Monday, June 24, 2019
The Maryland Court of Appeals has denied an application for bar admission on character and fitness grounds
It is easy to say that “good moral character and fitness to practice law” is essential for admission to the Bar, but it is less easy to say what that standard is. It is a quality elusive of precise definition and often unrelated to credentials, achievement, or past missteps. Although a full definition of character and fitness may be beyond our descriptive powers, candor and forthrightness are clearly its foundation.
The way it works in Maryland
To assess whether an applicant to the Bar meets the character and fitness requirement, the Court has established a character committee in each appellate circuit to investigate each application for admission and to provide a recommendation to the Board [of Bar Examiners] as to whether the applicant meets that requirement. Maryland Rules 19-103, 19-204(a)(1). The Board in turn reviews the work of the character committee and makes its own recommendation to this Court as to whether the candidate satisfies that requirement. Maryland Rule 19-204(b). The Court then makes an independent final decision as to whether the applicant satisfies the requirement. Maryland Rule 19-204(c).
At each stage of the process, the applicant is entitled to a hearing if it appears that there are grounds for denying admission to the Bar. Maryland Rule 19-204(a)-(c). The hearings before a character committee and the Board are conducted on the record and may include testimony and other evidence. The Court’s evaluation of the applicant is based on the record developed before the committee and the Board; the hearing before the Court may include oral argument on behalf of the applicant. At all times, the applicant bears the burden of proving his or her “good moral character and fitness for the practice of law.” Maryland Rule 19-204(d).
After the dissolution of what she described as a troubled and abusive marriage, Alonya Renee Knight graduated from college and, in October 2016, at age 45, from the David A. Clarke School of Law of the University of the District of Columbia. In December of that year, she submitted her application to take the Maryland bar exam. In that application, she acknowledged her “duty to respond fully and candidly to each question or required disclosure,” as well as her duty to update her responses to ensure that they remained accurate up to the time of admission to the Bar. Ms. Knight sat for and passed the February 2017 bar exam.
The Board referred Ms. Knight’s application to the Committee and flagged certain matters, including her answers to questions about delinquent accounts, civil actions criminal proceedings, and terminations of past employment. The Committee member designated to investigate her application interviewed Ms. Knight on May 19, 2017. A number of discrepancies soon became apparent. After a thorough investigation and some contentious follow-up communications from Ms. Knight during May and June 2017, the Committee investigator forwarded a detailed 20-page report to the full Committee in July 2017
The report noted a number of undisclosed matters and led to a hearing
The Committee issued a detailed 32-page memorandum in September 2018 recounting its investigation and the hearing. It summarized its adverse recommendation as follows:
Ms. Knight has demonstrated an alarming lack of candor throughout the investigation and hearing process. … We find that Ms. Knight’s testimony did not just suffer from a lack of candor but rather from what can best be described as a pervasive pattern of incomplete facts, inconsistencies and positions which strained credulity. Her testimony on multiple points was evasive at best and deceptive at worst.
Further, she showed a remarkable, and remarkably consistent pattern of accusing and blaming those around her for virtually all of her woes [including] co-workers, friends of co-workers, family members, police officers, employers, and, finally, investigators for the [Committee] and [Board]. Notably absent from the line-up was Ms. Knight herself.
The Committee expressed sympathy for Ms. Knight’s past difficulties in life, but concluded that those problems did not excuse her from “meeting reasonable expectations of honesty, candor and cooperation with the investigation process” for admission to the Bar.
On review before the board
In a report dated November 12, 2018, a majority of the Board agreed with the Committee that Ms. Knight’s “lack of candor and her failure to timely disclose civil litigation, college suspensions and unfavorable employment terminations seals her fate” and recommended that the Court deny her application for admission to the Bar. The Board identified three items of particular concern in terms of Ms. Knight’s candor:
(1) Her failure to update her application concerning her suspension from UMUC despite UMUC having advised her by email of that suspension at least a week before her character interview.
(2) Her failure to disclose seven civil actions (in addition to her bankruptcy and divorce) which the investigator had found through a simple online search of court records.
(3) Her failure to provide complete answers as to her employment history with Melwood and the Department of Health Care Finance.
The Board reported that it could not find that she responded to these issues “with appropriate candor,” although it left open the possibility that her non-disclosures were negligent rather than intentional.
On the ultimate issue
Neither any one of Ms. Knight’s issues by itself, nor all of them in the aggregate, would necessarily be disqualifying. One may have had past credit issues, litigation, run ins with the law, traffic citations, academic hiccups, and the like, without those becoming a permanent stain on character that disqualifies one forever from joining the legal profession. Indeed, according to a well-known adage, adversity builds character – or at least reveals it. What may be most revealing is what the applicant reveals about that adversity. According to another adage, the cover-up is often worse than the crime. Lack of candor and forthrightness in the bar admission process may convert a stumbling block into a road block.
Ms. Knight did not appear to grasp the importance of being transparent on her application. In particular, she gave misleading answers about the reasons why she left positions at Melwood and the Department of Health Care Finance, was at best incomplete in her description of her studies at UMUC, and was admittedly lax in responding to questions about past litigation. Moreover, she seemed blind to her need to document or fully explain some of her assertions. For example, the request by Melwood for additional information after she failed a drug test was not an idle fascination with intimate details of her medical history, but an understandable need to verify her explanation that the positive test result was based on a legitimate prescription rather than use of illegal drugs or a misuse of prescription drugs. At the Board hearing, she seemed oblivious to that idea.
If Ms. Knight is not diligent in obtaining and verifying information and making necessary disclosures when something as important as her bar admission is at stake, it suggests that she may take a similarly lax approach when an important matter for a client is at stake. If she is tempted to mislead in some critical answers on a bar application, she may fall prey to the same temptation in court filings and in communications with opposing parties. Upon our independent review of the record, we cannot say that she carried her burden as to character and fitness.