Thursday, December 20, 2018
The Maryland Court of Appeals has disbarred an attorney
This attorney discipline case traces the protracted plight of one man’s estate administration. When Freelove Jefferies died in February 2012, he left behind two executed wills. His longtime friend Ronald Hutchens promptly sought the assistance of Respondent Benjamin Jeremy Woolery (Respondent or “Mr. Woolery”) to handle opening an estate on behalf of Mr. Jefferies. Mr. Woolery, who was admitted to practice law in Maryland on December 16, 1988, focused his law practice primarily in the area of estates and trusts. Nevertheless, Mr. Woolery’s involvement in the administration of Mr. Jefferies’s Estate, which spanned several years, led the Attorney Grievance Commission (“Bar Counsel” or “Petitioner”) to file a “Petition for Disciplinary or Remedial Action” against Mr. Woolery.
On July 27, 2017, Bar Counsel filed, pursuant to Maryland Rule 19-721, a petition in which it alleged that Mr. Woolery committed violations of the Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct (“MLRPC”) based on conduct that occurred before July 1, 2016. Specifically, Bar Counsel alleged that Respondent violated Rules 1.1 (Competence), 1.2 (Scope of Representation and Allocation of Authority Between Client and Lawyer), 1.4 (Communication), 1.5 (Fees), 1.7 (Conflict of Interest), 1.9 (Duties to Former Clients), 1.15 (Safekeeping of Property), 1.16 (Declining or Terminating Representation), 3.1 (Meritorious Claims and Contentions), 3.3 (Candor Toward the Tribunal), 7.3 (Direct Contact with Prospective Clients), and 8.4 (Misconduct). Bar Counsel also alleged that Respondent’s acts after July 1, 2016 violated Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct (“MARPC”) 19.303.1 (Meritorious Claims and Contentions) as well as MARPC 19.308.4 (Misconduct).
Upon this Court’s referral of the matter to the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, the Honorable William A. Snoddy conducted a four-day evidentiary hearing on April 9 – 12, 2018. As a result of that hearing, Judge Snoddy issued Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, in which he found by clear and convincing evidence that Respondent’s acts violated MLRPC 1.1, 1.2, 1.4, 1.5, 1.7, 1.9, 1.15, 1.16, 3.3, 7.3, and MARPC 3.1 and 8.4. For the reasons explained herein, we conclude that the evidence admitted at trial clearly and convincingly supports the hearing judge’s conclusions of law as to violations of the Rules.
The court rejected the attorney's challenges to the findings and conclusions
The hearing judge found that instead of settling the caveat matter on October 31, 2014 according to the wishes of Mr. Watson, Respondent “torpedoed the deal by raising an issue involving another client–[Mr.] Hutchens–after the parties seemingly had agreed to resolve the matter.” Thus, Respondent violated the Rule pertaining to scope of representation and allocation of authority between client and lawyer when he failed to abide by his client’s decision to settle the matter...
Judge Snoddy found that Respondent “took advantage of what he perceived to be [Mr.] Hutchens and [Mr.] Watson’s overall lack of sophistication in order to pursue what evolved into a personal agenda of maximizing his attorney’s fees.” Respondent not only failed to reasonably explain what actions he was taking throughout the litigation, but he also failed to “consult with [Mr. Watson and Mr. Hutchens] in any meaningful way about his strategy.” Because he did not meaningfully engage either Mr. Watson or Mr. Hutchens in discussions about strategy, much less the goals of representation, neither client was able to make an informed decision as required by Rule 1.4. Moreover, Respondent concealed information from his client, Mr. Sasser, that Mr. Sasser would need to carry out his fiduciary role. Specifically, Respondent failed to inform Mr. Sasser about the tenant in the Brandywine house, the fact that the tenant was paying rent, and that Respondent had received rent payments from Mr. Hutchens and Mr. Watson who collected them from the tenant. The hearing judge concluded that Respondent violated Rule 1.4 with respect to all three of his clients.
As to Rule 1,5 (fees)
The hearing judge reached the conclusion that Respondent violated Rule 1.5 with respect to Mr. Watson and Mr. Hutchens when he sought to recover $75,000.00 in fees. Respondent never sent either client a billing statement throughout the period of representation. The “Billing Ledger” that was submitted as part of Respondent’s breach of contract suit against Mr. Watson and Mr. Hutchens had never been provided to either of them, did not identify which services were provided for whom, and contained entries for a three-year period, a period which extended beyond Respondent’s representation of Mr. Watson. Despite representing Mr. Watson for a period of just over a year, from September 2013 through November 2014, “Respondent sought to charge [Mr.] Watson for services rendered to his other clients ([Mr.] Hutchens and [Mr.] Sasser) both before, during, and after his representation of [Mr.] Watson and for ‘legal services’ unrelated to his representation of any of his clients.”
A serious conflict of interest
Respondent’s dual representation of Mr. Hutchens and Mr. Watson “was fraught with the potential for a conflict of interest from the outset,” even in spite of the fact that Mr. Hutchens renounced his right to any claim under the 2008 will and, in fact, desired for Mr. Watson to receive his bequest. The hearing judge concluded that although there already was a “significant risk” that Respondent’s representation of Mr. Hutchens could be “materially limited” by his representation of Mr. Watson, and vice versa, the potential conflict actually materialized. On October 31, 2014, the day of settlement negotiations with Ms. Miller, “Respondent acted in a manner directly contrary to the wishes of [Mr.] Watson by blocking the settlement deal agreed to by all parties[.]” Additionally, Respondent’s efforts to prevent the distribution of the Estate “served to prevent [Mr.] Watson from receiving his distribution before his death.” These actions exemplify Respondent’s conflict of interest in his representation of Mr. Watson.
With respect to Mr. Sasser, the hearing judge keenly noted that “[c]oncomitant with the rule against conflicts of interest is the duty of loyalty.” As Judge Snoddy explained, “[a]s attorney for [Mr.] Hutchens, the designated defendant in the caveat case, the Respondent (and [Mr.] Sasser too for that matter) should have recognized the impropriety of the Respondent also representing the special administrator in any capacity or, for that matter, the special administrator having any active involvement in the litigation.” Respondent also violated Rule 1.7 when he failed to inform Mr. Sasser of the existence of, and his receipt of, Estate funds.
The court sustained a laundry list of other violations including misappropriation
Here, Judge Snoddy found that “Respondent intentionally withheld from [Ms.] Miller: the $900.00 in rent money he received from [Mr.] Hutchens in June 2013; the $400.00 in rent money he received from [Mr.] Watson on May 5, 2014; and the rent and expense receipts he obtained from [Mr.] Watson.” This finding of intentionality was based on Mr. Woolery’s continued avoidance of Ms. Miller’s desperate and repeated requests for an accounting of the rent money collected. Mr. Woolery responded to Ms. Miller’s requests by explaining that he used Estate funds for litigation purposes, but he did not supply her with an accounting. Upon Ms. Miller’s next request, Mr. Woolery responded that “these matters have been fully documented in the discovery provided to folks previously, and of course a formal ‘Accounting’ will be done for the Orphans’ Court by the Personal Representative.” We also inquire whether Mr. Woolery’s actions caused financial loss to any of his clients. See id. In this case, Mr. Woolery’s relentless pursuit of getting reimbursed for the funds he claims he advanced on behalf of the Estate as well as legal fees, which he concedes was “unnecessarily aggressive,” prevented Mr. Watson from receiving his rightful distribution prior to his death. Finally, the uncontroverted fact remains that Mr. Woolery has failed to remit to the Estate several rent payments he received from either Mr. Hutchens or Mr. Watson.
And noted a prior reprimand.
Finally, we do not overlook Mr. Woolery’s misrepresentations towards a tribunal, in violation of Rules 3.3(a) and 8.4(c), as well as the misrepresentations he made in his attempt to secure legal fees from his former clients.