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Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Steinhorn

Court of Appeals of Maryland

December 20, 2018

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND
v.
NEIL WARREN STEINHORN

          Argued: October 9, 2018

          Circuit Court for Baltimore County Case No. 03-C-17-006386

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

          OPINION

          Barbera, C.J.

         On June 26, 2017, the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland ("Petitioner"), acting through Bar Counsel, filed in this Court a Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action ("Petition") against Neil Warren Steinhorn ("Respondent"). The Petition alleged, among other things, [1] violations of the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct ("MLRPC") 3.3 (Candor Toward the Tribunal) and 8.4 (Misconduct).[2] Those charges arise from misleading complaints Respondent filed with the District Court of Maryland sitting in Baltimore County while representing the Council of Unit Owners of Kingswood Commons, Inc. ("Kingswood"), a homeowners' association, in several debt collection cases. Specifically, Respondent inflated the damages sought on the complaint form by thirty percent without separately indicating, as the form requires, that this increase constituted his attorney's fees.

         Pursuant to Maryland Rules 19-722(a) and 19-727, this Court designated the Honorable Keith R. Truffer ("hearing judge") of the Circuit Court for Baltimore County to conduct an evidentiary hearing and make findings of fact and conclusions of law. The hearing was held on March 13, 2018. Respondent testified and presented evidence on his behalf. On April 27, 2018, the hearing judge issued written findings of fact and conclusions of law, concluding that Respondent did not commit any violations of the MLRPC.

         Bar Counsel, on behalf of Petitioner, took no issue with the hearing judge's findings of fact but filed exceptions to each conclusion of law. Petitioner asserts that Respondent violated MLRPC 3.3(a)(1) and 8.4 because he provided the District Court with false information, misled the District Court with that information, and engaged in disreputable conduct. Petitioner also excepts to the hearing judge's finding of certain mitigating factors and asks us to consider other aggravating factors in addition to the ones the hearing judge found. Respondent counters that although he made a mistake, he did not violate any of the MLRPC.

         On October 9, 2018, this Court heard oral argument in this matter. Petitioner asks us to disbar or, in the alternative, suspend Respondent. Respondent requests that we affirm the hearing judge's legal conclusions and dismiss this action. For the following reasons, we agree with Petitioner that Respondent violated MLRPC 3.3 and 8.4 and, consequently, suspend Respondent from practicing law indefinitely with the right to apply for reinstatement no sooner than six months after the suspension takes effect.

         I.

         A. The Hearing Judge's Findings of Fact

         1. Background

         Respondent was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1974. In 1979, after a five-year stint as an Assistant State's Attorney, Respondent transitioned to private practice. On June 4, 1990, Respondent was convicted of money laundering and transporting stolen goods, United States v. Steinhorn, 927 F.2d 195, 196 (4th Cir. 1991), and subsequently, in September 1990, this Court suspended him from practicing law in Maryland. Thereafter, on February 1, 1994, following affirmance of his convictions, [3] this Court disbarred Respondent by consent. Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Steinhorn, 333 Md. 580 (1994).

         In October 2007, this Court granted Respondent's Petition for Reinstatement to the Maryland Bar. In re Reinstatement of Steinhorn, 401 Md. 698 (2007). Since his reinstatement, Respondent has handled exclusively debt collection cases, representing homeowner associations, small businesses, and bail bondsmen. In one such matter, Respondent assisted Kingswood in collecting past due condominium fees from several condominium unit owners.

         2. Respondent's Court Filings

         As part of his work for Kingswood, Respondent filed two form complaints-entitled DC-CV-001, Complaint/Application and Affidavit in Support of Judgment-with the District Court of Maryland sitting in Baltimore County in 2014. The first complaint, filed on January 14, 2014, sought to recover $9, 120 in delinquent condominium fees from Aileen Pratt, a condominium unit owner. The second complaint, filed on April 2, 2014, also sought to collect $9, 120 in outstanding condominium fees from Jason Green, another condominium unit owner. Respondent submitted affidavits in support of those claims, which were signed by Marc Greenberg ("Greenberg"), an agent of Kingswood. Greenberg relied on Respondent's representations about the accuracy of those filings.

         The $9, 120 figure listed on both complaints represented unpaid condominium fees for a four-year period (2011-2014) plus Respondent's thirty-percent attorney's fee.[4] In other words, of the $9, 120 sought in the complaints, $6, 912 was for the outstanding HOA fees and $2, 208 was for attorney's fees.[5] Respondent conjoined the unpaid assessments ($6, 912) with the agreed-upon attorney's fees ($2, 208) in each complaint filed with the court, listing one figure ($9, 120) in the damages line, leaving the line designated for attorney's fees blank (see image below).

         (Image Omitted)

         3. The Complaint to the Attorney Grievance Commission

         In 2016, Kingswood terminated Respondent's representation and replaced him with Brian Fellner, Esq. ("Fellner"). Fellner discovered that Respondent did not timely remit several payments he collected for Kingswood. Fellner then filed a complaint with Petitioner, alleging that Respondent's delay was unwarranted. Bar Counsel investigated and determined that Respondent was also inflating the amount of damages sought in his court filings, and that he failed to rectify the issue once it was called to his attention. Petitioner concluded that such conduct violated MLRPC 3.3 and 8.4, among other charged violations.[6]

         4. Respondent's Testimony

         During the hearing on his conduct, Respondent "candidly admitted" that he made a mistake, and he "denied any intent to deceive the court." He testified that he only sought to collect that which was rightfully owed to him based on his fee agreement with Kingswood.

         The hearing judge found, as a matter of fact, that Respondent's testimony was credible and that Respondent never intended to make a false statement to the District Court. The hearing judge was persuaded by the fact that Respondent did not personally benefit from his conduct. The judge was also swayed by Respondent's sincere remorse and his implementation of new office procedures to prevent those issues from reoccurring.

         B. The Hearing Judge's Conclusions of Law

         Based on the record and the above-summarized findings of fact, the hearing judge concluded that Petitioner failed to demonstrate, by clear and convincing evidence, that Respondent violated MLRPC 3.3(a)(1) and 8.4 (a), (c), and (d). As noted at the outset, Petitioner has filed exceptions to the hearing judge's conclusions of law.

         II.

         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. Good, 445 Md. 490, 512 (2015) (citation omitted). Where, as here, neither party has filed exceptions to the hearing judge's findings of fact, we treat those facts as established. Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Reno, 436 Md. 504, 508 (2014); see also Md. Rule 19-741(b)(2)(A). We review de novo the hearing judge's legal conclusions, Md. Rule 19-741(b)(1), to determine if they are supported by clear and convincing evidence, Md. ...


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