Friday, December 15, 2017
The Maryland Court of Appeals has reprimanded an attorney
A reprimand is the appropriate sanction when an attorney appointed as the personal representative of an estate impulsively sold for $500 a tractor worth $10,000 stored by one of the beneficiaries of the estate on property owned by the estate without first ascertaining the ownership or approximate value of the tractor and, even though promptly informed of the tractor’s ownership and value, failed to rectify his error because of the attorney’s antipathy to the tractor’s owner. MLRPC 1.1, 1.3, 8.4(a) & (d).
No one who has practiced law for any appreciable time can claim to have never made a mistake in that practice. A mistake in the practice of law is not necessarily professional misconduct. However, once aware of a mistake that harms another and given the opportunity to mitigate it, a lawyer who decides to do nothing may be guilty of misconduct.
Respondent Benjamin Woolery was appointed as personal representative for an estate that had a single asset – real property that had served as the decedent’s home. There were five heirs – adult children of the decedent – with different ideas as to how to dispose of that property. In handling this difficult estate, Mr. Woolery made a mistake. In preparing the property for sale, he came upon a tractor that had been stored there by one of the adult children. Without determining the tractor’s ownership or value, he impulsively sold it to an individual who happened to be present for what turned out to be a small fraction of the tractor’s actual value.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Woolery became aware of his mistake. Mr. Woolery was promptly informed of the ownership and value of the tractor. Given the opportunity to remedy the situation, Mr. Woolery chose not to do so, apparently out of personal animus toward its owner. We hold that the choice that Mr. Woolery made was misconduct that merits a reprimand.
This was apparently Mr. Woolery’s first offense in the nearly 30 years he has now practiced law. While hostility toward Thomas Chambers may have motivated some of Mr. Woolery’s conduct, the hearing judge found that Mr. Woolery did not otherwise act with a selfish or pecuniary motive. Moreover, as the hearing judge found, aside from his improper handling of the tractor and backhoe, Mr. Woolery reasonably performed his duties for the estate, despite its difficulties. Given all of this, in light of the hearing judge’s findings as to Mr. Woolery’s reputation and character, we have no reason to believe that his misconduct in this case is indicative of a pattern of past misconduct or predictive of future violations. Accordingly, we reprimand Mr. Woolery.