Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent opinion of the Maryland Court of Appeals imposing a public reprimand on a New York lawyer who practiced immigration law in Maryland but failed to disclose that he was not admitted in Maryland. The opinion is Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Jude Ambe, Misc. Docket AG No. 6, Sept. Term 2011 (February 22, 2012).
According to the opinion, the lawyer was admitted to practice in New York but was not a member of the Maryland Bar. After his admission in New York, he maintained a law office in Maryland which, according to the lawyer, was maintained solely for the practice of federal immigration law. The lawyer did not maintain an office in New York. In December 2009, Maryland Bar Counsel received a complaint against the lawyer unrelated to this matter. The Bar Counsel wrote to the lawyer and told him that, if his practice was limited only to immigration matters, his letterhead and any signs must indicate that he was admitted in New York but not admitted in Maryland, and that his practice was limited only to federal immigration matters.
The lawyer told the Maryland Bar Counsel that he was aware of the restrictions on his practice and that his letterhead would comply with disclosure requirements, including that he handled only immigration matters. After receiving the response, Bar Counsel closed the complaint against the lawyer on May 3, 2010; however, in June 2010, an insurance company contacted the Maryland Bar and provided copies of several documents received from the lawyer related to claims received by the insurer from three claimants which included “demand letters” on the letterhead of the firm concerning the lawyer’s “clients.”
The letters sent by the lawyer to the insurance company did not have the required language noting the lawyer’s practice limitations, or that he was admitted in New York and not in Maryland. The Bar Maryland Counsel also received documents from a second insurance company with a separate demand letter on the same letterhead of the firm related to a client named Daisy Epie and confirming that the firm was representing her. The lawyer acknowledged during the proceedings that it was his intent to act as legal representative for Ms. Epie for purposes of communicating with the second insurance company.
On March 17, 2011, a Petition for Disciplinary Action was filed against the lawyer and an evidentiary hearing was held before a Maryland state judge on September 15, 2011. After the hearing, the judge found that the attorney had violated Md. R. Prof’l Conduct R. 5.5(a) by representing clients in Maryland state tort law cases while not licensed to practice law in the state. The judge also found that the lawyer drafted demand letters seeking to settle cases arising from four separate state tort claims that could be filed in court and gave legal advice about the state tort claims which constituted the practice of law and in violation of Md. Code Ann. Bus. Occ. & Prof. § 10-206(a)(1) and Md. R. Prof’l Conduct R. 5.5(a). The lawyer was also found to have violated Md. R. Prof’l Conduct 5.5(b)(2) by failing to clearly indicate on his business cards that he was not licensed to practice law in Maryland.
The opinion found the above violations and also that the lawyer had made false and misleading communications in violation of Md. R. Prof’l Conduct R. 7.1 by failing to disclose the limitations on his practice. Maryland Rule 7.1 requires out-of-state attorneys practicing federal law in Maryland to disclose that the lawyer’s practice is limited to federal matters and that the attorney is not authorized to practice law in Maryland and the attorney failed to make such disclosures. The lawyer’s representation of claimants in Maryland state tort matters and failure to disclose the limitations of his practice was also a violation of Md. R. Prof’l Conduct R. 8.4(b) (committing acts reflecting adversely on his honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer), Md. R. Prof’l Conduct R. 8.4(c) (engaging in “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation”), and Md. R. Prof’l Conduct R. 8.4(d) (engaging in “conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice”); however, there was no clear and convincing evidence that the attorney knowingly made false statements of material fact in violation of Md. R. Prof’l Conduct R. 8.1(a).
The lawyer argued that he did not have knowledge that his actions constituted the practice of law but the opinion stated that this did not affect whether he had violated the rules since, under Maryland law, “[c]laimed ignorance of ethical duties . . . is not a defense in disciplinary proceedings.” Importantly, the opinion noted that a suspension by the Maryland Bar would have no effect since the lawyer had no right to practice law in Maryland. Although the allegations appear to be quite serious, this lawyer received a relatively light discipline of a reprimand. Since the lawyer was not admitted to practice in Maryland, he could not be disciplined under their Bar rules and the reprimand was apparently imposed in lieu of potential criminal sanctions for the UPL since the lawyer claimed that he did not know he was engaging in the improper conduct by representing clients in Maryland state tort matters.
Bottom line: Lawyers who have a federal practice such as immigration, disability, or tax law, or who maintain a law office in a state where the lawyer is not licensed to practice law should carefully consider the disclosure requirements and rules related to the unauthorized practice of law. Ignorance of the Bar rules is not an excuse (although it may be asserted as mitigation) and there may very well have been a different result if this had occurred in Florida.
Be careful out there!
Disclaimer: this e-mail does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.
Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670