that Respondent's failure to file
anything with the immigration court, including a Motion to
Continue, an Entry of Appearance, or any supplemental
evidence to go forward on Ardon's Application for
Suspension of Deportation, reflected incompetence. In
Ardon's case, the immigration court would not have been
able to notify Respondent that the hearing was going to be
postponed because Respondent had not filed an Entry of
called Ronald Richey ("Richey"), Esquire, to
testify on her behalf as an expert in immigration law and
immigration court procedure. Richey opined that
Respondent's representation of Escalante and Ardon was
competent and diligent, but he also provided conflicting
testimony. Regarding Escalante, Richey said that he would
have filed more supporting documents, not sent a
Spanish-speaking client a letter in English, and that an
attorney should file a Motion to Reopen a case for a detained
client, not ignore the matter. Further, Richey asserted that
an attorney could call the immigration court, visit the
court, or call a toll free telephone number to inquire about
the status of a matter.
representation of Ardon, Richey explained that it was not a
violation of a standard of care to request a continuance when
a client has not provided all the necessary evidence to
support her case. However, Richey determined that the
evidence Ardon provided to Respondent was relevant.
explanation as to why she did not place client funds in a
trust account was because she "earned the fees fairly
quickly, " and that there were occasions when she could
not deposit money in the bank for ten or fifteen days. She
testified that she wished she had discontinued Ardon's
representation sooner. The hearing judge noted a lack of
remorse, and that Respondent was protecting her own
self-interest. On cross-examination, Respondent admitted that
she has been practicing immigration law for fourteen years.
She was familiar with a toll-free telephone system to check
on matters, but could not explain why she did not follow up
on Escalante's case. When confronted with her failure to
inform Escalante of his hearing dates, she blamed him for not
returning her calls. Regarding Escalante's new
counsel's request for his file, Respondent initially
denied receiving the calls, but then blamed Swafford for not
stating the reason for her call. Regarding the $500 payment
sent by Ardon in October 2013 that Respondent later denied
receiving in a letter, Respondent explained that she did not
return Ardon's fees because she felt Ardon still owed her
friends, colleagues, and associates of Respondent testified
on her behalf that she was honest and a good lawyer. None of
those witnesses were knowledgeable on the subject of
immigration law or Respondent's reputation within the
immigration law community, except Yates.
HEARING JUDGE'S CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
on the aforementioned findings of fact, the hearing judge
concluded that the evidence concerning Respondent's
representation of Escalante and Ardon established violations
of MLRPC 1.1 (Competence), 1.3 (Diligence), 1.4(a) and (b)
(Communication), 1.5 (Fees), 1.15(a), (c), and (d)
(Safekeeping Property), 1.16(d) (Declining or Terminating
Representation), 3.3(a)(1) (Candor Towards the Tribunal), and
8.4(a) and (c) (Misconduct). The hearing judge additionally
found violations of former Maryland Rules 16-604 and
16-606.1. The following are summaries of the relevant MLRPC
and the hearing judge's reasoning for concluding
Respondent violated each part:
A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client.
Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill,
thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the
violated Rule 1.1 in Ardon's matter by failing to pursue
any relief before the immigration court, all while allowing
the client to rely on Respondent's representations that
she would do so. In both Escalante's and Ardon's
matters, Respondent violated Rule 1.1 by sending Yates, a
substitute attorney with no knowledge of the matters and no
relationship with the clients, on her behalf.
lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in
representing a client.
violated Rule 1.3 in Escalante's case because she failed
to ensure that he was aware of his November 26, 2013, hearing
or to file any of his supporting evidence with the court.
Respondent further lacked diligence because she failed to
file an Entry of Appearance, supporting documentation,
witness list, or a Motion to Continue on Ardon's behalf.
(a) A lawyer shall:
(1) promptly inform the client of any decision or
circumstance with respect to which the client's informed
consent, as defined in Rule l.0(f), is required by these
(2) keep the client reasonably informed about the status of
(3) promptly comply with reasonable requests for information;
(4) consult with the client about any relevant limitation on
the lawyer's conduct when the lawyer knows that the
client expects assistance not permitted by the Maryland
Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct or other law.
(b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably
necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions
regarding the representation.
Escalante's matter, Respondent violated Rule l.4(a) when
she failed to keep him reasonably informed about the status
of his case, most particularly, the scheduled hearing dates.
She failed to promptly comply with reasonable requests for
information from Escalante and his partner, Calmo Ramos.
Regarding Ardon, Respondent violated Rule 1.4(a) when she
failed to keep her reasonably informed regarding the status
of her case.
Escalante's case, Respondent purportedly sent him letters
in English, a language he cannot read or write.
Respondent's inclusion in the letter that "[i]f you
do not understand this document… it is your
responsibility to have it translated" makes clear that
Respondent violated Rule l.4(b) when she did not communicate
with the client in a manner that allows the client to make an
A lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect
an unreasonable fee or an unreasonable amount for expenses.
The factors to be considered in determining the