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Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Lang

Court of Appeals of Maryland

August 16, 2018

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND
v.
STEVEN ANTHONY LANG & OLAYEMI ISAAC FALUSI

          Argued: April 9, 2018

          Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No. CAE17-07945

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

          OPINION

          BARBERA, C. JUDGE

         On January 30, 2017, Petitioner, the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, acting through Bar Counsel, filed in this Court a Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action ("Petition") against Respondents Steven Anthony Lang and Olayemi Isaac Falusi. From November 2012 to February 2014, Mr. Lang and Mr. Falusi were partners in Lang & Falusi, LLP.

         As for Mr. Lang, the Petition alleged violations of the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct[1] ("MLRPC") 1.1 (Competence), 1.2 (Scope of Representation), 1.3 (Diligence), 1.4(a) and (b) (Communication), 1.5(a) (Fees), 1.15(a) and (c) (Safekeeping Property), 1.16(d) (Declining or Terminating Representation), 3.3 (Candor Toward the Tribunal), 5.5(a) (Unauthorized Practice of Law; Multijurisdictional Practice of Law), 7.1(a) (Communications Concerning a Lawyer's Services), 7.5(a) (Firm Names and Letterheads), 8.1(a) and (b) (Bar Admission and Disciplinary Matters), and 8.4(a), (c), and (d) (Misconduct). The Petition also alleged that Mr. Lang violated Maryland Rules 16-603 (Duty to maintain account), 16-604 (Trust account - Required deposits), and 16-606.1 (Attorney trust account record-keeping).[2]

         The Petition alleged that Mr. Falusi violated MLRPC 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4(a) and (b), 1.5(a), 1.15(a) and (c), 1.16(d), 3.3, 5.5(a) and (b), 7.1(a), 7.5(a), 8.1(a) and (b), and 8.4(a), (b), (c), and (d). As with Mr. Lang, the Petition also alleged violations of Maryland Rules 16-603, 16-604, and 16-606.1. Finally, the Petition alleged that Mr. Falusi violated Maryland Code Annotated, Business Occupations & Professions ("BOP") § 10-601 (Bar admission required to practice law in the State).

         These violations stemmed from Respondents' conduct as partners of Lang & Falusi, LLP; their representation of multiple clients; Mr. Falusi's application to the Bar of Maryland; and Bar Counsel's investigation of Respondents.

         This Court transmitted the matter to the Circuit Court for Prince George's County and designated the Honorable Robin D. Gill Bright ("the hearing judge") to conduct an evidentiary hearing and make findings of fact and conclusions of law. Respondents filed timely responses to the Petition, and an evidentiary hearing took place on November 6 and 8, 2017. At the hearing, the judge heard testimony from Respondents and four witnesses, one of whom testified by way of a video deposition.

         Upon considering the hearing judge's findings of fact and conclusions of law and independently reviewing the record, we adopt in large part the hearing judge's proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Based on the rule violations we have determined the Respondents committed, as well as aggravating and mitigating factors we have identified, we indefinitely suspend both Respondents.

         I. The Hearing Judge's Findings of Fact

         We summarize here the findings of fact made by the hearing judge, supported by clear and convincing evidence.

         Background

         Mr. Lang was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 2010 and the Maryland Bar in 2012. Mr. Falusi was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 2009 and, after applying in 2011, was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 2016. In November 2012, Mr. Falusi registered a limited liability partnership named "Lang & Falusi, LLP" ("the Firm") with the Maryland State Department of Assessments & Taxation ("SDAT"). The partnership was created to provide professional legal services. The Firm's principal office was listed as an address in Silver Spring, Maryland, but it operated out of an office in Lanham, Maryland. The two initially arranged to share office space and expenses but to maintain their own separate practices, with Mr. Lang practicing criminal law and Mr. Falusi practicing immigration law.

         From January 2013 to December 2013, Mr. Lang and Mr. Falusi occupied the Lanham office. The Firm's letterhead listed the Lanham address, a website, and phone and fax numbers. The letterhead also included a legend with two symbols-one was labeled "†† Barred in Maryland and Massachusetts" and the other "† Barred in Massachusetts"- but neither symbol appeared next to a name, and thus the symbols did not indicate to which attorney they applied. Respondents also maintained a website for the Firm, which advertised the Firm's attorneys and listed the services they offered. The website provided:

Attorney Falusi represents clients in various areas of law, and due to his unique background, his case dockets are overwhelmingly on immigration law and criminal defense. He has successfully handled countless family-based immigration visas, change of status, and adjustment of status. He also handles political asylum, employment based visas, as domestic/VAWA matters. Moreover, his experience as a criminal defense attorney and a former prosecutor has served many of his clients prudently. Mr. Falusi is a member of the Bar of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the United States District Court, First Circuit.

         A separate page on the Firm's website, "Areas of Practice," listed various areas in which the Firm's attorneys practiced, including "Product Liability/Warranties, Federal Criminal defense, Malpractice, Immigration, Bankruptcy, Criminal law, Business Law, Contract Law, [and] Family Law (Divorce, Custody, Asset Conservation, Support Modification)." The description, however, did not specify which attorney practiced in which areas. A layperson may have surmised that Mr. Falusi was a Maryland attorney who focused on immigration matters rather than an attorney whose practice was limited to immigration matters (as he was not yet admitted in Maryland).

         On February 4, 2014, Mr. Falusi filed a Withdrawal of Limited Liability Registration with SDAT, dissolving the Firm.

         Lang & Falusi, LLP's PNC Bank Operating Account

         Neither of the Respondents ever established an attorney trust account for the Firm. Instead, they used a bank account at PNC Bank (the "Operating Account"), which was established and managed by Mr. Falusi. Bank statements from that account and two transaction summaries prepared by Bar Counsel were admitted into evidence. Relevant here, those records showed various deposits from the Operating Account for legal services, which included several checks with no reference in the memo line and other checks for "legal work," "legal fee," and "attorney fees." In addition, a $4, 000.00 check made payable to Diane Holder and Lang & Falusi, LLP was deposited into the Operating Account for Mr. Falusi's representation of Ms. Holder in a Massachusetts personal injury case. A check for $2, 500.00 was disbursed from the Operating Account to Ms. Holder and referenced "case settlement" in the memo line. The hearing judge further found:

On November 18, 2013, Respondent Falusi deposited check #6619823 for Eight Thousand and 00/100 Dollars ($8, 000) from USAA Casualty Insurance Company, payable to Lang & Falusi, LLP and a third party, Olivia Lang. Respondent Lang handled a personal injury case for his daughter, Olivia [] Lang, and provided legal representation in connection with the settlement. Respondent Lang received check #147 for One Thousand and 00/100 Dollars ($1, 000) for "legal work done" on November 19, 2013. On November 21, 2013, check #146 for Six Thousand and 00/100 Dollars ($6, 000) was disbursed from the Operating Account to Olivia Lang.

         Representation of Abby Daramola

         In November 2010, Deeds Realty Services ("Deeds Realty") filed a complaint against Abby Daramola in the District Court of Maryland sitting in Baltimore City. Deeds Realty claimed that Ms. Daramola wrote a bad check, in the amount of $6, 000.00, due to insufficient funds. On March 4, 2011, Deeds Realty won an affidavit judgment against Ms. Daramola for $6, 035.00. When she failed to make a payment on the judgment, Deeds Realty asked the court to direct her to appear for an oral examination. The first oral examination was held in February 2012, but it was not completed and was rescheduled. Ms. Daramola failed to appear at the second oral examination, and the court issued an order to show cause. After Ms. Daramola did not appear at the hearing on the show cause order, the court issued a writ of body attachment.

         At the evidentiary hearing in this disciplinary proceeding, Mr. Falusi testified that one day, after a service at a church to which they both belonged, Ms. Daramola asked him to call Deeds Realty's attorney, Saul Jablon, to negotiate a payment plan. Mr. Falusi called Mr. Jablon and stated that he was representing Ms. Daramola. The two reached a settlement, and Ms. Daramola was to repay the amount in installments. On May 3, 2013, Mr. Jablon sent Mr. Falusi a letter with a copy of the judgment, which included post-judgment costs. Mr. Falusi drafted a settlement agreement for $7, 565.64, which stated that Ms. Daramola would pay $1, 000.00 upon executing the agreement and subsequent monthly installments of $500.00 towards the balance. The parties stipulated that Ms. Daramola would have a fifteen-day grace period on the monthly installments, and Deeds Realty would not make a report on Ms. Daramola's credit. After consulting with Mr. Falusi, Ms. Daramola signed the settlement agreement and gave it to Mr. Falusi. On or about May 10, 2013, Mr. Falusi sent a letter on the Firm's letterhead (which he signed "O. Isaac Falusi, Esq.") to Mr. Jablon requesting a signature on the settlement agreement. Enclosed was a check in the amount of $1, 000.00. The check, made out to the "Law Office of Saul Jablon for the Abby Daramola Case," was issued from the Operating Account.

         On May 13, 2013, Mr. Jablon asked the court to withdraw its finding of contempt and cancel the show cause hearing. Ms. Daramola subsequently defaulted on her payments. Mr. Jablon called Mr. Falusi to inform him of the default, and Mr. Falusi said he would contact Ms. Daramola and call him back. Mr. Falusi did not do so.

         Representation of Justina Ikpim

         In July 2009, Justina Ikpim made a loan to Williams Areloegbe. Thereafter, she contacted Mr. Falusi for legal advice as to whether she had a cognizable claim against Mr. Areleogbe. On March 15, 2013, a $135.00 check from Ms. Ikpim to Lang & Falusi, LLP was deposited into the Operating Account. On March 26, 2013, on behalf of Ms. Ikpim, Mr. Falusi filed in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County a Civil - Non-Domestic Case Information Report bearing his signature. He also filed a complaint bearing Mr. Lang's signature. The names of Respondents appeared below the signature line in the complaint, as did the name of the Firm and its Lanham address. Court records identified Respondents as the attorneys of record, but Mr. Falusi never attempted to appear pro hac vice. On March 27, 2013, payment in the amount of $143.55 was disbursed from the Operating Account to the Circuit Court for Prince George's County.

         Representation of Dennis Bean

         On May 30, 2013, in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, foreclosure action 377650V ("First Foreclosure Action") was initiated for a piece of property located on Brunswick Avenue in Silver Spring, Maryland ("Property"), and owned by Dennis Bean. Mr. Bean had defaulted on payments for a home equity line of credit, which was secured by a second mortgage on his home. In July 2013, Mr. Bean twice met with Respondents at their Lanham office to discuss Mr. Bean's foreclosure case. Among other things, Mr. Bean provided them with information concerning the trustee for the first of his three mortgages, Samuel I. White, P.C., a Virginia law firm. He also informed Respondents that his first mortgage was approximately $170, 000.00.

         On July 9, 2013, Mr. Bean retained Lang & Falusi, LLP by way of a Flat Fee Agreement ("Agreement"). The Agreement was drafted by Mr. Falusi and printed on Firm letterhead, and it provided that Mr. Bean would pay a flat fee of $3, 500.00. The Agreement listed Mr. Bean as "Client" and "Lang & Falusi, LLP, the firm and its members and Associates, etc." as "Attorneys." The Agreement contained the following clause:

If the fee stated above is based on fixed fee, and a retainer is advanced, and payments are made in installment by the Client by initialing heretofore Client consents that any advances and/or payments foretasted is the property of the Attorneys and can be held elsewhere other than a trust account, and used in furtherance of the representation, and upon early termination but without a conclusion of the object of the representation, any unearned fees will be returned after a full accounting by the Attorneys.

Mr. Bean initialed on the line following this notice and signed at the end of the Agreement, but neither Respondent clarified or explained the risks involved. Mr. Falusi signed on a line marked "Witness," which listed Respondents' names below. Mr. Lang did not sign the Agreement. Mr. Bean's check for $3, 500.00, payable to Lang & Falusi, LLP, was deposited into the Operating Account on July 15, 2013.

         Mr. Bean exchanged many emails with Respondents throughout the course of the representation. On July 9, 2013, Mr. Bean emailed Mr. Falusi[3] documents related to the Property and home equity line of credit. Mr. Falusi responded on July 12, 2013, and confirmed that he had received the email. On July 16, 2013, when he had not received an answer on his motion to postpone the First Foreclosure Action, Mr. Bean emailed Mr. Falusi[4] and asked how long it typically takes to receive a response. On July 17, 2013, Mr. Falusi replied that he would "check with the court tomorrow," but that between fifteen and thirty days was normal. The next day, on July 18, Mr. Falusi relayed to Mr. Bean that he had spoken with the clerk's office about the motion, which had not yet been ruled on.

         Mr. Lang entered an appearance on July 23, 2013, in the First Foreclosure Action. As to the second mortgage, the plaintiffs/trustees were represented by Kristine D. Brown. On July 26, 2013, Mr. Lang filed a motion for a preliminary injunction. The motion alleged that the plaintiff's filing of the First Foreclosure Action was deficient in a number of respects. Based on those deficiencies, the motion stated, "Defendant seeks to file a lawsuit against the Trustee for breach of her fiduciary duty." The plaintiff opposed the motion. On July 25, 2013, the court dismissed the First Foreclosure Action without prejudice.[5]

         On September 3, 2013, prompted by a letter he received showing that his first mortgage had been assigned to Green Tree Servicing, Mr. Bean emailed Respondents. Mr. Lang replied, detailing a strategy of filing a lawsuit to void the Deed of Trust.[6] Mr. Bean again emailed Respondents on September 20, 2013, to voice his concern about the case. Mr. Falusi reassured Mr. Bean that he would respond within the time period allowed, writing that "[t]he firm gives a 30 day period to respond and we shall do so before the 30 days is over." On September 24, 2013, Mr. Falusi sent a letter on Firm letterhead to Samuel I. White, P.C. regarding Mr. Bean's first mortgage. Mr. Falusi noted that the Firm had been retained to represent Mr. Bean in the matter, stated Mr. Bean's dispute of the $172, 350.85 debt, and requested further information about the original creditor (which was to be sent to the Lanham address on the letterhead). Mr. Falusi signed the letter above a typed signature line reading "O. Isaac Falusi, Esquire"; he did not mention that he was not barred in Maryland or that only Mr. Lang was representing Mr. Bean.

         On September 26, 2013, Mr. Bean emailed Respondents to ask about the course of the representation. Mr. Falusi replied, "We have sent out correspondence to them, . . . however we can proceed with what you forwarded to us. Yes we are pursuing all options available to us." Subsequently, on October 24, 2013, Mr. Lang informed Mr. Bean that he was "now ready to move forward with your case" and that he "will be working on it today." He also described "our plan to file a petition for a declaratory judgment voiding your deed of trust" and objecting to "any foreclosure action [that] has taken place."

         On December 27, 2013, another foreclosure action, case number 385388V, relating to Mr. Bean's second mortgage, was docketed in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County ("Second Foreclosure Action"). On January 14, 2014, Mr. Lang filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which was nearly identical to the one filed in the First Foreclosure Action. As in the First Foreclosure Action, the plaintiffs/trustees were represented by Kristine D. Brown.

         On February 5, 2014, Mr. Bean emailed Mr. Falusi to ask him if he had been receiving his emails because nobody had responded. Mr. Bean stated: "If you are not going to help just let me know so I move forward [sic] and figure out my next step." Mr. Falusi replied on February 6, 2014, though from a different email address, and stated that he had received Mr. Bean's emails. Mr. Falusi explained:

[W]e were working on merger and the merger is now in full force as you can tell from the name and address in the signature area. Steve is not on board on the merged entity but he and I are still working on your case and we will work on it until the final outcome. . . . We are gearing up for the next filing and keep the emails coming.

         In addition to Mr. Falusi's name, "O. Isaac Falusi, Esquire," his signature block contained the name of a new law firm, "Thoronka, Taiwo, Thoronka & Falusi, PC," with an address in Silver Spring, Maryland.

         The court denied Mr. Lang's motion for a preliminary injunction in the Second Foreclosure Action that same day, February 6, 2014, and set a hearing for February 27, 2014. Having learned that the court denied the motion, Mr. Bean sent another email to Mr. Falusi and asked about the plan going forward. He also expressed concern about the Respondents having separated and the Firm being dissolved. The next day, on February 7, 2014, Mr. Falusi replied, telling him that "we are still working together on your case and many other cases we have together." Mr. Falusi also explained that he and Mr. Lang were parting ways because of their different goals.

         On February 18, 2014, Mr. Falusi told Mr. Bean that he was working on a complaint[7] and hoped to file it in District Court later that day. On February 24, 2014, in response to Mr. Bean's inquiry about whether the complaint had been filed, Mr. Falusi confirmed that it had. Also on February 24, 2014, three days before the hearing in the Second Foreclosure Action, Mr. Lang informed Mr. Bean that he would not be present, but that he would file a motion to postpone the case. The next day, Mr. Bean asked what would happen if the court denied the motion and nobody appeared at the hearing. Mr. Falusi then provided Mr. Bean with the case number for the new case, but neither he nor Mr. Lang responded to Mr. Bean's question.

         Mr. Lang filed a request for an extension two days before the hearing in the Second Foreclosure Action. Mr. Lang claimed, without any supporting documentation, that he would be unable to appear because he was in Chicago, Illinois working on a different case. Mr. Lang's motion did not state the opposing party's position on the request. On February 27, 2014, the court had not ruled on the motion, and the hearing proceeded without Mr. Lang. The court granted the trustee's motion for leave to proceed with the foreclosure. Mr. Bean contacted Mr. Falusi on March 5, 2014, stating that he looked up his case and saw what had happened at the hearing. Mr. Falusi answered the next day, remarking that the decision did "not bode well" for them, but he reassured Mr. Bean that if they "win the fight on the new matter-voiding the title, then it would void everything they are doing. We are also looking into filing a motion to vacate this recent judge's order."

         Pursuant to that strategy, on February 19, 2014, Respondents had filed a new action for declaratory judgment against Kristine D. Brown in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, case number 387359V, on Mr. Bean's behalf. The lawsuit sought to void the Deed of Trust related to the second mortgage. On April 25, 2014, while the declaratory judgment action was ongoing, Samuel I. White, P.C. filed in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County a new, separate action concerning Mr. Bean's first mortgage, case number 390048V.

         On July 23, 2014, Mr. Bean requested from Mr. Lang copies of all documents and filings in his case. On August 22, 2014, Mr. Bean emailed Mr. Falusi and noted his concern that nothing had been filed in his case and that a sale of the Property was scheduled for September 6, 2014. On August 29, 2014, Mr. Bean again emailed Mr. Falusi, but this time he expressed his frustration with Respondents' lack of communication and involvement in the case. Mr. Bean advised that if Respondents failed to assist him, he would be forced to obtain new counsel, and he again requested copies of his entire client file. Respondents did not provide Mr. Bean with a copy of his client file until on or about November 12, 2014.

         On August 30, 2014, Mr. Lang emailed Mr. Bean. In the email, Mr. Lang stated that he neither participated in the case involving Mr. Bean's first mortgage nor appeared in the pending action concerning Mr. Bean's first mortgage. On September 8, 2014, Mr. Lang moved to withdraw as counsel in the Second Foreclosure Action. On September 11, 2014, the court notified Mr. Lang that he had not properly withdrawn under Maryland Rule 2-132(b). On September 29, 2014, Mr. Lang filed a Certification of Notice, which was dated August 26, 2014, and a Disengagement Letter, which was dated September 24, 2014. As to the Certification of Notice, Mr. Lang conceded that he wrote it after he received notice from the court. Mr. Bean was not sent a copy of the Certification of Notice; he discovered it in his client file later that year.

         The defendant in the action for declaratory judgment filed a motion to dismiss on September 19, 2014. Mr. Lang did not file an opposition on Mr. Bean's behalf. On October 7, 2014, the court granted Mr. Lang's motion to withdraw as Mr. Bean's counsel. On November 6, 2014, Mr. Bean wrote a letter to the court. He stated that he had not received a copy of the files in his case and that without them, it would be difficult to proceed. On November 10, 2014, the declaratory judgment action was dismissed with prejudice. On or about November 12, 2014, Respondents provided Mr. Bean with his client file. Mr. Bean did not receive an accounting of work the Firm had done, nor was he refunded any portion of the $3, 500.00 flat fee.

         Deposits and Disbursements for Immigration Matters

         Mr. Falusi also handled several immigration matters that involved disbursements from and deposits into the Operating Account. Between May 2013 and October 2013, five deposits were made: two made no reference in the memo line, while the other three were for "legal fees," "services," and "immigration work." Three disbursements on behalf of four of Mr. Falusi's immigration clients, in the amounts of $1, 490.00, $590.00, and $680.00, were made from the Operating Account to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

         Other Disbursements and Deposits

         Beginning in February 2013 and continuing until December 2013, checks for $550.00 each month, payable to the Annapolis Road Professional Building for rental space, were disbursed from the Operating Account. On September 10, 2013, a check from the Annapolis Road Professional Building for $1, 250.00 was deposited into the Operating Account. In addition, on January 20, 2014, a $3, 000.00 check was disbursed from the Operating Account, payable to Guardian Building Associates, for a security deposit and rent for an address in Silver Spring, Maryland.

         Various other disbursements from the Operating Account were made between January 2013 and February 2014. Disbursements were made, for example, to Victoria's Secret, Giant Food, Ticketmaster, Enterprise Rental Car, Nordstrom's, and Banana Republic. Unknown ATM withdrawals were also made from the Operating Account. Other debits from the Operating Account included payments to the Clerk of the Court for Prince George's County, Montgomery County Government, SDAT, FedEx, USPS, Sprint, and others.

         As for deposits, on April 16, 2013, $8, 000.00 in cash was deposited into the Operating Account, though other information concerning this deposit is unknown. On April 19, 2013, a cash withdrawal of $7, 979.82 was made from the Operating Account, ostensibly for Mr. Falusi's child support payments in the District of Columbia. Several other deposits and disbursements were for attorney-related activity, including payments of settlement money to clients and debits for attorney-related matters. The Operating Account's activity also included charges of a personal nature.

         Bar Counsel's Investigation of Mr. Lang

         Bar Counsel opened an investigation into Mr. Lang based on his handling of client matters. Bar Counsel sent a letter to Mr. Lang on December 15, 2014, requesting a response to a complaint filed by Mr. Bean. Mr. Lang did not respond. Bar Counsel sent another letter on January 26, 2015. Mr. Lang replied on February 13, 2015, that he assisted Mr. Bean with his defense in a foreclosure action. Mr. Lang also stated that the declaratory judgment action was not part of the representation agreement, but that he "did it for free" to assist Mr. Bean.

         In response, on April 22, 2015, Bar Counsel requested a complete copy of Mr. Bean's client file, including "trust account records to demonstrate the legal fees paid by Mr. Bean were maintained in trust from the date they were received until they were fully earned." Mr. Lang asserted that he did not have Mr. Bean's client file, he had never handled any money, and Mr. Bean never gave him any money. Bar Counsel also inquired as to why Mr. Lang had failed to maintain an attorney trust account. On July 29, 2015, Mr. Lang answered that he received a waiver from the IOLTA program and, thus, former Maryland Rule 16-606.1(d) did not apply to him. Mr. Lang further claimed that the Firm's monthly balance in the Operating Account was roughly $2, 500.00, and that client funds were not enough to generate interest.

         Subsequently, on September 5, 2015, Mr. Lang sent a letter to Bar Counsel with a further explanation of what had happened with Mr. Bean's money. Mr. Lang stated that Mr. Bean gave a check to his "assistant," which was paid through his office, and that he did not personally receive the money. He also advised that the Operating Account was located at PNC Bank, but he could not access the account, did not know the account number, and could not produce any bank records.

         Bar Counsel's Investigation of Mr. Falusi

         Mr. Falusi was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 2009. On May 18, 2011, Mr. Falusi submitted an Application for Admission to the Bar of Maryland to the State Board of Law Examiners ("Board"). In July 2011, he sat for the Maryland Bar Examination, which he passed. His admission to the Maryland Bar was delayed, however, because the member with whom he initially interviewed recommended to the Character Committee that a hearing be held. On February 27, 2012, the Co-Chair of the Character Committee for the Fourth Appellate Circuit, William C. Brennan, Jr., Esq., wrote to Mr. Falusi, informing him that the Committee intended to conduct a hearing pursuant to Rule 5 of the Rules Governing Admission to the Bar. The Committee, Mr. Brennan wrote, would be assessing whether Mr. Falusi possessed the requisite moral character to practice law. The hearing was held on May 24, 2012. At the hearing, Mr. Falusi, who was not represented by counsel, was confronted with the issues with which the Committee was concerned, which included Mr. Falusi's 1997 criminal conviction in the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City for uttering a false document and various credit and financial issues. The three-member panel of the Committee, chaired by Mr. Brennan, gave Mr. Falusi more time to resolve those issues.

         Thereafter, Mr. Falusi retained John O. Iweanoge, II, Esq., to represent him in the matter of his application for admission to the Maryland Bar. On December 6, 2012, Mr. Iweanoge sent a letter to Mr. Brennan informing him of the representation. Then, on April 30, 2013, Mr. Iweanoge sent the Character Committee eight exhibits to supplement Mr. Falusi's application to the Bar. The eighth and final exhibit was a copy of Mr. Falusi's resume. The resume listed Mr. Falusi's most recent legal employment as a Contract Attorney for "Buckley Sanders, LLP" from "February 2011" to "Present." He described his work there as "[e]lectronic discovery and review of loan documents for purpose of regulatory compliance." Mr. Falusi failed to list on his resume his partnership at Lang & Falusi, LLP, which, at the time he submitted the resume, was an active law practice with an office in Lanham, Maryland.

         In February 2015, after the Firm was dissolved, Mr. Falusi sent additional financial documentation to the Character Committee. Mr. Falusi was unassisted by counsel at that time. On June 9, 2015, the three-member panel of the Character Committee found, in a written report and by a 2-1 vote, "that the Applicant has met his burden to demonstrate that he presently possesses the requisite moral character for admission to the Maryland Bar." The Committee noted that Mr. Falusi "seems to have been careless in disclosing his background information to the MA and MD bars but not to the point where the Committee feels he was intentionally hiding information." The dissenting panel member, though, found "several instances" in which Mr. Falusi made false statements of material fact.

         On January 27, 2016, the Board contacted Mr. Falusi to inform him of a hearing on April 8, 2016, during which the Board would consider whether Mr. Falusi possessed the requisite character and fitness for admission to the Bar. After the hearing, the Board notified the Clerk of the Court of Appeals that it unanimously agreed with the majority of the Character Committee. The Board therefore recommended that Mr. Falusi be admitted to the Maryland Bar. Mr. Falusi appeared before the Court of Appeals on June 1, 2016, where he took the oath of admission to the Bar.

         By letter dated May 16, 2016, roughly two weeks before Mr. Falusi was sworn in, Bar Counsel notified Mr. Falusi of Mr. Bean's complaint and other issues and requested that he respond. Mr. Falusi did not notify the Board or the Court of Appeals before he took the oath of admission that he had been contacted by Bar Counsel. On June 16, 2016, Mr. Falusi replied to Bar Counsel. He stated that he "did not have any relationship with Mr. Bean," and that when Mr. Bean came to their office, Mr. Falusi advised him that he was not licensed to practice law in Maryland. Mr. Falusi also relayed to Bar Counsel that he communicated with Mr. Bean to assist Mr. Lang. Mr. Falusi further stated that he only practiced immigration law at the Firm, but he "perform[ed] paralegal work if/when needed."

         II. The Hearing Judge's Conclusions of Law

         The hearing judge determined that both Respondents violated MLRPC 1.1, 1.2(a), 1.3, 1.4(a) and (b), 1.5(a), 1.15(a), 1.16(d), 5.5(a), 7.1(a), 8.1, and 8.4; former Maryland Rules 16-603, 16-604, and 16-606.1; and BOP § 10-601. The hearing judge also concluded that Mr. Falusi violated MLRPC 5.5(b). Mr. Falusi excepts to each of the hearing judge's conclusions of law. Bar Counsel excepts to the hearing judge's general conclusions as to MLRPC 8.1 and 8.4, asking us to find specific violations of each Rule. We shall address each conclusion and, in the course of doing so, will address the pertinent exceptions.

         The hearing judge found the following aggravating factors as to Respondents Lang and Falusi: "pattern of misconduct; multiple violations; and refusal to acknowledge the misconduct's wrongful nature." The hearing judge did not find that Respondents established any mitigating factors by a preponderance of the evidence. Bar Counsel alleges the existence of additional aggravating factors. Mr. Lang and Mr. Falusi both advocate for mitigating factors and argue that the hearing judge improperly found aggravating factors.

         III. Standard of Review

         "In attorney discipline proceedings, this Court has original and complete jurisdiction and conducts an independent review of the record." Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. McLaughlin, 456 Md. 172, 190 (2017) (citation omitted). We accept the hearing judge's findings of fact unless those findings are clearly erroneous, and we "give[] deference to the hearing judge's assessment of the credibility of the witnesses." Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Butler, 441 Md. 352, 359 (2015). "A hearing judge's factual finding is not clearly erroneous if there is any competent material evidence to support it." Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. McDonald, 437 Md. 1, 16 (2014) (citation omitted). Pursuant to Maryland Rule 19-741(b)(1), we review the hearing judge's conclusions of law without deference. Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Hamilton, 444 Md. 163, 178 (2015).

         All three parties elected to file, under Rule 19-728(b), exceptions to the hearing judge's findings of fact and conclusions of law and recommendations for sanction. We determine whether the hearing judge's findings met the standards in Rule 19-727(c). And, under Rule 19-741(b)(2)(B), our review is limited to the findings of fact challenged by the exceptions. If no exceptions are filed as to a particular fact, we may treat it as established. Md. Rule 19-741(b)(2)(A). We also note that a hearing judge, in assessing the credibility of witnesses and making findings of fact, is free to "pick and choose which evidence to rely upon." Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Hodes, 441 Md. 136, 181 (2014) (citations omitted). In that same vein, a hearing judge need not "mention every evidentiary matter" in its findings of fact. Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Vanderlinde, 364 Md. 376, 384 (2001).

         An attorney must show the presence of mitigating circumstances by a preponderance of the evidence. Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Joseph, 422 Md. 670, 695 (2011) (citations omitted). The existence of aggravating factors must be demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence. Md. Rule 19-727(c) ("Bar Counsel has the burden of proving the averments of the petition by clear and convincing evidence."); Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Eckel, 443 Md. 75, 85 n.5 (2015) (noting that aggravating factors must be proven by clear and convincing evidence and not, as the hearing judge indicated, by a preponderance of the evidence).

         IV. Discussion

         Mr. Falusi's Factual Exceptions

         Exceptions Regarding the Factual Background

         Mr. Falusi filed a number of exceptions to the hearing judge's findings of fact. He first takes issue with the hearing judge's assessment of the Firm's letterhead, arguing that the hearing judge simply failed to understand the meaning of the symbols next to Respondents' names. This contention is unfounded. Mr. Falusi's explanation-though he concedes it was "not clearly marked"-is that Mr. Lang's name, which was listed first on the letterhead, corresponded to the top designation ("†† Barred in Maryland and Massachusetts"), and Mr. Falusi's name, which was listed second, corresponded to the bottom designation ("† Barred in Massachusetts"). At best, this explanation renders the symbols ambiguous, which comports with what the hearing judge found. At worst, it is counter-intuitive, given that a designation with two symbols could reasonably refer to the second-listed name rather than the first. Clear and convincing evidence was shown in that regard. We overrule Mr. Falusi's exception regarding the ambiguity of the letterhead.

         Mr. Falusi also argues that the hearing judge "incorrectly made an inference inconsistent with the facts" concerning the Firm's website. He contends that the hearing judge considered, but then ignored, the sentence in Mr. Falusi's description on the website that he was barred only in Massachusetts. As a result, Mr. Falusi argues that the hearing judge "unreasonably inferred" that "[a] layperson may surmise that Respondent Falusi is a Maryland attorney who concentrates on immigration as opposed to an attorney whose practice is limited to immigration matters." Mr. Falusi is correct that nothing on the website, save for the mention of Mr. Lang's Maryland Bar membership, referred to Maryland or Mr. Falusi's practice there. The Firm's Maryland address did not appear on the website, nor did the website directly state that Mr. Falusi practiced law in Maryland.

         Clear and convincing evidence supports the hearing judge's findings with respect to the website. The Firm was established in and operated within Maryland; a lay person could have easily searched the Firm's name and found that it was located in Maryland; and the website failed to disclaim that Mr. Falusi did not practice law in Maryland. Given that Mr. Falusi's description stated that he practiced law in areas other than immigration-namely, criminal defense and domestic violence-a lay person may have inferred that he could, and did, practice law in Maryland in areas other than immigration. Accordingly, Mr. Falusi's exception is overruled.

         Exceptions Regarding the PNC Bank Operating Account

         Mr. Falusi takes exception to the hearing judge's finding that client and third-party funds were deposited directly into the Firm's Operating Account. He claims that no details were provided about deposits and disbursements other than those in the official bank statements. He argues that "[t]he mere fact that a client made payment or that certain fees were paid on behalf of a client from the operating account does not suggest that the funds used for the payment was [sic] client or third-party funds." The hearing judge found that the transaction summary, client summary, and monthly statements submitted into evidence by Bar Counsel clearly and convincingly showed that client funds and third-party funds were deposited, disbursed, and commingled in the Operating Account. Notes in the transaction and client summaries, which were prepared by Bar Counsel's investigator, match the transactions found in the monthly statements and provided the basis for that finding. Mr. Falusi's exception is overruled.[8]

         Exceptions Regarding Abby Daramola

         Mr. Falusi excepts to the hearing judge's finding that "[o]n Respondent Falusi's advice, Ms. Daramola signed the settlement agreement and gave the agreement to Respondent Falusi." Mr. Falusi argues that Ms. Daramola's testimony before the hearing judge confirms that she needed him merely to communicate with Mr. Jablon rather than represent her interests. We give due regard, however, to the hearing judge's evaluation of Ms. Daramola's testimony, and we review the record for competent material evidence that Mr. Falusi in fact represented Ms. Daramola. We need look no further than Mr. Falusi's deposition testimony:

I did draft the agreement after speaking with - - after speaking with Mr. Jablon. And, you know, I related the outcome with our discussion with Mr. Jablon, related that to Ms. - - Ms. Daramola like look, you need to make this payment or else it just, you know, you have no choice.
You can't get out of it. You got to - - you know, trying to get - - you just have to make the first payment. And your first payment is $1, 000. And she made that.

         When Mr. Falusi sent a letter to Mr. Jablon on Firm letterhead, his signature read "O. Isaac Falusi, Esq.," and Mr. Jablon addressed correspondence to him as "Isaac Falusi, Esq." Even considering Mr. Falusi's strained definition of "advice," we overrule his exception.

         Exceptions Regarding Justina Ikpim

         Mr. Falusi asserts that the hearing judge failed to account for "pertinent and material facts" regarding Ms. Ikpim. Specifically, he claims that Ms. Ikpim, with whom Mr. Falusi had a "familial relationship" (apparently Ms. Ikpim was his father's girlfriend), came to him for a personal favor rather than to obtain legal advice and representation. The hearing judge considered Mr. Falusi's testimony on the subject and decided that it did not bear on whether Mr. Falusi provided legal representation to Ms. Ikpim. We find nothing in the record to compel a contrary conclusion, so we overrule Mr. Falusi's factual exceptions.

         Exceptions Regarding Dennis Bean

         Mr. Falusi first excepts to the hearing judge's finding that he drafted the Flat Fee Agreement that he and Mr. Bean signed. According to Mr. Falusi, the Agreement was the Firm's standard retainer agreement. At his deposition, Mr. Falusi testified that he drafted the Agreement. Mr. Lang also testified that Mr. Falusi drafted the Agreement. The exception is overruled.

         Next, Mr. Falusi disputes that the hearing judge correctly identified the "Attorneys" in the Agreement as "Lang & Falusi, LLP, the firm and its members and Associates, etc." The record contains clear and convincing evidence contradicting Mr. Falusi's position. Prior to signing the Agreement, Mr. Bean contacted Mr. Falusi to discuss the case. The Agreement clearly states that the "Attorneys" are "Lang & Falusi, LLP, the firm and its members and Associates, etc.," and Mr. Falusi confirmed this fact during his deposition. Mr. Falusi also confirmed that the Agreement was made among him, Mr. Bean, and Mr. Lang; that Mr. Bean retained the members of the Firm; and that he was a member of the Firm.

         Pointing to Mr. Bean's testimony, however, Mr. Falusi argues that Mr. Bean knew that he was being represented only by Mr. Lang. Mr. Bean acknowledged in his testimony that Mr. Lang was the lead attorney handling his case, but he never stated that Mr. Lang was his only attorney. In fact, Mr. Bean testified that prior to signing the Agreement, he discussed case strategy with both Respondents. When asked what he believed Mr. Lang and Mr. Falusi would be doing for the $3, 500.00, Mr. Bean stated that they would be defending the foreclosures they had discussed at the meeting. When asked what he understood to be Mr. Falusi's role in the representation, Mr. Bean answered, "During our meeting he told me Mr. Lang would be the lead but that, you know, he would be involved in the case." Then, when asked whether he understood Mr. Falusi to be his attorney, Mr. Bean responded that he believed Mr. Falusi was one of his attorneys and that he was a client of both Mr. Lang and Mr. Falusi. Mr. Falusi exchanged numerous emails with Mr. Bean concerning case strategy and progress. Mr. Falusi was also the only attorney to sign the Agreement; Mr. Lang did not sign it. Mr. Falusi's exception is overruled because clear and convincing evidence supports the hearing judge's findings as to these facts.

         Mr. Falusi also excepts to the hearing judge's finding that neither Mr. Lang nor Mr. Falusi explained to Mr. Bean the risks associated with the flat fee clause in the Agreement. Mr. Bean testified that Respondents "just said what they'd do for the fee is represent me, but not what they would do with the fee." Even though Mr. Bean initialed under the flat fee clause, Mr. Falusi could not affirmatively state whether he informed Mr. Bean of the risks, and Mr. Lang testified that there were no risks to disclose. Mr. Falusi's exception is overruled.

         Mr. Lang's Factual Exceptions

         Mr. Lang excepts to alleged "adverse inferences" that the hearing judge drew from Bar Counsel when finding violations of the MLRPC, though he does not identify which violations resulted from these inferences. While we at times permit a hearing judge to draw adverse inferences, Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Nwadike, 416 Md. 180, 197-98 (2010), we find that-save for the exceptions of Mr. Falusi that we sustain-the hearing judge's findings of fact and conclusions of law were supported by clear and convincing evidence. We therefore overrule this exception.

         For the same reasons we overruled Mr. Falusi's exceptions as to the findings of fact concerning the Firm's letterhead, we overrule Mr. Lang's exception that any ambiguities in the letterhead do not rise to a violation of the MLRPC by clear and convincing evidence.

         Conclusions of Law

         We begin our discussion with MLRPC 5.5, as a violation of this Rule provides, in part, the foundation for other MLRPC violations.

         MLRPC 5.5: Unauthorized Practice of Law; Multijurisdictional Practice of Law

         Rule 5.5 provides, in part:

(a) A lawyer shall not practice law in a jurisdiction in violation of the regulation of the legal profession in that jurisdiction, or assist another in doing so.
(b) A lawyer who is not admitted to practice in this jurisdiction shall not:
(1) except as authorized by these Rules or other law, establish an office or other systematic and continuous presence in this jurisdiction for the practice of law; or
(2) hold out to the public or otherwise represent that the lawyer is admitted to practice law ...

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