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Md. disbars estate-planning lawyer over forgeries

The state’s top court has disbarred a Virginia lawyer also admitted to practice in Maryland after he allowed a woman to forge her terminally ill mother’s signature on estate documents.

In a Friday opinion, the Court of Appeals disbarred John Michael Coppola after finding that he violated the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct, despite mitigating factors illustrating that his actions were in an effort to help a grieving family and that he received no financial gain.

Judge Lynne Battaglia wrote the opinion; Judge Joseph F. Murphy dissented from the opinion and Chief Judge Robert M. Bell joined the dissent.

Coppola’s attorney, John J. Connolly, of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Baltimore, declined to comment on the case; Attorney Grievance Commission Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman routinely refuses to comment on disbarments.

Coppola had prepared estate documents for Jeanne and Richard Swink in 2001. At that time, Jeanne Swink mentioned that her mother, Elizabeth L. West, needed a better estate plan.

In June 2008, Swink contacted Coppola because her mother was in poor health. On a conference call with West, Coppola made some suggestions about how to improve her estate plan.

He said she could leave her Prince George’s County home worth $250,000 to her children with minimal fees and expenses by writing up a new will, a trust declaration, an assignment of property to the trust and a deed transferring the house to the trust.

Two months later, on Aug. 25, Swink notified Coppola that her mother wanted to move forward the plans they had discussed and asked him to meet the family at a hospital in Fairfax, Va., where her mother had been admitted in the end stages of colon cancer.

Coppola went to the hospital where he expected West to sign the estate documents, but found that West had taken a turn for the worse and was in a semi-conscious or unconscious state.

He found the family of four children “distraught” and some openly crying, according to court documents. Coppola explained to the family that the changes to the estate documents would save them $10,000 in probate fees and expenses, compared to his $2,548 in lawyer’s fees.

Coppola was then approached by the four children to see if he would agree to allow Swink to forge her mother’s signature on the documents. He explained that it was not legal to forge documents and that some of them needed to be witnessed and certified.

But the “children pleaded” with Coppola to allow it, according to the opinion. He said it would be improper and that if any of the children were not in agreement with the documents, they would not be honored.

After all of West’s children said they were in agreement, Coppola relented. West died on Aug. 30.

Several months later in December 2008 or January 2009, Richard Swink contacted Coppola to tell him one of his wife’s siblings was refusing to move out of his mother’s home and threatened to raise the issue of the false signature to impede the sale of the home, despite agreeing to it at the time of the forgery.

Coppola offered to file a Deed of Correction in land records in Prince George’s County to undo the transfer of the house to the trust, but did not get the go-ahead. Shortly after, an attorney for Jeanne Swink, George Meng, contacted Coppola.

Meng had been hired to represent Jeanne Swink in Orphans’ Court after her brother refused to move out. Meng, a member of the Attorney Grievance Commission, filed grievances against Coppola in Maryland and Virginia.

Coppola offered to help Meng with probate proceedings, provide any needed documents and offered to return his $2,548 fee.

Despite those and other mitigating factors, the Court of Appeals found Coppola should be disbarred.

The court found he violated rule 1.2(d) — counseling a client to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent. He also violated rule 8.4(a), (b), (c) and (d). That rule says a lawyer may not violate the rules of conduct, commit a criminal act that reflects poorly on his image, engage in fraud or engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Coppola had asked for a public reprimand or a 30-day suspension, but the court said that although Coppola was dealing with distraught clients and wished to help them, he had gone too far.

“Attorneys … are not and cannot be hired guns for individuals who seek to subvert the administration of justice,” Battaglia wrote. “Rather, the great strength of our profession lies in the integrity with which we act and the honor that we bring to our work.”

Murphy said he did not agree with the assertion that Coppola engaged in a pattern of misconduct, and would have recommended an indefinite suspension with the right to petition for readmission in two years.