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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Counsel did not except to the hearing judge's findings or
conclusions other than in minor respects. 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.
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
Singh's Credentials and Practice
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.
A - a Client with an Immigration Issue
case grew out of Mr. Singh's representation of an
individual who we shall refer to as Mr. A,  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.
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
for and Obtaining a Conditional Green Card for Mr. A
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." 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
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.
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.
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").
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.
Breakdown of Mr. A's Marriage
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. 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.
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. 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
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.
Breakdown of the Attorney-Client Relationship
during the spring of 2016, Mr. A met with Mr. Singh at his
office. At the meeting Mr. A paid Mr. Singh $900
for legal services in the form of a series of postdated
checks. 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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 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
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.
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.
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
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
Complaint to Bar Counsel, a Refund, and a Release
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. She prepared
a check in that amount, which Mr. Singh signed.
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
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
signed the release, which was notarized by Ms. Villanueva,
and received the check.
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
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 ...