Argued: November 2, 2018
Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No.
Barbera, C.J. Greene McDonald Watts Hotten Getty Adkins,
Sally D. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.
attorney discipline case traces the protracted plight of one
man's estate administration. When Freelove Jefferies died
in February 2012, he left behind two executed wills. His
longtime friend Ronald Hutchens promptly sought the
assistance of Respondent Benjamin Jeremy Woolery (Respondent
or "Mr. Woolery") to handle opening an estate on
behalf of Mr. Jefferies. Mr. Woolery, who was admitted to
practice law in Maryland on December 16, 1988, focused his
law practice primarily in the area of estates and trusts.
Nevertheless, Mr. Woolery's involvement in the
administration of Mr. Jefferies's Estate, which spanned
several years, led the Attorney Grievance Commission
("Bar Counsel" or "Petitioner") to file a
"Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action"
against Mr. Woolery.
27, 2017, Bar Counsel filed, pursuant to Maryland Rule
19-721, a petition in which it alleged that Mr. Woolery
committed violations of the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of
Professional Conduct ("MLRPC") based on conduct
that occurred before July 1, 2016.Specifically, Bar Counsel
alleged that Respondent violated Rules 1.1 (Competence), 1.2
(Scope of Representation and Allocation of Authority Between
Client and Lawyer), 1.4 (Communication), 1.5 (Fees), 1.7
(Conflict of Interest), 1.9 (Duties to Former Clients), 1.15
(Safekeeping of Property), 1.16 (Declining or Terminating
Representation), 3.1 (Meritorious Claims and Contentions),
3.3 (Candor Toward the Tribunal), 7.3 (Direct Contact with
Prospective Clients), and 8.4 (Misconduct). Bar Counsel also
alleged that Respondent's acts after July 1, 2016
violated Maryland Attorneys' Rules of Professional
Conduct ("MARPC") 19.303.1 (Meritorious Claims and
Contentions) as well as MARPC 19.308.4 (Misconduct).
this Court's referral of the matter to the Circuit Court
for Prince George's County, the Honorable William A.
Snoddy conducted a four-day evidentiary hearing on April 9 -
12, 2018. As a result of that hearing, Judge Snoddy issued
Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, in which he found by
clear and convincing evidence that Respondent's acts
violated MLRPC 1.1, 1.2, 1.4, 1.5, 1.7, 1.9, 1.15, 1.16, 3.3,
7.3, and MARPC 3.1 and 8.4. For the reasons explained herein,
we conclude that the evidence admitted at trial clearly and
convincingly supports the hearing judge's conclusions of
law as to violations of the Rules.
following summary of pertinent facts is derived from Judge
Snoddy's thorough Findings of Fact. As a backdrop to the
allegations against Respondent, Judge Snoddy found that
Respondent is a junior partner in the law firm of McGill and
Woolery, where he focuses his practice primarily in the area
of estates and trusts. Additionally, Respondent is the
chairman of the Prince George's County Bar
Association's Estates and Trusts Committee, and he has
developed a reputation as an experienced and trustworthy
attorney in the area of probate, trusts and estates.
Hutchens ("Mr. Hutchens") sought Respondent's
assistance in opening and administering the estate of Mr.
Hutchens's longtime friend, Freelove Jefferies ("Mr.
Jefferies"). At the time of his death, Mr. Jefferies was
widowed. Mr. Hutchens had been a caretaker for Mr. Jefferies
prior to his death. On February 22, 2012, Mr. Hutchens met
with Respondent to discuss Mr. Jefferies's Estate and at
that time gave Respondent a check payable to Respondent's
law firm in the amount of $1, 000.00 as an initial fee. On
February 24, 2012, Mr. Hutchens memorialized Respondent's
representation in a written Retainer Agreement which included
a statement that "Charges will be made to and paid by
the Estate." Respondent explained to his client that the
legal fees would be paid from the Estate, and he estimated
that his charges would be "about $5, 000.00." At
this time, both Respondent and Mr. Hutchens anticipated that
Mr. Hutchens would be appointed as Personal Representative of
the Estate because Mr. Hutchens had been nominated as such in
one of Mr. Jefferies's wills.
same day that Mr. Hutchens signed the retainer agreement,
Respondent filed a Regular Estate Petition for Administration
on behalf of Mr. Hutchens. Respondent's estimation of the
value of real property reflected Respondent's knowledge
of two parcels of real property, both unimproved, and a third
parcel of real property located at 13201 Old Indian Head Road
in Brandywine, Maryland, which contained a house
("Brandywine property"). Respondent knew that a
tenant lived in the Brandywine house, and he had copies of
the lease agreement for the rental property.
Jefferies left two signed wills. One of the wills, executed
on November 6, 2007 ("the 2007 will"), had been
held by the Register of Wills for Prince George's County.
Respondent sought to probate Mr. Jefferies's second will,
which had been executed on May 1, 2008 ("the 2008
will"), when he filed the Regular Estate Petition for
Administration. On February 24, 2012, the same day that
Respondent filed the Regular Estate Petition for
Administration, Mr. Jefferies's granddaughter, Deidre
Jeffries, also filed a petition for administration of Mr.
Jefferies's Estate and requested that any wills and
codicils be admitted to judicial probate. Ms. Deidre
Jefferies was not named as a legatee in the 2008 will and was
bequeathed $1.00 under the 2007 will. Mr. Hutchens, on the
other hand, had been nominated to serve as the personal
representative in the 2007 will and was named in the 2008
will as the alternate personal representative behind an
attorney who had predeceased Mr. Jefferies.
Register of Wills neither named Mr. Hutchens as personal
representative, nor appointed him special administrator for
the estate. In May 2012, Ms. Deidre Jefferies challenged Mr.
Jefferies's competency and asserted that Mr. Hutchens
procured the wills by the exercise of undue influence and/or
fraud. In her Petition to Caveat and Petition for Appointment
of Special Administrator, filed in the Orphans' Court for
Prince George's County, Ms. Jefferies sought a
declaration that the wills were invalid and that the Court
find that Mr. Jefferies died intestate. She also requested
that Mr. Hutchens answer the petition.
14, 2012, the Orphans' Court for Prince George's
County appointed Justin Sasser, Esq., as special
administrator of the Jefferies Estate. In that role, Mr.
Sasser was responsible for, among other duties, marshalling
the assets of the estate. Judge Snoddy found that "by
virtue of his probate experience, [Respondent] was also aware
of Sasser's responsibilities as special
knew of and had access to the Estate's assets through Mr.
Hutchens. For example, Respondent knew that Mr. Hutchens
collected weekly cash rent payments of $150.00 from the
tenant of the Brandywine property. Additionally, Respondent
knew that at the time of Mr. Jefferies death, he had a
savings account at Prince George's Federal Savings Bank
("PGFSB"), which had a balance of $1, 590.56 on
February 21, 2012. Respondent knew of the existence of the
bank account because PGFSB sent the account statements to the
Respondent's firm's address. Additionally, Respondent
received a $150.00 cash rent payment as well as a tax refund
check issued to Mr. Jefferies, and Respondent deposited both
amounts in the account for a total of $2, 995.00.
Respondent's firm continued to receive monthly bank
statements at the firm address through May 2013. Despite
Respondent's knowledge of these assets of the Jefferies
Estate, Respondent did not promptly notify Mr. Sasser of the
existence of the assets or the records in his possession.
Judge Snoddy found that the earliest date Respondent sought
to disclose information about the bank account's assets
was two months after Mr. Sasser's appointment as special
administrator on or about August 7, 2012. In addition,
despite his knowledge that Mr. Hutchens and/or another
individual named William Watson ("Mr. Watson") had
been collecting the weekly rent payments from the tenant in
the Brandywine property, both prior to and after the death of
their friend Mr. Jefferies, Respondent failed to inform Mr.
Sasser about the rent collection. Respondent also failed to
advise Mr. Sasser that Mr. Hutchens and Mr. Watson performed
maintenance at the rental property. As special administrator,
Mr. Sasser should have been informed of the existence of
Estate assets, and those assets should have been accounted
for in an Estate bank account. See § 6-403 of
the Estates and Trusts Article, Md. Code Ann. (1974, 2017
Repl. Vol.) (stating that a special administrator assumes
generally the duties unperformed by a personal representative
and has all powers necessary to collect, manage, and preserve
property of the Estate).
Respondent's representation of Mr. Hutchens should have
been limited to defending the caveat petition filed by Ms.
Deidre Jeffries, his involvement in the case during the next
year evolved to include matters well beyond defending the
caveat petition. For example, when Mr. Sasser missed the
deadline for filing an Inventory and an Information Report,
Respondent prepared the documents, signed them
"Attorney" and "passed them on to Sasser, who
reviewed them and signed as special administrator."
Respondent was not Mr. Sasser's attorney at the time of
preparation of these documents in April 2013.
litigation involving Ms. Deidre Jefferies's caveat
petition, Respondent persisted in advancing the position that
his client, Mr. Hutchens, was the "de facto Personal
Representative" of the Jeffries Estate. For example,
Respondent sent a letter to an attorney in November 2012 in
which he referred to Mr. Hutchens as "the de facto
Personal Representative." Mr. Sasser had been appointed
special administrator five months earlier.
April 2013, Respondent filed a Small Estate Petition for
Administration on behalf of Mr. Hutchens for the purpose of
opening an estate for Mr. Jefferies's deceased wife.
Respondent sought to access the decedent's bank account
to pay the property taxes for four properties that were on
the verge of being lost to tax sales. Although Respondent sought
to have Mr. Hutchens appointed as the Personal Representative
of Mrs. Jefferies's Estate, he also filed on the same day
a Petition for Appointment as Special Administrator in which
he requested that he be appointed special administrator of
Mrs. Jefferies's Estate. In his filing, Respondent
referred to Mr. Hutchens as the "nominated Personal
Representative for this Decedent's surviving spouse
Freelove Jefferies." By the date of his filing, though,
Respondent knew that Mr. Hutchens had not been appointed
personal representative of Mr. Jefferies's Estate, and,
in fact, knew that Mr. Sasser had been appointed special
administrator of Mr. Jefferies's Estate. He also knew
that Mr. Hutchens had not yet been appointed Personal
Representative of Mrs. Jefferies's Estate.
2013, Respondent identified himself as "Counsel for the
Estate of Freelove Jefferies" in correspondence to
counsel for the tax sale purchaser of a previously unknown
fifth parcel of land owned by Mr. Jefferies. With respect to
this reference of "Counsel for the Estate of Freelove
Jefferies," Judge Snoddy found that "[a]t the time
the Respondent wrote to [counsel], he did not represent the
special administrator nor was he otherwise counsel for the
Estate of Freelove Jefferies." The hearing judge also
found that Mr. Sasser, the special administrator at the time,
had not authorized, nor delegated to, Respondent the task of
managing the Estate's assets.
before a hearing on June 20, 2013 in the Orphans' Court,
Respondent sought to represent Mr. Watson, who was a legatee
under both wills. Mr. Watson was, like Mr. Hutchens, a
longtime time friend of Mr. Jefferies, and Mr. Watson helped
Mr. Hutchens with the maintenance of the Brandywine property.
Respondent's stated goal of representation of Mr. Watson
was to present a "unified front at trial." Mr.
Watson did not immediately accept Respondent's offer. At
the hearing on that day, the Orphans' Court appointed Mr.
Sasser as personal representative of the Jeffries Estate on a
strictly pro forma basis. The appointment
"lasted but a few seconds at which time the Court
suspended [Mr.] Sasser's duties as P[ersonal]
R[epresentative] and restored him to the role of special
administrator of the estate." Nevertheless, the very
next day, Respondent wrote to Mr. Sasser and addressed him as
the "newly-appointed Personal Representative." In
that letter, Respondent noted the "'looming'
legal costs" but failed to alert Mr. Sasser that Mr.
Hutchens had delivered to Respondent, that same day, rent
money from the tenant at the Brandywine property in the
amount of $900.00. Respondent deposited the $900.00 into his
law firm's attorney trust account. He did not turn
over the money to Mr. Sasser.
September 2013, Mr. Watson formally retained Respondent to
represent him in defending Mr. Jefferies's wills and
other matters related to the Estate. The retainer agreement
provided that Respondent would represent Mr. Watson "to
defend both of Freelove Jefferies' 'wills'; use
Ron's lot & proceeds therefrom to pay [Mr.] Woolery,
and hopefully Mr. Watson c[ould] get his lot(s) from [the]
Estate without paying [Mr.] Woolery." The agreement
contained a clause that Respondent's representation would
be in consideration of "$1.00." The next day,
September 10, 2013, Mr. Sasser, as special administrator,
notified the other attorneys in the case that he intended to
hire Respondent to defend the will in the caveat proceeding
brought by Ms. Jefferies. After receiving no opposition from
the interested parties, Mr. Sasser formally retained
Respondent for representation of the Estate in the caveat
proceeding. Mr. Sasser did not retain Respondent to
represent Mr. Sasser in his capacity as special administrator
in the Orphans' Court. At this point, Respondent
represented Mr. Hutchens, who was a legatee under the 2008
will, Mr. Watson, who was a legatee under both of Mr.
Jefferies's wills, and the Estate for purposes of the
March 27, 2014 during a status hearing for the caveat matter,
Mr. Sasser learned that Mr. Watson had been collecting rent
payments from the tenant in the Brandywine property.
Respondent failed to disclose that he had previously received
$900.00 in rent money from Mr. Hutchens on June 21, 2012. At
the disciplinary hearing in this matter, "Respondent
testified that he did not believe it was on him to tell
people what they had to do with property." On the same
day as the status hearing in the Circuit Court, Respondent
declared in a letter to Mr. Watson that he would need funds
for litigation, and that he had already "loaned the
estate '$2, 000.00 for the Taxes paid in April 2013'
and '$1, 000.00 last month for our Expert.'"
Respondent had not verified with Mr. Sasser that Respondent
had advanced any personal funds to the Estate.
December 2012, the Orphans' Court transferred the caveat
matter to the Circuit Court for Prince George's County.
At some point prior to March 2014, the Orphans' Court
ordered Mr. Sasser to show cause why he should not be removed
as special administrator. Respondent acting as Mr.
Sasser's "undersigned counsel" filed a Line
with Mr. Sasser's response. Respondent had only been
retained to represent Mr. Sasser as the special administrator
in the caveat matter, not to represent Mr. Sasser with
respect to Mr. Jefferies's Estate pending in the
Orphans' Court. Shortly thereafter, the Orphans' Court
removed Mr. Sasser as special administrator and appointed a
successor Special Administrator, namely Nancy L. Miller,
Esquire. Upon Mr. Sasser's removal as special
administrator, Respondent's representation of Mr. Sasser
terminated. Respondent never provided Mr. Sasser with a bill
for legal services.
neither Mr. Watson, nor Mr. Hutchens, had a personal interest
in who served as special administrator of the Estate,
Respondent appealed the Orphans' Court's Order that
removed Mr. Sasser as special administrator. Judge Snoddy
found that "[d]espite learning of [Mr.] Sasser's
desire to no longer act as Special Administrator, the
Respondent failed to withdraw his appeal" and that
Respondent intended "to protect his own personal
interests" in filing the appeal.
Ms. Miller was appointed successor special administrator,
Respondent remitted to her a check in the amount of $116.00,
which was drawn on his law firm's attorney trust account.
In a letter, Respondent informed Ms. Miller that he had
received a $200.00 rent payment but used $84.00 to pay for
the homeowner's insurance policy on the Brandywine
property. He also explained that he exhausted the balance of
cash listed on the Estate's Inventory Report for purposes
of deposing Mr. Rankin, the scrivener for the two wills, for
the caveat proceeding as well as paying real property taxes
for 2012. In this same letter, Respondent claimed that the
Estate owed him "$4, 410.78 plus another $1, 000.00
[that he] advanced personally for the Estate's Medical
Expert, Anthony Wolff[.]" On May 5, 2014, three days
after his letter to Ms. Miller, Respondent received an
additional $400.00 of rent money from Mr. Watson, which he
deposited into his law firm's attorney trust account.
Yet, as of July 2014, when Ms. Miller filed the Inventory
Summary, Respondent had failed to disclose his receipt of the
rent money to her. Judge Snoddy found that Respondent
"intentionally withheld from Miller: the $900.00 in rent
money he received from [Mr.] Hutchens in June 2013; the
$400.00 in rent money he received from [Mr.] Watson on May 5,
2014; and the rent and expense receipts he obtained from
Miller made an initial plea in July 2014 for an accounting of
the rent money collected. Respondent's reply letter to
Ms. Miller offered a vague explanation for an accounting of
funds: "Mr. Watson delivered rent to me when Mr. Sasser
was exiting, and we knew Allstate needed to be paid so
that's why the Escrow checks went to you, etc."
Several months later in September 2014, Ms. Miller again
urgently requested information on the whereabouts of more
than $18, 000.00 of rent money owed to the Estate. The letter
reflects that the only money Respondent provided to Ms.
Miller was the $116.00 that he remitted to her when she was
appointed successor special administrator. By this point, Ms.
Miller had been appointed Trustee and tasked with the
responsibility of selling all of the properties, which were
in jeopardy of being sold at tax sale. The hearing judge
found that Respondent "intentionally withheld from [Ms.]
Miller: the $900.00 in rent money he received from [Mr.]
Hutchens in June 2013; the $400.00 in rent money he received
from [Mr.] Watson on May 5, 2014; and the rent and expense
receipts he obtained from [Mr.] Watson."
October 31, 2014, all interested parties in the caveat suit
engaged in settlement negotiations. By that point, Mr.
Hutchens had renounced his bequest in the Estate proceeding
and did not participate in the settlement discussions. In
fact, "neither the Respondent nor anyone else mentioned
[Mr.] Hutchens during the negotiations, advocated a position
on his behalf, nor lodged an objection on his behalf to the
agreement reached." The parties reached an agreement,
which included Mr. Watson receiving his specific bequest of
land as well as Respondent receiving reimbursement for costs
he personally advanced, and $5, 000.00 from Mr. Watson for
legal services. Nevertheless, as the terms of the settlement
were placed on the record before the Circuit Court,
for the very first time, and in contravention to the wishes
of his client [Mr.] Watson, insisted that any agreement
between the parties include a stipulation that [Ms.] Miller,
as the court-appointed fiduciary of the estate, forgo pursuit
of any legal action against [Mr.] Watson or [Mr.] Hutchens
for any wrongdoing related to the dissipation of estate
result of Respondent's action, the agreement dissolved.
In carrying out the purported objections of one of his
clients, Respondent's "potential conflict in
representing both [Mr.] Hutchens and [Mr.] Watson manifested
itself as an actual conflict at th[at] time."
an unsuccessful settlement conference, Mr. Watson terminated
Respondent's legal representation. Respondent failed to
withdraw his appearance as counsel for Mr. Watson, indicated
in a letter to Ms. Miller that withdrawing his appearance was
"not something I'm going to get involved with so
close to the trial date," and then filed a pleading as
counsel for Mr. Watson in the Circuit Court.
filed, purportedly on behalf of Mr. Hutchens, a pleading in
the Orphans' Court to remove Ms. Miller as the special
administrator. In the pleading, Respondent "falsely
asserted that [Ms.] Miller had undertaken to represent [Mr.]
Watson, as his attorney, in the estate proceedings."
addition, on behalf of Mr. Hutchens, Respondent filed in the
District Court of Maryland in Prince George's County suit
against Mr. Sasser as "Personal Representative" of
the Estate of Mr. Jefferies. Mr. Sasser had been removed as
special administrator nearly eight months prior to the filing
of the suit. Moreover, Mr. Sasser was not the Personal
Representative of Mr. Jefferies's Estate, a fact which
Respondent knew. In addition, Respondent falsely claimed that
the plaintiff, Mr. Hutchens, suffered $9, 999.00 in damages,
inclusive of "post-death Realty Taxes" and expert
witness payments. According to Judge Snoddy, "[Mr.]
Hutchens had no interest in those amounts, which were in fact
payments the Respondent was seeking to recover for the
benefit of himself and/or his law firm." Critically,
Respondent "failed to notify [Mr.] Sasser of his intent
to file the lawsuit nor did he request or obtain [Mr.]
Sasser's consent, as a former client, to filing suit
against him on behalf of another client (Hutchens)."
Efforts to Manipulate His Client
Hutchens terminated Respondent's legal representation on
January 29, 2015. Several days after doing so, Mr. Hutchens
delivered to Respondent $1, 200.00 in cash, which he had
received from the tenant in the Brandywine property.
Respondent deposited the funds into his law firm's
attorney trust account and failed to notify Ms. Miller of his
receipt of the funds. Despite the termination of
representation, Respondent thereafter filed pleadings in Mr.
Hutchens's name without authorization. Respondent failed
to withdraw his appearance entered on behalf of Mr. Hutchens
from either the Orphans' Court or the Circuit Court. On
one occasion, Respondent appeared in Mr. Hutchens's
driveway unannounced and asked Mr. Hutchens to sign a
document that promised to settle the matter between them. On
another occasion, Respondent sent a letter to Mr. Hutchens in
which he stated that "Ms. Miller is planning to go after
you following the February 17/18 Jury Trial in the belief
(which I've been sharing with you) that you
'stole' up to $350, 000.00 of Freelove's
money." He also referred to the receipt of the $1,
200.00 cash and indicated to Mr. Hutchens that "those
funds are 'being used to cover Litigation Expenses as
well as reduce the Estate's debt to me for the Taxes I
personally helped pay.'" The hearing judge found
that Respondent's letter misrepresented the facts and
that his actions were an "apparent effort to manipulate
[Mr.] Hutchens to keep [Respondent] on as counsel[.]"
the parties settled the caveat matter without the involvement
of Ms. Miller, Mr. Hutchens, or Respondent. Once the matter
was remanded to the Orphans' Court, Respondent filed a
pleading entitled "Petition for Section 7-603
'Litigation Expenses'." He attached a billing
invoice that reflected a purported 235.24 hours, totaling
over $80, 000.00, of legal services performed for Mr. Sasser,
Mr. Watson, and Mr. Hutchens. The billing invoice failed to
indicate for which of the three clients the legal services
were rendered. Additionally, Respondent never submitted to
Ms. Miller verification of the personal funds that he
allegedly advanced to the Estate.
Continued Court Filings and Efforts to Coerce Former
Miller filed a Third and Final Accounting with the
Orphans' Court, which was approved by that court on
February 24, 2016, subject to exceptions being filed. Had no
exceptions been filed, Ms. Miller would have been permitted
to make final disbursements twenty-one days after the
Orphans' Court Order. Instead, Respondent filed
exceptions to the final accounting because the account did
not "contemplate disbursement to the Respondent for
legal services rendered to the Estate." Although
Respondent no longer represented Mr. Watson or Mr. Hutchens,
he wrote to each of them and included in his letter draft
exceptions that reflected Respondent's "complicated
recalculations of the disbursement." Judge Snoddy found
that Respondent's letter was an attempt to "coerce
[Messrs. Watson and Hutchens] into filing exceptions to [Ms.]
Miller's final accounting." According to
Respondent's recalculations, his law firm would receive a
disbursement of $57, 633.80.
Hutchens signed and returned the draft exceptions that
Respondent had prepared. Mr. Hutchens did not rehire
Respondent, or otherwise authorize Respondent to take action,
for purposes of legal representation. Nevertheless,
Respondent filed a revised copy of the exceptions,
representing that he was Mr. Hutchens's counsel. The
hearing judge explained that, "by Respondent's own
testimony, he knew that [Mr.] Hutchens and [Mr.] Watson were
not 'sophisticated.' Th[e] court f[ound] that [Mr.]
Hutchens failed to comprehend the substance of the document
he signed, and that based on [Mr.] Hutchens's testimony,
he had no interest in excepting to [Ms.] Miller's final
on March 3, 2016, the Law Offices of McGill and Woolery filed
suit in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County
against Mr. Watson and Mr. Hutchens. The pleading, styled as
a breach of contract, claimed damages in the amount of $75,
000.00 and sought to hold Mr. Watson and Mr. Hutchens jointly
and severally liable. Respondent never sent Mr. Watson or Mr.
Hutchens periodic billing statements or sought payment from
them throughout the representation. The hearing judge found that
the "Billing Ledger" that Respondent filed with the
Orphans' Court and that formed the basis for his claim of
$75, 000.00 of legal fees was "a highly inflated
after-the-fact compilation of the Respondent's total time
representing three different clients (including [Mr.] Sasser)
with a multitude of differing interests in the Jefferies
Estate." Additionally, Judge Snoddy found that much of
the time billed reflected "Respondent's unilateral
efforts to exercise control over the Estate in derogation of
the Orphans' Court's orders appointing first [Mr.]
Sasser and then [Ms.] Miller as special administrators
charged with administering the Estate pending the outcome of
the caveat litigation."
from the breach of contract lawsuit, Respondent filed in the
Circuit Court a "Request for an Order Directing the
Issuance of a Writ of Attachment" with an attachment
titled, "Exceptions to 'Account' By Litigation
Counsel." Judge Snoddy found that the
"'Exceptions' document represented yet another
attempt by the Respondent's law firm to have the
Orphans' Court award its claim for attorney's fees
and expenses." Although the Circuit Court initially
granted Respondent's writ of attachment, following
oppositions by the parties and a hearing, the Circuit Court,
inter alia, vacated the writ of attachment. The
Circuit Court also declined to assume full jurisdiction over
the Jefferies Estate. Respondent filed a Notice for In Banc
Review of the Circuit Court's Order. A three-judge panel
affirmed the Circuit Court's vacatur of the writ of
in the breach of contract suit, Respondent filed a Motion for
Summary Judgment as to Mr. Watson on December 16, 2016.
Thereafter, he filed a Line for a Hearing on the Motion for
Summary Judgment. Mr. Watson, through counsel, filed an
opposition to the summary judgment motion. Although the
Motion for Summary Judgment had not been ruled on, the case
was closed for inactivity. On October 11, 2017, Mr. Watson
suffered a fatal stroke. According to the findings of the
hearing judge, Respondent
believed a legal claim against [Mr.] Watson's estate
probably was time-barred as of  the date the Respondent was
testifying. Remarkably, he also testified that but for
missing the opportunity to do so legally, he would be
pursuing a claim against [Mr.] Watson's estate for the
legal fees claimed in the Circuit Court action.
unsuccessful In Banc review in the Circuit Court, Respondent
again sought to hinder distributions from the Jefferies
Estate by filing a "Petition for Writ of Certiorari to
the Orphans' Court for Prince George's County"
on July 20, 2016. Judge Snoddy found that "Respondent
filed this petition because he felt his claim for litigation
counsel fees and expenses in connection with the Jefferies
Estate had been wrongfully denied, and he was determined to
obstruct final distributions from taking place." The
Circuit Court eventually denied the petition for certiorari
on May 18, 2017; however, the pendency of the petition
prevented Ms. Miller from making any distributions of Mr.
Jefferies's Estate. Importantly, the hearing judge noted
that "Respondent's filing of the Petition for Writ
of Certiorari had the effect of delaying final distributions,
to the detriment of the Respondent's former client [Mr.]
Watson, who would unfortunately pass away before receiving
continued his attempts to block the distributions from Mr.
Jefferies's Estate by filing two additional pleadings. On
May 26, 2017, upon denial of the petition for certiorari,
Respondent filed a Motion for Alteration or Amendment of the
Judgment of the Circuit Court. Thereafter, Respondent sought
review in this Court by filing a Petition for Writ of
Certiorari on July 27, 2017. This Court denied his petition
on September 22, 2017.
Judge Snoddy found that on several occasions Respondent
deposited into his law firm's attorney trust account rent
money that he had received from either Mr. Hutchens or Mr.
Watson. For example, on or about June 21, 2013, Mr. Hutchens
gave Respondent $900.00 of rent money, which Respondent
deposited into the McGill attorney trust account without
notifying Mr. Sasser of the existence of the funds. On May 5,
2014, Mr. Watson delivered to Respondent $400.00 in rent
money, the sum of which was deposited into the law firm's
attorney trust account. On February 4, 2015, Mr. Hutchens
delivered $1, 200.00 of rent money to Respondent. These funds
were also deposited into the McGill attorney trust account.
Respondent did not notify Ms. Miller that he had received two
rent payments in the amount of $400.00 and $1, 200.00. The
hearing judge found that Respondent "withdrew from the
escrow account some of the rent money for his personal use
and benefit." A check in the amount of $1, 012.69, made
payable to Respondent, was drawn from the McGill attorney
trust account on February 13, 2015. The deposit slip noted
that the amount of $1, 012.69 was the "balance of
'[Mr.] Hutchens's escrow [and] helps reduce [the]
Estate's debt to me." To be sure, Respondent
testified at the disciplinary hearing that "he
reimbursed himself for funds he had personally advanced to
the estate and was still owed, in February 2015, 'about
review a hearing judge's findings of fact for clear error
and his or her conclusions of law de novo.
Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Blair, 440 Md. 387,
400-01, 102 A.3d 786, 793 (2014). As far as what evidence a
hearing judge must rely upon to reach his or her conclusions,
we have said that the hearing judge "may 'pick and
choose' what evidence to believe." Attorney
Grievance Comm'n v. Page, 430 Md. 602, 627, 62 A.3d
163, 178 (2013). We reiterate this point in light of
Respondent's numerous exceptions to findings of facts in
which he suggests that the hearing court should have
made certain findings of fact. Accordingly, we will not
disturb the hearing judge's findings of fact unless they
are clearly erroneous. Blair, 440 Md. at 400, 102
A.3d at 793. We overrule Respondent's generalized
exceptions as to what findings of fact the hearing court
failed to make. Bar Counsel does not except to any of Judge
Snoddy's findings of fact.
Exceptions to Findings of Fact
respect to the hearing judge's finding that
Respondent's notice to Mr. Sasser of the existence of an
estate bank account within two months of Mr. Sasser's
appointment as Special Administrator was not prompt,
Respondent filed an exception. Arguably, whether
Respondent's notice was prompt is a matter of
subjective calculation given the circumstances. See,
e.g., Commercial Union Ins. Co. v. Porter Hayden
Co., 116 Md.App. 605, 663, 698 A.2d 1167, 1195 (1997)
("[T]imeliness of notice is an elusive concept as it is
variously defined as 'as soon as practicable,'
'within a reasonable time under all the
circumstances,' 'not an iron-bound requirement that
it be immediate or even prompt,' and 'within a
reasonable time in light of the facts and circumstances of
the case at hand.'"). Notwithstanding, we overrule
Respondent's exception to the fact that he sent a letter
to Mr. Sasser on or about July 10, 2012 alerting Mr. Sasser
as to the caveat litigation but failed, at that time, to
mention the existence of the Estate's assets. In other
words, when Respondent had an opportunity to promptly notify
Mr. Sasser about the Estate bank account, he delayed doing so
by approximately one month.
of Law & Respondent's Exceptions to
Conclusions of Law
Counsel does not except to any of the hearing judge's
conclusions of law. Respondent excepts to all of the
conclusions of law. For his part, Judge Snoddy reached
detailed conclusions of law, by clear and convincing
evidence, with respect to Mr. Woolery's violations of the
MLRPC and MARPC based on evidence presented at the
19-301.1 Competence (1.1)
19-301.1 Competence (1.1) provides: "An attorney shall
provide competent representation to a client. Competent
representation requires the legal knowledge, skill,
thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the
Respondent chose to "insert himself into the estate
administration process as counsel for [Mr.] Hutchens, [he]
was obligated to do so competently." Among other acts
violative of Rule 1.1, the hearing judge found that
Respondent acted inappropriately. He
usurped the fiduciary responsibilities assigned to [Mr.]
Sasser and failed to disclose material information in his
possession about estate assets to [Mr.] Sasser . . . By
withholding information from [Mr.] Sasser, the Respondent
hampered [Mr.] Sasser's ability to carry out his
fiduciary accounting requirements as special administrator .
. . Perhaps most egregiously, the Respondent
misappropriated estate funds when, on multiple
occasions, he deposited cash rent payments received from
[Mr.] Hutchens and [Mr.] Watson into his firm's attorney
hearing judge appropriately observed that "[a]lthough he
was not officially charged with the responsibility of
administering the Jefferies Estate, the Respondent
effectively chose to take on such a role without
authorization through his actions." Judge Snoddy
concluded that Respondent failed to provide competent
representation to each of the three clients: Mr. Watson, Mr.
Hutchens, and Mr. Sasser.
excepts to the conclusion that he did not competently
represent his three clients in violation of Rule 1.1. He
argues that he did not lose the caveat litigation, that Mr.
Watson received his real estate parcel, and that the
Estate's property was not lost to tax sale. Because we do
not measure an attorney's violation of the Rules of
Professional Conduct based on success, or failure to succeed,
we overrule Respondent's exception.
19-301.2 Scope of Representation and Allocation of Authority
Between Client and Attorney (1.2)
19-301.2 Scope of Representation and Allocation of Authority
Between Client and Attorney ...