An attorney who walked out of district court after a judge refused to put his client’s case on the stet docket will be suspended from the practice of law for 60 days, the state’s highest court has held.
The brief suspension was requested by the Attorney Grievance Commission because it was Norman Christopher Usiak’s first disciplinary action, but the court warned that it could have ended his legal career.
“[W]e do not suggest that the Court lacks the authority or the will to disbar an attorney for similar conduct as displayed by Respondent in this case …,” Judge Clayton Greene Jr. wrote for the unanimous Court of Appeals. “Here Respondent’s misconduct was particularly egregious, and disbarment may well have been the more appropriate sanction.”
The suspension will start in 30 days, the court said.
Usiak, who practices in Frederick, did not return phone calls for comment on Monday afternoon. The Attorney Grievance Commission has a policy of not commenting on individual disciplinary cases.
Usiak’s client, Ruben Paz-Rubio, was charged with driving without a license. Usiak sought to postpone the case until Paz-Rubio, described in the opinion as “apparently an undocumented immigrant,” could obtain a license so the case could be stetted.
The prosecutor agreed to the postponement because the state had not complied with Usiak’s discovery requests until the prior day.
However, the judge denied the request for a postponement, agreeing only to shift the case from the morning to the afternoon.
The prosecutor, at Usiak’s urging, then moved to put case on the stet docket. When Judge Janice Rusnick Ambrose expressed reservations, Usiak interjected that the judge had to stet the case because the defense did not object to it.
The judge disagreed, noting that it was a motion the court could grant or deny.
Usiak then headed for the courtroom door, about 40 feet away, as the judge called loudly to him.
“Your client is staying and the case is not concluded,” Ambrose told him.
As he reached the door, Usiak turned and looked at her, though he maintained he was actually looking for his client.
“You can hear me,” the judge told him. “You’re in contempt.”
That contempt finding was twice overturned on appeal, and the case against Paz-Rubio was dropped three months later, but none of that affected the disciplinary action.
Zealous advocacy vs. misconduct
Monday’s opinion emphasized that Usiak had planned the walkout in advance and advised the prosecutor he would do it if necessary to delay the case. There were also indications of a past rivalry between Ambrose and Usiak.
Usiak argued that he was zealously representing the interest of his client, who might have been deported if he were found guilty of driving without a license.
At the fact-finding stage of the disciplinary proceeding, the lawyer sought to introduce evidence of Frederick County’s “aggressive deportation policy” and the number of deportation detainers placed on criminal defendants in the county.
The Court of Appeals was unmoved.
“The deportation policies of the Sheriff of Frederick County are not relevant to this case,” Greene wrote. “The primary issue in this case is Respondent’s conduct in open court on May 15 .”
The decision also cites Usiak’s lack of remorse, saying his “failure to distinguish between zealous advocacy that is appropriate and professional misconduct … gives the Court pause.”
Also, Usiak knew his behavior violated the rules of professional conduct, since he had represented another Frederick lawyer, Daniel Mahone, in a disciplinary proceeding in 2007. Mahone was reprimanded for disrupting a court proceeding and, on another occasion, walking out of the courtroom while the judge was rendering his opinion from the bench.
Usiak represented himself in the attorney grievance case, but another Frederick lawyer, Willie Mahone, is representing Usiak in an unrelated lawsuit against three officers who work for the Department of General Services.
Usiak is suing the officers for $700,000 for arresting him at the Maryland Court of Appeals for failing to show proper ID when he signed into the building in June 2007. Usiak claims the officers taunted and harassed him in several ways and that his wedding ring, which was taken from him, has never been returned.
Electronic records indicate that action is pending in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
WHAT THE COURT HELD
Attorney Grievance Comm. v. Usiak, Misc. Docket AG No. 22, Sept. Term 2009. Opinion by Greene, J. Filed April 25, 2011. Reported.
(1) Did the attorney violate MRPC 8.4(d) by disrupting court proceedings and disrespecting the judge in an effort to manipulate the outcome of the proceeding, and (2) if so, what is the appropriate sanction?
(1) Yes; the attorney’s conduct was deliberate, egregious and prejudicial to the administration of justice. (2) Although a disbarment may have been more appropriate, because this was the attorney’s first disciplinary offense the court accepted Bar Counsel’s suggestion of a 60-day suspension.
Asst. Bar Counsel Dolores O. Ridgell for petitioner; Norman Christopher Usiak for himself.