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Phillips v. Maryland Board of Law Examiners

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 19, 2019



          A. David Copperthite, United States Magistrate Judge

         Defendants, the Maryland Board of Law Examiners (the "Board") and Johnathan Azrael, John Mudd, David Ralph, and Matthew Mills (collectively "Defendants"), move this Court to dismiss the Complaint of pro se Plaintiff, Solon Phillips, for constitutional vagueness, civil rights violations, due process violations, and gross negligence (the "Motion to Dismiss") (ECF No. 18). After considering the Motion to Dismiss and the responses thereto (ECF Nos. 20, 21), the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See Loc.R. 105.6 (D.Md. 2018). For the reasons stated herein, the Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion to Dismiss.

         Factual Background[1]

         Plaintiff is forty-five years old and graduated from the American University Washington College of Law in 2008 with a juris doctor degree. ECF No. 7 at 2, ¶¶ 4-5. While Plaintiff was in law school, he and his ex-wife went through divorce proceedings. Id. at 6-8, ¶¶ 33, 39-42. During the tumultuous proceedings, Plaintiff filed a motion to recuse the judge presiding over his divorce for being biased against him in issuing certain orders. Id. at 7, ¶ 40. In November 2008, the judge recanted her previous controversial ruling and closed Plaintiffs divorce case. Id. at 7, ¶ 42. Unbeknownst to Plaintiff, after closing his case, the judge sent a letter to the Board recommending they deny his admission to the Maryland bar. Id. at 7-8, ¶ 43.

         After pursuing an MBA degree, in February 2011, Plaintiff sat for the bar exam, which he passed. Id. at 8, ¶ 45. Prior to graduating law school, Plaintiff had attended a Character Committee interview in 2007, and had received a favorable recommendation from his interviewer. Id. at 8, ¶ 46. After Plaintiff did not receive his expected tickets to the June 2011 bar admission ceremony, Plaintiff was informed he needed to fill out a new bar application, which he did. Id. at 8, ¶¶ 47-49. After inquiring over several months about when he would be sworn in, Plaintiff was informed his prior divorce judge's letter to the Board had surfaced, and he was required to attend a character hearing. Id. at 8, ¶ 50. At the end of the hearing, Plaintiff was informed that his application was being held open, and after he updated his application with a copy of his credit report a decision would be made. Id. at 9, ¶ 55.

         In 2013, while Plaintiffs bar application was still pending, a member of an online support group of which Plaintiff was a part asked Plaintiff for help handling interactions with her ex-husband's new wife. Id. at 10, ¶¶ 66-67. Plaintiff had never met or spoken on the phone with this woman, but he emailed her a copy of a cease-and-desist letter she could send to her ex-husband's new wife. Id. at 10, ¶ 68. After the member approved the contents of the letter, Plaintiff decided it needed to be more effective. Id. at 11, ¶ 69. In 2007, while in law school, Plaintiff had incorporated a law firm for himself, his father, and his high school friend called Phillips, Phillips, and Dow, LLC. Id. at 10, ¶ 64. In addition to prematurely incorporating, Plaintiff also purchased letterhead for the firm in 2007. Id. at 10, ¶ 65. In 2013, while assisting the member, he printed the cease-and-desist letter on the 2007 firm letterhead and signed his father's-a licensed Maryland attorney- name to the letter without his father's knowledge. Id. at 11, ¶ 69. When the member's ex-husband's new wife received the letter, she filed a complaint with the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission, who opened an investigation into Plaintiffs father. Id. at 11, ¶¶ 73-74. Plaintiff was summoned to be a witness in his father's disbarment hearing, and his father was ultimately disbarred. Id. at 11, ¶¶ 75-76; see also Attorney Grievance Comm'n v. Phillips, 451 Md. 653 (2017). At some point after learning about the disbarment proceedings against his father, Plaintiff asked his attorney to inform the Board of the dispute. ECF No. 7 at 11, ¶ 78. As a result of the pending action against his father, Plaintiff, on the advice of counsel, withdrew his bar application in 2015. Id. at 12, ¶ 80.

         In 2016, Plaintiff resubmitted his Maryland bar application. Id. at 12, ¶ 84. Plaintiff took and passed the Maryland bar exam again in February 2017. Id. at 12, ¶¶ 85-86. After finding out he passed the Maryland bar exam for the second time, Plaintiff decided to apply to the Florida bar in May 2017. Id at 12, ¶¶ 86-87. Also in May 2017, Plaintiff had an interview with Character Committee member Deborah Johnson. Id. at 12, ¶ 88. Plaintiff alleges he disclosed his application ■ to the Florida bar and his involvement with his father's disbarment hearing to Ms. Johnson, who gave Plaintiff a favorable recommendation. Id. at 13, ¶ 89. In June 2017, Plaintiff received notice from the Board that he would have a character hearing in July 2017. Id. at 13, ¶ 91. Plaintiff alleges Defendants did not provide him with a copy of Ms. Johnson's report ahead of the hearing, violating a Maryland rule regarding this procedure. Id. at 13, ¶ 92. At the hearing, the Board wanted to discuss Plaintiffs (1) unauthorized practice of law, (2) contribution to his father's disbarment, and (3) pattern of lack of candor and failure to abide by the law. Id. at 13, ¶ 93. In October 2017, the Board issued a final recommendation that Plaintiff be denied admission to the bar. Id. at 14, ¶ 101.

         Because Plaintiff received a favorable recommendation from the Character Committee and an unfavorable recommendation from the Board, per Maryland Rule, the Court of Appeals of Maryland issued Plaintiff a notice of hearing for Plaintiff to argue the Court of Appeals should accept the Committee's recommendation. Id. at 15, ¶¶ 104-05. On November 6, 2017, at the hearing, Plaintiff argued that the Board erroneously believed he had not disclosed information he had actually disclosed. Id. at 16, ¶ 111.

         On November 30, 2017, before the Court of Appeals had issued a decision on his hearing and application, Plaintiff attended an interview with the North American Securities Administrators Association ("NASAA"). Id. at 16, ¶ 112; ECF No. 18-1 at 9. Plaintiff had applied for a position with NASAA with a resume that listed his email address as "," stated he had worked as a "Junior Associate" at Arnold & Porter, LLP for seven years, and stated he had acquired "Maryland Bar Admission." ECF No. 18-1 at 9-10. During Plaintiffs interview with A. Valerie Mirko, Esq., Ms. Mirko learned that Plaintiff was not a member of the Maryland bar-or any bar- and the interview ended. Id. ; ECF No. 7 at 16, ¶ 115. Ms. Mirko advised the Board of the incident. Id. at 16, ¶ 116. On December 11, 2017, the Board submitted an addendum to its recommendation to the Court of Appeals detailing the incident between Plaintiff and Ms. Mirko. Id; ECF No. 18-1 at 9.

         On December 20, 2017, the Court of Appeals published an opinion denying Plaintiffs . application to the Maryland bar. In re Phillips, 547 Md. 113 (2017).[2] The Court of Appeals found that Plaintiff "ha[d] not met his burden of showing his good moral character and fitness for the practice of law due to his continuous 'failure [and] refusal to answer fully and candidly any question in the application."' Id. at 127 (quoting Md. Rule 19-203(d)). The Court was particularly disturbed by Plaintiffs actions leading to his father's disbarment and his conduct regarding his NASAA application. Id. at 127-28. The Court found Plaintiff "ha[d] demonstrated a disturbing pattern of selective candor, which 'impinges upon his character and fitness to practice law."' Id. (quoting Application of Strzempek, 407 Md. 102, 114 (2008)). Ultimately, the Court of Appeals concluded that Plaintiff would not be admitted to the Maryland bar.

         Procedural Background

         On August 22, 2019, Plaintiff filed this suit in this Court against Defendants, alleging constitutional violations of vagueness, civil rights, and due process and gross negligence, seeking that this Court declare Defendants' application of Maryland's character and fitness standards as applied to Plaintiff was unconstitutional, declare Defendants grossly negligent for failing to recommend Plaintiffs admission to the Maryland bar, and declare "that Plaintiff must be admitted to practice law in Maryland." ECF No. 7 at 33.[3] On October 23, 2019,[4] Defendants filed the Motion to Dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for the failure to state a claim. ECF No. 18. Plaintiff filed an opposition on November 5, 2019, ECF No. 20, to which Defendant replied on November 12, 2019, ECF No. 21.

         This matter is now fully briefed, and the Court has reviewed Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, as well as the responses thereto.: For the following reasons, ...

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