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Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Edwards

Court of Appeals of Maryland

February 26, 2019

ATTORNEY GRIEVANCE COMMISSION OF MARYLAND
v.
CHRISTAL ELIZABETH EDWARDS

          Argued: November 2, 2018

          Circuit Court for Montgomery County Case Nos. 32435-M & 434768-V

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

          OPINION

          Barbera, C.J.

         Petitioner, the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, acting through Bar Counsel, filed in this Court two Petitions for Disciplinary or Remedial Action against Respondent, Christal Elizabeth Edwards, regarding six separate complaints filed against her by former clients and a stenographer formerly employed by Respondent. Bar Counsel moved to consolidate the two petitions and we granted that motion. The petitions allege violations of the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct[1] ("MLRPC") 1.1 (Competence), 1.2 (Scope of Representation), 1.3 (Diligence), 1.4 (Communication), 1.5 (Fees), 1.15 (Safekeeping Property), 1.16 (Declining or Terminating Representation), 3.3(a) (Candor Toward the Tribunal), 3.4(c) (Fairness to Opposing Party and Counsel), 5.5(a) (Unauthorized Practice of Law; Multijurisdictional Practice of Law), 7.1(a) (Communications Concerning a Lawyer's Services), 8.1(b) (Bar Admission and Disciplinary Matters), and 8.4(a), (c), and (d) (Misconduct).[2]

         On June 29, 2016, this Court transmitted this matter to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County and designated the Honorable Nelson W. Rupp, Jr., ("the hearing judge") to conduct an evidentiary hearing and make findings of fact and conclusions of law. The hearing took place on February 20-23, 2018, and April 16, 2018. At the hearing, the judge heard testimony from Respondent and ten witnesses (seven for Petitioner and three for Respondent). The hearing judge precluded Respondent from introducing evidence regarding her record-keeping for two of her clients, as Respondent had failed to satisfy Bar Counsel's discovery request for those documents prior to the hearing.

         We adopt in large part the hearing judge's proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Based on the rule violations that Respondent committed, as well as the aggravating and mitigating factors we have identified, we disbar Respondent.

         I. The Hearing Judge's Findings of Fact

         We summarize here the hearing judge's findings of fact, which are supported by clear and convincing evidence.

         Background

         Respondent was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 2007 and the United States District Court for the District of Maryland in 2009. She was subsequently admitted to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in 2010 and the District of Columbia Bar in 2013. At all relevant times, Respondent maintained an office at 8403 Colesville Road, Suite 1100, Silver Spring, Maryland ("Colesville Road Office"). Respondent listed the Colesville Road Office with the Client Protection Fund of the Bar of Maryland. Respondent also currently maintains an office at 9701 Apollo Drive, Suite 301, Largo, Maryland ("Apollo Drive Office").

         Respondent suffers from ulcerative colitis, which is a "chronic ulceration in the large intestine, characterized by painful abdominal cramps and profuse diarrhea containing pus, blood, and mucus." Ulcerative Colitis, Dictionary.com [https://perma.cc/DB3A-NCUB]. Respondent was diagnosed in 1999 and testified that although the disease can be manageable, she occasionally experienced what she called "flare ups." These "flare ups" caused Respondent to be hospitalized six times between 2015-2016: (1) March 12-31, 2015; (2) August 27-30, 2015; (3) September 13-20, 2015; (4) October 11-16, 2015; (5) December 27-30, 2015; and (6) January 20-February 4, 2016. The hearing judge credited Respondent's claim that she received care through doctor visits and "two to three-hour 'infusion appointments' from October 6, 2011 through May 19, 2016."[3]

         Representation of Rochell Richardson

         In late January 2010, Rochell Richardson entered into a contract with Capitol Improvement Contractors, Inc. ("Capitol") to rehabilitate her family home. The contract was financed through a City of Baltimore ("City") "'203k' home rehabilitation program" and required disputes under the contract to be resolved through arbitration "under the auspices of the Better Business Bureau, Inc."

         Seven months later, after demolishing "substantial portions of the home," and causing the water in Ms. Richardson's home to run continuously, Capitol stopped working due to, what it called, "unforeseen conditions." As a result, Ms. Richardson filed a pro se complaint against Capitol with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation ("DLLR"). The complaint alleged that Capitol had left Ms. Richardson's home unsafe and in a state of disrepair. Her complaint was sent to the Better Business Bureau per the arbitration clause of the contract.

         On February 2, 2011, the Environmental Control Board of Baltimore City issued an Environmental Citation to Ms. Richardson due to the condition of her home. Later that same month, the City sent Ms. Richardson an invoice for a delinquent water bill totaling $2, 106.59.

         Ms. Richardson's niece, Alisa Boddie, who acted as an intermediary throughout this matter, introduced Ms. Richardson to Respondent. In early October 2011, Ms. Richardson retained Respondent on a contingent fee basis to represent her in an "Arbitration and Civil Suit involving Capitol Improvement Contractors, LLC and Baltimore Housing Authority."

         In December 2011, the City declared Ms. Richardson's home uninhabitable. Ms. Richardson was forced to move out later that month.

         On March 4, 2012, Respondent sent a "Demand Letter for Arbitration Hearing" to the Office of Rehabilitation. On March 23, 2012, Respondent sent a similar demand letter to the Better Business Bureau. No hearing was scheduled and nothing in the record suggests that Respondent followed up on either letter.

         The following month, the Baltimore City Bureau of Revenue Collections sent a "Tax Sale Notice" to Ms. Richardson. At that point, Ms. Richardson learned that the City had placed a tax lien on her home because of the delinquent water bill. A tax sale was scheduled to occur on May 21, 2012.

         On the day of the tax sale, Respondent wrote to the Bureau of Revenue Collections stating that the water bill was part of a lawsuit.[4] Two days later, Capitol filed a breach of contract action against Ms. Richardson.

         Respondent then assured Ms. Richardson that arbitration was unnecessary and that she would file a lawsuit against Capitol. Respondent, however, never sent a letter of representation or a demand letter to Capitol. Nor did Respondent file a lawsuit on Ms. Richardson's behalf, correspond with Capitol, or enter her appearance in Capitol's lawsuit against Ms. Richardson.

         In November 2014, Respondent advised Ms. Richardson that she was working on Ms. Richardson's case and that after the holidays, her case would be Respondent's "first priority." The hearing judge found that Respondent misled Ms. Richardson (and Ms. Boddie) by communicating that she would continue to work on Ms. Richardson's case.

         On July 6, 2015, after receiving no communications from Respondent for over six months, Ms. Boddie requested, on Ms. Richardson's behalf, that Respondent call her to discuss the case. Respondent informed Ms. Boddie and Ms. Richardson, for the first time, that she had been in the hospital and "out sick right after the holidays and just returned to work full time about two weeks ago." The hearing judge found that between January and July 2015, Respondent took no action to protect the interests of Ms. Richardson. Respondent's medical records reflect a hospitalization from mid to late March, but nothing "right after the holidays" or "about two weeks" before July 6, 2015.

         By July 25, 2015, Respondent still had not taken any action in Ms. Richardson's case, prompting Ms. Richardson to file a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission. In over three years, Respondent's representation of Ms. Richardson consisted of nothing more than the three letters sent to the Baltimore City Office of Rehabilitation, the Better Business Bureau, and the Baltimore City Bureau of Revenue Collections.

         Representation of Brenda Dyer

         In November 2012, Brenda Dyer was injured during a "Black Friday" event at a Walmart in Collierville, Tennessee. A group of customers, while rushing a display, knocked Ms. Dyer over and trampled her. Ms. Dyer suffered injuries to her leg and back. Respondent's sister, who worked with Ms. Dyer, referred Ms. Dyer to Respondent.

         On December 12, 2012, Ms. Dyer hired Respondent on a contingent fee basis. Respondent told Ms. Dyer that they would wait to file a lawsuit until Ms. Dyer's medical treatment was complete and her doctors "cleared" her.

         On December 23, 2012, Ms. Dyer sent Respondent the following email:

The [doctor] has set me up for [an] MRI on January 2nd for my back and knee. My back ha[s] degenerative disc disease at L5 Sl. I thought you should know that info. Have you talked to Walmart at all [o]r are you waiting for me to get their determination [o]f fault letter?

         Respondent did not respond.

         Three days later, Ms. Dyer again emailed Respondent, stating:

Please call me when you are available so that we can meet up and discuss the case. I have not heard anything from them in reference to their decision about who was at fault yet.

         Respondent did not respond.

         A month later, Ms. Dyer emailed Respondent yet again, stating, in pertinent part:

My parents suggested I send you an email because you are probably busy. I had left you a message a couple weeks ago letting you know that the claims agent from Walmart had attempted to call me and I did not answer the call because you had stated you would do the talking with them instead of me. I was wondering if you were able to get ahold of them? I am just curious because the MRI bill will be coming in soon and I truthfully do not have the money to pay for it because it went towards my deductible. I already owe my doctor[']s office additional monies because they have charged additional for me when they had drained my knee and they were charging me incorrectly for the therapy sessions. Please let me know what I should do or if Walmart has agreed that it was their fault.

         On the same day, Respondent replied:

Yes, you are correct in not speaking with Walmart. I left a message and sent my letter of representation to them. I will give them a call on Monday and follow up with you then.

         When Respondent sent this email, she in fact had not left a message, sent a letter of representation, or had any correspondence with Walmart whatsoever. The hearing judge found this to be a knowing and intentional misrepresentation.

         A week after Respondent's email, Ms. Dyer emailed Respondent, asking: "Did you already talk to the insurance guy?" Respondent did not respond.

         Eleven days later, Ms. Dyer emailed Respondent the following:

I have to go in for surgery on Monday for my knee, there is a meniscus tear. Have you heard anything from Walmart[?] You had stated previously you would be calling me back but I have not heard anything. I have given it a couple weeks and I have called and left you a message. Please let me know what is going on.

         Respondent did not respond.

         Over a month later, Ms. Dyer emailed Respondent asking for an update on her case. Respondent did not respond.

Eleven days later, Ms. Dyer emailed Respondent yet again, this time stating:
I was just wondering if you had heard anything from Walmart yet. It has been over 4 months since it occurred so they have to have said something by now. I am worried if we wait too long the tape will [disappear] from that night.

         On April 17, 2013, Respondent sent a letter to Walmart's representative, Claims Management, Inc., stating, in pertinent part:

This letter is to advise that I am the legal representative for [Brenda Dyer] as the result of injuries sustained during an incident while shopping on "Black Friday" at a Wal-Mart store in Collierville, TN.
It is my understanding that [Ms. Dyer] began working with your office over three months ago. Please feel free to contact me at the above address and telephone number for any further information.

         Ms. Dyer never received a copy of that letter.

         Between September and October 2013, Ms. Dyer sent Respondent at least four text messages relating to her case. On October 4, 2013, having not received a response, Ms. Dyer emailed Respondent stating:

I have sent you text messages on several different occasions. I have sent an email to the [firm's] general email address. I just left a message at the office today. I am getting concerned that I have not heard back from you. My surgery is almost 2 weeks away. Have you heard anything? I am concerned that I have not heard from you and wonder if everything is ok on your end or if I need to find another attorney. Please let me know so I will know how to proceed.

         On November 22, 2013, the statute of limitations for Ms. Dyer's claim in Tennessee expired with no suit having been filed.

         In April 2014, approximately five months after the statute of limitations had run, Respondent informed Ms. Dyer, for the first time, that Walmart denied liability for her injuries. Respondent then told Ms. Dyer that she would pursue a lawsuit against Walmart in Arkansas.[5]

         On May 23, 2014, Ms. Dyer sent a text message to Respondent asking whether she had filed the complaint or retrieved the surveillance footage. Respondent did not respond.

         Nine days later, Ms. Dyer sent another text message to Respondent, asking, "Is the lawyer in Arkansas going to file?" Respondent replied, "Yes." The hearing judge found that this was a knowing and intentional misrepresentation because there was no evidence that Respondent had "made any arrangements to file a claim . . . in either Tennessee or Arkansas."

         On June 5, 2014, Ms. Dyer again sent Respondent a text message following up on her questions from May 23, 2014. Respondent did not respond. On June 11, 2014, Ms. Dyer sent a text message to Respondent terminating Respondent's representation.

         Respondent never filed a lawsuit or coordinated with local counsel to have a lawsuit filed in either Tennessee or Arkansas. On August 14, 2015, Ms. Dyer filed a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission.

         Outstanding Invoices-Marguerite D. Keller

         In July 2013, Respondent hired Marguerite Keller as a stenographer in connection with her representation of a client. Respondent failed to pay three separate invoices totaling more than $1, 400. On September 2, 2014, Ms. Keller filed a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission.

         Representation of LaTasha Houston Initial Work

         On March 30, 2014, LaTasha Houston, who sought to modify a child support order, executed a retainer agreement with Respondent. The agreement called for a $1, 000 retainer and stated that work would be billed at an hourly rate of $275.00. The following day, Respondent deposited Ms. Houston's $1, 000 retainer into her attorney trust account.

         After the father of Ms. Houston's child, Mr. Wilson, moved to modify the child support order, a hearing was set for June 10, 2014. Respondent informed Ms. Houston that she would raise Ms. Houston's motion to modify the child support order at the hearing.

         On April 28, 2014, Respondent prepared a subpoena for Mr. Wilson's employer, the U.S. Marshals Service, to obtain information regarding his earnings and leave. In preparing the subpoena, Respondent listed the return date as May 1, 2014, i.e., three days later. Twelve days after the subpoena's listed return date, Respondent served the subpoena on the Marshals Service via facsimile.

         The Marshals Service moved to quash the subpoena, arguing, among other things, that the subpoena was served after its return date. Respondent did not respond to the motion to quash, but instead, told Ms. Houston that they would find a different way of getting Mr. Wilson's financial information.

         Respondent attended the June hearing without having filed an opposition to Mr. Wilson's motion to modify the child support order. At that time, Respondent told the court and Mr. Wilson that a motion to modify the child support was forthcoming.

         After the hearing and in response to Ms. Houston's trepidation about the case, Respondent reassured her that she would draft a motion to modify the child support order within a few days. Ms. Houston then asked if Respondent would file a motion to recuse the judge.[6] Respondent agreed to do so.

         Throughout June and July 2014, Ms. Houston sent Respondent multiple emails requesting status updates on the two motions Ms. Houston had requested be filed by Respondent. When Respondent replied, she assured Ms. Houston that the motions were going to be served along with discovery requests.

         On June 14, 2014, Respondent propounded interrogatories on Mr. Wilson. When Mr. Wilson did not respond, Respondent failed to compel discovery or otherwise obtain the information sought.

         Four days later, Ms. Houston requested to see a document relating to the motion to quash, which the U.S. Marshals Service had filed previously. Ms. Houston also reiterated her concern about the filing of the motion to modify child support and the motion to recuse, stating that Respondent was "three business days behind [the agreed upon] scheduled date."

         Respondent reassured Ms. Houston that she would finish the motions. Respondent did not mention the Marshals Service's motion to quash, nor did she provide a copy of the motion to Ms. Houston, as she had requested.

         Respondent continued to ignore Ms. Houston and her requests for documents and updates on her case. Consequently, on July 14, 2014, Ms. Houston told Respondent that if the motions were not filed by July 18, 2014, Ms. Houston would be requesting a full refund. Respondent did not respond.

         On August 5, 2014, Ms. Houston wrote to Respondent to terminate her representation, request her client file, and demand a full refund of the retainer fee. Roughly two months later, Respondent sent a letter to Ms. Houston (and apparently all her clients), stating:

I am writing this letter to inform you of my very unforeseen and unfortunate situation. For the past six months I have been dealing with a chronic disease and it has caused me to be extremely ill for the past two months. As a result, I have been unable to fulfill my obligations to you, as my client and the matters of your case. I sincerely apologize. However, by the grace of God, I am currently doing well and back in the office fulltime.
It is my plan to personally contact you during this week, the week of September 29, 2014, to discuss your case and how you want me to proceed. Again, I sincerely apologize for any delay in your matter.

         The next day, Ms. Houston replied to Respondent's letter. In it, she again informed Respondent that she was discharging her and wanted her client file and a full refund. Respondent agreed to send the requested refund and informed Ms. Houston that she had asked to be removed from the case. Ms. Houston wished Respondent well and asked when she could expect her file and refund. Respondent did not respond. The hearing judge found that Respondent also "never filed a motion or praecipe to withdraw her appearance from the matter."

         On October 8, 2014, Ms. Houston emailed Respondent, stating:

[I]t has been 7 days since our last communication where you acknowledge[d] receipt of my letter and confirmed that you were sending my refund. If it has not been done already, being that a week has pas[sed], please send my refund and a copy of my case by 10/15/2014.
I pray all is well with your health.

         Respondent did not respond.

         The Lawsuit

         Near the end of October 2014, Ms. Houston filed a lawsuit against Respondent in the District Court of Maryland seeking $1, 000 in damages.

         On or about October 29, 2014, Respondent called Ms. Houston to inform her that Respondent would not be providing a refund. Ms. Houston once again asked for her refund and her client file. Ms. Houston served Respondent with the District Court complaint and a Writ of Summons on October 31, 2014.

         On January 23, 2015, Respondent filed a notice of intention to defend. In the notice, Respondent argued that she did not owe Ms. Houston any money because the retainer fee was earned in full. Respondent then filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alterative, for summary judgment. The motion claimed, among other things, that Respondent was in "constant communication[] with [Ms. Houston]," that Respondent became "gravely ill for several months" after being "assigned" the case, that Ms. Houston was aware of Respondent's illness, and that the "modification hearing did not take place because [Ms.] Houston terminated the services of the Edwards Legal Group." The hearing judge found that Respondent "knowingly and intentionally misrepresented . . . that she was 'in constant communication' with Ms. Houston."[7]

         Approximately six months after Ms. Houston's first request, Respondent provided Ms. Houston with her client file. The client file did not include either a motion for modification of the child support order or a motion to recuse the judge, both of which Ms. Houston had requested be done. The District Court denied Respondent's motion to dismiss or for summary judgment and later ruled in Ms. Houston's favor awarding her $1, 000 plus costs.

         Insofar as the record reflects, Respondent never returned the retainer fee to Ms. Houston. Respondent never provided an invoice to Ms. Houston during her representation.

         The Billing Records

         As part of Respondent's motion to dismiss Ms. Houston's complaint against her in the District Court, Respondent attached an invoice that she had generated. In comparing the invoice with Respondent's bank records, the hearing judge found that Respondent's invoice was "false." Although Respondent's invoice demonstrated that Respondent withdrew Ms. Houston's $1, 000 retainer fee on June 30, 2014, bank records reveal that Respondent had in fact disbursed all of Ms. Houston's $1, 000 payment by April 14, 2014. Additionally, the hearing judge found that the invoice listed work Respondent had allegedly done on Ms. Houston's motion to modify the child support order and the motion for recusal, but that Ms. Houston's client file did not include either motion.

         The hearing judge then seemingly found that even if he were to credit the work Respondent listed in her invoice, Respondent disbursed the retainer fee before having earned it in full. Respondent billed at a rate of $275.00 per hour and claims to have performed 3.5 hours of work between March 30, 2014 and May 1, 2014. Because Respondent was only entitled to $962.50 of the $1, 000 retainer fee when she made her withdrawal on April 14, 2014, the hearing judge found that Respondent had disbursed the retainer fee before it was earned.[8]

         Respondent misled Ms. Houston to believe that she was working on Ms. Houston's behalf and, further, that Respondent sought removal from the case. Lastly, Respondent never explained to Ms. Houston that before she could file a motion for modification of child support, Respondent needed a subpoena of Mr. Wilson's financial information or answers to interrogatories.

         In short, Ms. Houston retained Respondent to file a motion for modification of child support and a motion for recusal. Respondent did neither.

         Representation of Angela Spencer

         In early 2012, Angela Spencer entered into a contract with Ardekani & Associates ("Ardekani") to renovate her kitchen. After the project was completed, Ms. Spencer withheld full payment because she was dissatisfied with Ardekani's workmanship.

         In September 2012, Ardekani filed a breach of contract action in the District Court of Maryland against Ms. Spencer. Ms. Spencer moved to dismiss that action. In March 2013, the District Court dismissed the contractor's complaint and informed Ms. Spencer that she could proceed with a counterclaim against Ardekani. Following the disposition of Ardekani's subsequent appeal, the District Court set trial for November 21, 2014.

         On October 9, 2014, Ms. Spencer executed Respondent's retainer agreement and paid half of the $1, 500 retainer. The agreement provided that Respondent would represent Ms. Spencer in her "Counterclaim for damages in civil case number 0502-0024756-2012 in Prince George's County, Maryland." The agreement also provided that Respondent would charge $325 per hour.

         A week before the trial, Respondent entered her appearance and moved for a continuance. The court granted the motion and postponed the trial until January 27, 2015.

         Two months before trial, Ms. Spencer emailed Respondent to ask whether Respondent had contacted Mr. LaValle, Ms. Spencer's expert. Respondent did not respond.

         A month later, on January 4, 2015, Ms. Spencer emailed Respondent to schedule a phone call. Respondent replied the following day, stating "I am just getting back in town from the holidays and want to review your case file at the courthouse again. Also, I am going to reach out to Ardekani this week as well. Let's touch base on Thursday [, January 8, 2015]."

         On January 13 and 16, 2015, Ms. Spencer asked again whether Respondent was in contact with Mr. LaValle. Respondent did not respond.

         On January 26, 2015, the day before trial, Respondent filed an "Application to Inspect Public Records." The court subsequently postponed the matter until April 8, 2015.

         On February 16, 2015, Ms. Spencer emailed Respondent requesting an update on her case. Respondent did not respond.

         On March 2, 2015, Ms. Spencer reiterated her request for an update. Respondent did not respond.

         On March 19, 2015, Ardekani, through its counsel, propounded interrogatories on Ms. Spencer. Ms. Spencer requested that Respondent send her the interrogatories and asked if everything was ready for trial. Respondent did not respond.

         Respondent did not inform Ms. Spencer or Ardekani that she was hospitalized between March 12 and 31, 2015. On April 3, 2015, Respondent, without informing Ms. Spencer, filed another motion for a continuance because Respondent was "currently hospitalized." The court granted the motion and rescheduled trial for July 20, 2015.

         On April 23, 2015, Ms. Spencer emailed Respondent to ask if there was a new trial date and to request copies of all filings made by either Ardekani or Respondent. Respondent did not respond.

         Two months later, Ardekani filed a "Consent Motion for Continuance" due to a scheduling conflict. As a result, the court rescheduled the trial for September 11, 2015. Ardekani also informed Respondent that it would be forced to move for sanctions based on Respondent's failure to provide discovery.

         On June 30, 2015, Respondent emailed Ms. Spencer and told her that Ardekani had sent discovery requests while Respondent was in the hospital. Respondent also told Ms. Spencer to answer the interrogatories and that Respondent would review them. Respondent did not mention that Ardekani intended to file a motion for sanctions.

         Ms. Spencer sent the completed interrogatories to Respondent on July 8, 2015. Ms. Spencer also provided suggestions to Respondent that Ms. Spencer felt would be appropriate for their interrogatories to Ardekani. It was at this time that Ms. Spencer expressed an interest in settling the case. Respondent, however, never engaged Ardekani in settlement negotiations or sent the interrogatories.

         On July 21, 2015, Ms. Spencer asked about the status of her case, whether the interrogatories had been sent to Ardekani, and if Respondent had drafted anything for ...


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