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Lawyer disbarred for client neglect, unearned $1,000 fee

Maryland’s top court has unanimously disbarred an attorney who solicited business from a defendant in a civil suit and did absolutely nothing to represent him, even after collecting a $1,000 fee.

Andrew Gregory De La Paz — who had offices in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore counties — also failed to open an estate despite promising his client for more than a year that he would. He also moved offices without telling a client or leaving a forwarding number, the Court of Appeals said in its disbarment decision Thursday.

La Paz’s inaction violated Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct pertaining to attorney competence, diligence, communication, fees, termination of representation and misconduct, Judge Sally D. Adkins wrote for the court.

“In both cases before us, De La Paz clearly neglected his clients, leaving one client to fend for himself at his own hearing and the other to lose his cause of action entirely for failure to prosecute,” Adkins wrote.

“De La Paz also repeatedly ignored his clients’ inquiries into the status of their cases, and then moved his practice without informing his clients of his new contact information,” Adkins added. “He then later declined to respond to Bar Counsel’s request for information. De La Paz has not presented to this court any mitigating factors that might justify a lighter sentence; indeed, he has not presented anything to this court.”

Of the $1,000 La Paz charged a client, the court said, “A fee that is reasonable on its face becomes unreasonable if the attorney does virtually no work after receiving it.”

In November 2007, De La Paz sought the business of Angelo Callaham, who had been sued in Maryland District Court in Prince George’s County. De La Paz told Callaham the fee would be $1,000, payable in two $500 installments, over the next two months.

But the lawyer never entered an appearance or made any effort to resolve the underlying dispute, the opinion said.

After receiving a summons to appear in court, Callaham called and left messages for De La Paz, who never called back. On Aug. 8, 2008, Callaham appeared in court pursuant to the summons but De La Paz did not show.

Callaham, without the assistance of counsel, entered into a consent judgment.

In the second case, De La Paz was representing car-crash victim Danny L. Simons in a lawsuit against the driver of the other car. De La Paz failed to obtain service on the defendant, who later died.

De La Paz told Simons, in December 2005, that he was opening an estate for the defendant so the lawsuit could proceed. After a few months, Simons called and De La Paz assured him he was in the process of opening the estate.

About a year after that, in April 2007, De La Paz told Simons the estate would be open by the end of May.

The district court dismissed the case six months later. De La Paz never told Simons, who found out only by going to the courthouse himself and asking, the Court of Appeals said.

The estate never was opened, according to the opinion.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Attorney Grievance Commission v. De La Paz, CA Misc. Docket AG Nos. 50 and 65, Sept. Term 2009. Reported. Opinion by Adkins, J. Filed March 24, 2011.

Issue:

What is the appropriate sanction for an attorney who accepts a fee but does no work, fails to keep promises made to a client and changes offices without telling a client?

Holding:

Disbarment was warranted; those actions violated professional rules pertaining to competence, diligence, communication, fees, termination of representation and misconduct.

Counsel:

Assistant Bar Counsel Dolores O. Ridgell for petitioner; No argument on behalf of respondent.

RecordFax # 11-0324-20