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Baltimore lead-paint lawyer disbarred after pilfering clients for personal gain

The state’s top court has disbarred a Baltimore lawyer for altering client files to make them less attractive to the firm he was working for so he could pick up the clients when he opened his own solo practice.

In a split 4-3 decision, the Court of Appeals disbarred Gregory R. Keiner for violating the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct despite the centerpiece of his argument that alcoholism and depression drove his actions.

The majority opinion by Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, published Friday, said that while depression and alcoholism no doubt affected Keiner, his actions were driven more by a desire to build up a business for himself. Barbera said Keiner was able to manage a busy practice, was successful in his litigation and generated a substantial income despite the problems.

Keiner, licensed in Maryland since 2002, joined the Law Offices of Evan K. Thalenberg PA in February 2003. According to court records, Keiner primarily worked lead-paint cases.

“The cause of [Keiner’s] actions was a desire to keep for himself more of the income he had been generating for the firm,” Barbera wrote. “Of course, an ambition to improve one’s financial circumstances is not a fault or defect. The manner in which such goals are pursued is key.”

Judge John C. Eldridge wrote the dissenting opinion and was joined by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. Eldridge wrote that an indefinite suspension rather than disbarment would be a more fitting sanction.

The Attorney Grievance Commission filed the petition for disciplinary action against Keiner on July 28, 2010. On Dec. 17, Howard County Circuit Court Judge Timothy J. McCrone conducted an evidentiary hearing on the petition, determining that Keiner’s alteration of the files was criminal and his alcoholism and depression were not responsible for his actions.

The case was argued in the high court on April 7, and the majority opinion agreed with McCrone’s findings.

“Put simply, [Keiner’s] conduct was dishonest, it was intentional, and it was solely motivated by the desire for personal gain,” Barbera wrote.

According to court records, Keiner planned from June 2008 until March 2009 to open a solo practice that would enable him to earn more money. To help build that business, he intended to recruit clients from the Thalenberg law firm, where he was working.

Keiner changed computer and paper files on existing clients to make it look like the cases had already been closed when they were actually still active. He also changed clients’ blood lead levels in the files so they appeared to be lower than actual, or nonexistent. He then mocked up termination letters for the clients, which sat in the folders but were never actually sent.

He also used firm resources and office supplies, along with its Accurint subscription, to solicit approximately 200 potential clients. Keiner also sought medical and laboratory results for potential clients using his own letterhead while still working for Thalenberg. The firm uncovered his actions when it received a solicitation letter Keiner had written to a client. He was then fired but worked with the firm and the court to uncover the tainted files.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

AGC v. Keiner, Misc. AG No. 24, Sept. 2010 Term. Argued April 7, 2011. Opinion by Barbera, J.; dissent by Eldridge, J. Filed Aug. 19, 2011. Reported.

Issue:

Did the hearing judge err in discounting extenuating circumstances of alcoholism and depression and finding that the lawyer violated the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct?

Holding:

No, exceptions denied; disbarment imposed.

Counsel:

Glenn M. Grossman for petitioner; Daniel M. Clements for respondent

RecordFax # 11-0819-22

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