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Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Woolery

Court of Appeals of Maryland

December 20, 2018

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND
v.
BENJAMIN JEREMY WOOLERY

          Argued: November 2, 2018

          Circuit Court for Prince George's County Case No. CAE17-17576

          Barbera, C.J. Greene McDonald Watts Hotten Getty Adkins, Sally D. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          GREENE, J.

         This 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.

         On July 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.[1]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).

         Upon 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.

         FINDINGS OF FACT

         The 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.

         Initial Representation

         Ronald 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.

         On the 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").[2] Respondent knew that a tenant lived in the Brandywine house, and he had copies of the lease agreement for the rental property.

         Mr. 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.

         The 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.

         On June 14, 2012, the Orphans' Court for Prince George's County appointed Justin Sasser, Esq., as special administrator of the Jefferies Estate.[3] 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 administrator."

         Respondent 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 Evolving Representation

         Although 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.

         In the 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.

         In 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.[4] 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.

         In May 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.

         Just 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.[5] He did not turn over the money to Mr. Sasser.

         In 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 caveat proceeding.

         On 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.

         In 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.[6] 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.

         Although 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.

         After 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 [Mr.] Watson."

         Ms. 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."

         On 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, Respondent

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 assets.

         As a 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."

         After 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.

         Respondent's Court Filings

         Respondent 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."

         In 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)."

         Respondent's Efforts to Manipulate His Client

         Mr. 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[.]"

         Eventually 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.

         Respondent's Continued Court Filings and Efforts to Coerce Former Clients

         Ms. 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.

         Mr. 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 account."

         Thereafter, 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.[7] 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."

         Separate 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 attachment.

         Meanwhile, 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.

         Following 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 his distribution."

         Respondent 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.

         Attorney Trust Account

         Finally, 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 three grand.'"

         DISCUSSION

         Standard of Review

         We 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.

         Respondent's Exceptions to Findings of Fact

         With 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.[8]

         Conclusions of Law & Respondent's Exceptions to Conclusions of Law

         Bar 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 evidentiary hearing.

         MARPC 19-301.1 Competence (1.1)[9]

         MARPC 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 representation."

         Once 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[10] estate funds when, on multiple occasions, he deposited cash rent payments received from [Mr.] Hutchens and [Mr.] Watson into his firm's attorney trust account.

         The 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.

         Respondent 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.

         MARPC 19-301.2 Scope of Representation and Allocation of Authority Between Client and Attorney (1.2)

         MARPC 19-301.2 Scope of Representation and Allocation of Authority Between Client and Attorney ...


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