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Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Singh

Court of Appeals of Maryland

July 17, 2019

Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland
v.
Raj Sanjeet Singh

          Argument: February 28, 2019

          Circuit Court for Montgomery County Case No. 448654-V

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

          OPINION

          McDonald, J.

         The phrase "no harm, no foul" derives from the idea that, if a foul committed in a basketball game does not affect the outcome, the referee should not call the foul.[1] It denotes harmless error in a sports context. The rules of professional conduct governing attorneys do not allow us to adopt that approach. Many of those rules are prophylactic in nature. We must call a foul when one is committed, although the severity of the harm - or a lack of harm - may affect the sanction.

         Respondent Raj Sanjeet Singh is a Maryland attorney who primarily practices immigration law from an office in Montgomery County. In 2014, Mr. Singh successfully represented an immigrant and the immigrant's spouse, who was a United States citizen, in obtaining conditional permanent resident status for the immigrant for a two-year period based on their recent marriage. Mr. Singh advised them to return to him well before that status expired in order to remove the conditions and the time limit.

         The immigrant and the spouse later experienced marital difficulties. Mr. Singh failed to respond promptly to the immigrant's inquiries concerning his options as to permanent resident status. When Mr. Singh acceded to the immigrant's request in 2016 that he research potential criminal charges against the spouse, Mr. Singh had a conflict of interest based on his prior representation of both spouses. A fee dispute also ensued, and the immigrant filed a complaint with Bar Counsel.

         In response, Mr. Singh gave a refund to the immigrant and forwarded to Bar Counsel a release from the client that did not comply with the ethical rule governing attorney settlements with clients. During the course of Bar Counsel's investigation, Mr. Singh also made a misleading statement under oath concerning his general compliance with the rules requiring deposit of client funds in an attorney trust account.

         In the end, there was no evidence of misappropriation or any indication that client funds were used other than for their intended purpose. The immigrant ultimately obtained unconditional permanent resident status, apparently using the strategy proposed by Mr. Singh. While no one may have suffered harm from Mr. Singh's violations of the ethical rules, those rules are designed to ensure that attorneys are conscientious in their representation of clients and do not take advantage of them. Even in the absence of harm, we cannot ignore the foul. Given the context of Mr. Singh's otherwise unblemished career and successful representation of this client, the appropriate sanction for these violations is suspension for 60 days.

         I

         Background

         A. Procedural Context

         On May 24, 2018, the Attorney Grievance Commission ("Commission"), through Bar Counsel, filed a Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action against Mr. Singh, alleging that he had violated numerous provisions of the rules of professional conduct.[2]

         These included alleged violations of Rule 1.1 (competence); Rule 1.2 (scope of representation); Rule 1.3 (diligence); Rule 1.4 (communication); Rule 1.5 (reasonableness of fees); Rule 1.7 (conflict of interest - generally); Rule 1.8 (conflict of interest - specific rules); Rule 1.9 (duties to former clients); Rule 1.15 (safekeeping property); Rule 8.1 (false statement in connection with a disciplinary matter); Rule 8.4 (misconduct); as well as violations of Maryland Rules 19-404 (trust account - deposits) and 19-407 (trust account recordkeeping). Bar Counsel later withdrew the charges pertaining to the reasonableness of fees and trust account recordkeeping.

         Pursuant to Rule 19-722(a), we designated Judge Kevin G. Hessler of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County to conduct a hearing concerning the alleged violations and to provide findings of fact and conclusions of law. Following a hearing in October 2018, the hearing judge concluded that Mr. Singh had violated Rule 1.3, Rule 1.4, Rule 1.7, Rule 1.8, Rule 1.15(a) & (c), Rule 8.1, Rule 8.4(a), (c), & (d), and Maryland Rule 19-404. The hearing judge concluded that there was insufficient evidence of violations of Rule 1.1, Rule 1.2, and Rule 1.9.

         Bar Counsel did not except to the hearing judge's findings or conclusions other than in minor respects.[3] Mr. Singh filed a number of exceptions. In particular, Mr. Singh took issue with the hearing judge's conclusions concerning the alleged violations of Rule 1.3, Rule 1.4, Rule 1.7, Rule 1.8, Rule 8.1, and Rule 8.4. Mr. Singh conceded, as he had at the hearing, that he had violated Rule 1.15 concerning safekeeping of client funds and Maryland Rule 19-404 concerning required deposits in his attorney trust account.

         B. Facts

         When no exception is made to a hearing judge's finding of fact, we accept it as established. Maryland Rule 19-741(b)(2)(A). When a party excepts to a finding, we must determine whether the finding is established by the requisite standard of proof - in the case of an allegation of misconduct, clear and convincing evidence. Maryland Rules 19-741(b)(2)(B), 19-727(c). We summarize below the hearing judge's findings and other undisputed matters in the record. We address any exceptions in relation to the findings to which they pertain.

         Mr. Singh's Credentials and Practice

         Mr. Singh has been a member of the Maryland Bar since 1998. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in accounting and earned his law degree from the University of Richmond Law School. He initially worked at PriceWaterhouseCoopers before starting his own law firm in Montgomery County in 2000. As a solo practitioner, he has focused his practice primarily on immigration law, although he has also worked on family law matters and business transactions. His immigration practice consists of family immigration, asylum applications, and deportation defense matters. During the period relevant to this case, he employed a legal assistant, Linda Villanueva, who is fluent in Spanish as well as English.

         Mr. A - a Client with an Immigration Issue

         This case grew out of Mr. Singh's representation of an individual who we shall refer to as Mr. A, [4] an immigrant from Brazil. Mr. A was born in Americana, Brazil, in 1984 and came to the United States in January 2007 on a J-1 cultural exchange visa. Since coming to the United States, Mr. A has held a variety of jobs at fast food restaurants, pizzerias, and delivery and ride hailing services.

         Mr. A speaks Portuguese, Spanish, and some English, although he is not fully comfortable in English. He testified through a translator at the hearing of this case, although he was able to discuss exhibits that were in English - some written by Mr. A himself. At Mr. Singh's office, Ms. Villanueva sometimes functioned as a translator, speaking with Mr. A in Spanish, and then repeating the substance in English for Mr. Singh. On March 14, 2014, Mr. A married Mr. J, a citizen of the United States whom he had met in 2010 and who lived in Alexandria, Virginia. At the time of the marriage, Mr. A's visa was no longer valid. To address Mr. A's immigration status, Mr. A and Mr. J sought Mr. Singh's assistance.

         Applying for and Obtaining a Conditional Green Card for Mr. A

         On April 1, 2014, Mr. A met with Mr. Singh at his office. Mr. Singh agreed to represent Mr. A and his spouse in the effort to obtain permanent resident status for Mr. A, and the accompanying documentation, commonly known as a "green card."[5] Mr. Singh obtained relevant information from Mr. A and Mr. J in order to file an I-130 petition ("Petition for Alien Relative") by Mr. J, an I-485 form ("Application to Register Permanent Residence") by Mr. A, and related forms with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS").[6]

         On May 15, 2014, Mr. Singh met with both Mr. A and Mr. J to ensure that the documents were complete and accurate. That same day, he mailed to USCIS the relevant immigration forms, as well as tax transcripts, birth certificates, Mr. A's passport and medical examination results, and their marriage license. In connection with that filing, Mr. Singh entered his appearance as attorney on behalf of both spouses. Mr. Singh followed up with additional documentation requested by USCIS. In August 2014, USCIS approved Mr. A's authorization for employment and also advised him that he and Mr. J had been scheduled for an interview on October 2, 2014.

         In September 2014, Mr. A and Mr. J met with Mr. Singh in his office to prepare for their USCIS interview. Mr. Singh advised them as to the types of questions they would be asked during the interview and they reviewed their answers with him. Mr. Singh did not accompany them to the interview.

         Shortly after the USCIS interview on October 2, 2014, Mr. A received a conditional green card with an expiration date two years hence - October 2, 2016. Mr. A's permanent resident status was conditional because the marriage was less than two years old at the time of application. USCIS advised Mr. A to apply for removal of the conditions several months before his conditional green card would expire. Mr. Singh told Mr. A and Mr. J to contact him three to six months before the expiration date for the purpose of preparing an I-751 form ("Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence").

         As we shall see, Mr. A eventually was able to remove the conditions from his green card, but neither the marriage nor the attorney-client relationship lasted to that time.

         The Breakdown of Mr. A's Marriage

         In 2015, approximately one year into the marriage, Mr. A and Mr. J began to experience marital problems. According to Mr. A, he believed that he was being abused by Mr. J.[7] At some point during that year, Mr. A contacted Mr. Singh to ask how a separation or divorce would affect his ability to remove the conditions on his green card.

         During the fall of 2015, Mr. Singh discussed with Mr. A the possibility that Mr. A could file an I-751 petition by himself without Mr. J's cooperation, based on a law that authorizes the filing of a solo petition in circumstances of domestic abuse.[8] To succeed on such a petition, Mr. A would have to establish that the marriage had been contracted in good faith, that the spouses resided together for a period of time, and that the immigrant spouse was subject to battery or extreme cruelty by the citizen spouse. See 8 U.S.C. §1154(a)(1)(A)(iii). Mr. Singh advised Mr. A on the type of evidence and documentation that he would need for such a petition. He also told Mr. A to contact the police if he felt afraid.

         In December 2015, Mr. A moved out of Mr. J's home in Virginia and advised Mr. Singh that he had done so. Mr. Singh told Mr. A to consult with a Virginia attorney concerning his domestic relations issues. Mr. A responded that he did not know or trust anyone in Virginia and insisted on continuing to consult with Mr. Singh. From the time he left Mr. J's home in December 2015 through early March 2016, Mr. A sent Mr. Singh more than 100 pages of emails, texts, and social media entries relating to the alleged abuse by Mr. J. As of that time, Mr. A had not formally retained Mr. Singh (or paid him) to represent Mr. A with respect to removing the conditions on his green card.

         The Breakdown of the Attorney-Client Relationship

         Sometime during the spring of 2016, Mr. A met with Mr. Singh at his office.[9] At the meeting Mr. A paid Mr. Singh $900 for legal services in the form of a series of postdated checks.[10] These were the first payments Mr. Singh had received from Mr. A since 2014. Both Mr. Singh and Ms. Villanueva testified that there was an executed retainer agreement in connection with the $900 payment but they had not been able to locate it. Mr. A testified that no retainer agreement was executed at that meeting. There is also a dispute as to what services were to be covered by the $900 payment.

         Mr. Singh testified that Mr. A paid him $900 to review the voluminous documents Mr. A sent concerning the alleged abuse, to do research as to Mr. A's immigration options, and to investigate the possibility of pursuing criminal cyberstalking charges against Mr. J in Virginia for certain online conduct. Mr. Singh testified that although he and Mr. A discussed the possibility of Mr. A eventually filing a solo I-751 petition and the importance of Mr. A documenting Mr. J's abusive behavior for that purpose, he had not agreed to represent Mr. A in such a petition and the $900 payment was not for that purpose.[11]

         According to Mr. A, Mr. Singh agreed to begin working on his solo I-751 petition at the spring 2016 meeting and the $900 payment was for that purpose. Mr. A thought that the cyberstalking research was a part of the work for the petition.

         In his discussion of his conclusions of law, the hearing judge found that there was not clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Singh was retained in the spring of 2016 to do more than research possible criminal charges against Mr. J and provide advice on Mr. A's options for removing the conditions on his green card.

         Mr. Singh did not meet again with Mr. A until September 14, 2016. In the interim, Mr. A sent more documentation to Mr. Singh and called Mr. Singh's office numerous times. According to Mr. A, Mr. Singh's office was largely non-responsive. Mr. Singh testified that he spoke with Mr. A on two or more occasions and had advised him of the results of his cyberstalking research. According to Ms. Villanueva, she also spent significant time speaking with Mr. A on the phone. The hearing judge noted that, according to Mr. Singh, Mr. A was considering whether to reconcile with Mr. J and did not decide to proceed with the solo I-751 petition based on domestic abuse until Mr. A received an email from Mr. J in August 2016 stating that Mr. J was planning to be remarried to someone else. However, in his discussion of his conclusions of law, the hearing judge credited Mr. A's testimony that he was not considering reconciliation with Mr. J after the spring 2016 meeting and had wished to pursue a solo I-751 petition from at least that time.

         Mr. A met with Mr. Singh on September 14, 2016 to discuss a solo I-751 petition. At that meeting, Mr. A signed a consultation agreement and paid Mr. Singh a fee of $150 - the amount required under that agreement for a one-hour consultation. According to Mr. Singh, he told Mr. A at that meeting that he would charge Mr. A $2, 700 to represent him in connection with the solo I-751 petition. Mr. Singh declined Mr. A's request that the $900 previously paid by Mr. A be applied against the $2, 700 fee. Mr. A later testified at the hearing that he did not understand the difference between a retainer fee and a consultation fee and believed that the $150 payment was for work on the solo I-751 petition.

         In connection with the solo I-751 petition, Mr. Singh suggested that Mr. A see a psychologist for an evaluation concerning the alleged abuse and that Mr. A prepare a written summary of the abuse for that purpose.[12] Mr. A completed the summary on the day of their meeting and forwarded it to Mr. Singh, who found the rambling narrative difficult to follow and enlisted Ms. Villanueva to assist Mr. A in revising it. Later, Mr. Singh reviewed and edited the final version and forwarded it to the psychologist to whom he had referred Mr. A. On September 22, 2016, Mr. A met with the psychologist. Mr. A paid the psychologist $1, 500 for the evaluation plus $300 to expedite the report of the evaluation, in light of the impending October 2 expiration of his conditional green card.

         In the psychologist's evaluation report, issued a few days after meeting with Mr. A, the psychologist found that while "[Mr. A] does not fully meet criterion A[13] for a DSM-5 diagnosis of [post-traumatic stress disorder] … his presentation and constellation of symptoms meet the requirements for all other criteria, which clearly indicate that he has experienced significant trauma based on emotional cruelty."

         Mr. Singh and Mr. A spoke by telephone after the psychologist issued the evaluation report and discussed the fee for Mr. Singh to complete I-751 petition filing process. Mr. A again requested that his previous $900 payment be applied to the cost of the I-751 petition filing. Mr. Singh again declined to apply the $900 - which he said had been expended on the Virginia cyberstalking research - towards the $2, 700 legal fee or $600 filing fees.

         No petition was filed by the time Mr. A's conditional green card expired on October 2, 2016. Mr. Singh admitted at the hearing that Mr. A lost his work authorization as of that date, that he could have been placed in deportation proceedings, and that he would have been unable to return to this country if he had traveled outside the United States. On the other hand, both Mr. A and Mr. Singh testified that Mr. Singh had advised Mr. A that it was more important to send in a complete application with all the relevant materials than to simply meet the October 2, 2016 deadline. An immigration law expert called as a witness by Mr. Singh agreed that filing a complete package with the I-751 petition was of primary importance. She stated that the I-751 petition could still be filed after expiration of the conditional green card, that she had never seen a petition denied for failing to be filed before that date, and that the most significant practical consequence of missing the deadline was the limitation on travel outside the country.

         Mr. Singh and Mr. A had arranged to meet again on October 6, 2016. However, on that morning, Mr. A texted Mr. Singh, "Hi, Raj. This is [Mr. A]. I can't make it today. I have to reschedule to stop by office. Probably next week I can stop by. Thanks." A week later, Mr. Singh sent a letter to Mr. A stating that he was closing Mr. A's file and terminating his representation because "much of my advice has been ignored, and you have not done the necessary things in order to advance the process in a timely manner." The letter also referred to "an apparent miscommunication from you towards our office team whereby you have claimed that fees you paid for research of potential criminal charges against your spouse, should have been applied to . . . an application to remove conditions on your conditional resident status." Mr. Singh also wrote that he had heard from the psychologist that Mr. A was working with other counsel and offered to send his file to successor counsel.

         That same day, Mr. A responded in an email to Ms. Villanueva that "you charge me 900 dollars only to read my spouse message and that's it." He also wrote that Mr. Singh "didn't even filed my petition for 90 days before my visa expires, which you supposedly should be done a long time ago, and now my visa is expired and now I can't work nowhere because you late to file my petition." At the end of his email, Mr. A again requested a refund of his $900 payment. In another email a few days later, Mr. A reiterated his request for a refund and asked for the return of his documents. Mr. A received no immediate response to that email.

         A Complaint to Bar Counsel, a Refund, and a Release

         On November 17, 2016, Mr. A filed a fee dispute complaint with the Maryland State Bar Association, which apparently was forwarded to Bar Counsel. In that complaint, Mr. A asserted that Mr. Singh had misled him as to the purpose of the $900 payment and that Mr. Singh had not diligently pursued a solo I-751 petition on Mr. A's behalf. On December 2, 2016, Bar Counsel forwarded the complaint to Mr. Singh with a request that he respond within 15 days. Upon receiving that communication, Mr. Singh directed Ms. Villanueva to refund Mr. A the $900 that Mr. A had requested.[14] She prepared a check in that amount, which Mr. Singh signed.

         Ms. Villanueva contacted Mr. A, who came to the firm's office to pick up his $900 check on December 12, 2016. At that time, Ms. Villanueva had Mr. A sign a release, which read as follows:

I, [Mr. A] in return for $900 tendered on this 12th day of December 2016, hereby waive and release Attorney Raj S. Singh and his law office from any further professional responsibility or liability in the matter of my application to remove conditions on my residency in the United States.
I also agree to withdraw any claims or grievances that are pending and agree to release him from any liability in this regard.

         Mr. A signed the release, which was notarized by Ms. Villanueva, and received the check.

         Two days later, in a timely response to Bar Counsel's letter that had requested a reaction to Mr. A's complaint, Mr. Singh sent a copy of the release to Bar Counsel. In a cover letter, he wrote that "this matter has been resolved between the parties" and summarized briefly his view of the history and purpose of the $900 payment.

         There was some dispute in the testimony at the hearing as to how Mr. A came to execute the release. Mr. A testified that the release had already been prepared when he arrived at Mr. Singh's office and that Ms. Villanueva "said the check was available, but I had to sign a contract before I get the check." He testified that, after signing the release and receiving the check, he told Ms. Villanueva he wanted to withdraw the complaint against Mr. Singh "because I thought that was the best way to resolve this."

         Ms. Villanueva and Mr. Singh presented a slightly different narrative at the hearing. Ms. Villanueva testified that, after Mr. A expressed his regret over filing the complaint against Mr. Singh, she decided to document his change of heart and drafted the release. Both Ms. Villanueva and Mr. Singh testified that Mr. Singh was not aware of the release before it was signed.

         This testimony appeared to be somewhat at odds with a letter Mr. Singh's then- counsel had sent to Bar Counsel in March 2017 concerning Mr. A's complaint. In that letter, counsel stated:

When he returned the fee, Mr. Singh had [Mr. A] sign a Release. At that time, he was not aware of the dictates of [Rule] 1.8(h)(2), and therefore did not advise [Mr. A] in writing of his right and the desirability of seeking independent counsel. During the conversation with [Mr. A] in which Mr. Singh advised that he would return the fee, Mr. Singh got the impression that [Mr. A] was in contact with other counsel and therefore he did not specifically advise him to seek independent counsel.

         Counsel stated further that Mr. Singh would not enforce the release and considered it to be void. Mr. Singh had also signed his counsel's letter, certifying that the events it recounted were "true and correct." Later, on cross-examination at the hearing, Mr. Singh explained that he had signed the March 2017 letter because "I was advised by my ...


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