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Montgomery County lawyer indefinitely suspended

Maryland’s top court has suspended indefinitely an attorney who botched his client’s asylum application and misappropriated client fees.

Jagjot Khandpur’s suspension is effective 30 days from the Court of Appeals’ July 18 filing. He may reapply for admission 60 days after the effective date.

The court said it was the appropriate punishment because there was no “clear and convincing evidence” that the attorney intentionally or knowingly misappropriated the funds.

Writing for the court, Judge Clayton Greene Jr. compared its recommendation for indefinite suspension with its decision in Attorney Grievance v. McCulloch, in which the attorney was also indefinitely suspended.

In that case, Bar Counsel had recommended disbarment, but the court determined that the attorney’s misconduct was mitigated because she accepted responsibility for what she had done and the judge’s findings on her culpability were ambiguous.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr., joined by Judge Sally D. Adkins, wrote that based on the context of how Khandpur’s case was presented to the hearing judge, it has limited precedential value.

“I hope thereby not to see this case offered in the future as an authority for some purpose other than for what it holds,” Harrell said.

Bar Counsel does not comment on suspension cases; William C. Brennan Jr., who represented Khandpur in this case, could not be reached Friday afternoon. Brennan is an attorney with Brennan, Sullivan & McKenna LLP in Greenbelt.

Khandpur practiced as a solo attorney in Montgomery County, working without a support staff. He handled mostly immigration cases.

In June 2006, a friend of Khandpur’s referred Bhuwani Shanker Subedi to Khandpur to handle his asylum application. The attorney requested $1,500 for his services, paid in two equal installations.

Khandpur had an Interest On Lawyers’ Trust Account at Bank of America, but did not keep adequate records of deposits.

He did not deposit the first cash payment into the trust account and the second, a check, was deposited into his personal bank account.

Subedi had entered the United States from Nepal on Feb. 14, 2006, and Khandpur had told him that his application for asylum was due within a year of his arrival; however, according to court documents, the paperwork was not filed until March 27, 2007.

Khandpur told Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Greenberg, who conducted an evidentiary hearing on the matter under order of designation from the Court of Appeals, that the application was late because the client did not provide essential information.

Subedi’s application was returned marked incomplete. He filed a new application, which was denied, and immigration officials began deportation proceedings. Subedi retained new counsel and filed the grievance against Khandpur.

Khandpur met with Bar Counsel on Sept. 16, 2008, and said Subedi’s checks had been deposited into his IOLTA account. On Feb. 24, 2009, he entered into a Conditional Diversion Agreement with Bar Counsel, contingent on production of financial records to back up his story.

Bar Counsel found him to be uncooperative and late when he did provide his records. He provided monthly bank statements from his IOLTA, but nothing to explain the fees paid by Subedi. On Nov. 18, 2009, the agreement was revoked and proceedings against Khandpur began.

Bar Counsel accused Khandpur of violating several of the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct, including 1.3, which requires an attorney to act with diligence; 1.4, regarding communication with the client; 1.15, on safeguarding property; and 3.4, requiring fairness to the opposing party and counsel.

He also was accused of violating rule 8.1, which prohibits any bar-admitted attorney from knowingly making a false statement, rule 8.4(c), which says it is considered professional misconduct for an attorney to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation, and 8.4(d), which designates as professional misconduct engagement in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Greenberg said there was not clear evidence that Khandpur had violated 8.1 or 8.4(c) because the false statements were “misinformed, not devious.” Greenberg did not address the allegation that 3.4 had been violated.

Bar Counsel said during the hearing that it would not pursue the violation of 1.4, but it did file an exception to Greenberg’s finding that Khandpur did not violate Rule 8.1(b), which requires that a lawyer should not knowingly fail to respond to a lawful demand for information.

The Court of Appeals agreed that Khandpur violated 8.1(b). The court also overruled Khandpur’s two exceptions to the findings of fact and his two exceptions to the court’s conclusions of law.

Khandpur was admitted to practice law in Maryland in 2001. He was born and educated in India, and in 1993 received an LL.M. at Howard University and was admitted to practice law in Washington, D.C.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Jagjot S. Khandpur, No. AG 3, Sept. Term 2010. Reported. Opinion by Greene, J. Filed July 18, 2011.

Issue:

What is the appropriate sanction for an attorney who misappropriated client funds without any indication that it was done intentionally or knowingly?

Holding:

Indefinite suspension with the ability to reapply for admission in 60 days; the hearing judge found that the attorney placed unearned fees into his operating account before completing the work, failed to represent his client diligently and failed to keep proper client trust account records.

Counsel:

Dolores O. Ridgell for petitioner; William C. Brennan Jr. and William A. Mitchell Jr. for respondent.

RecordFax# 11-0718-20.