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Top court disbars Hunt Valley attorney, scolds her counsel

In disbarring a Hunt Valley lawyer, the state’s highest court added a written admonishment to the woman and her counsel for an “unprecedented lack of common respect and decency” during the proceedings.

The Court of Appeals last week disbarred Michele L. Payer, a bankruptcy attorney, for numerous violations of the Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct. Among the more than 80 violations alleged in the Attorney Grievance Commission’s petition were failing to provide competent representation, commingling funds, and providing altered bank records to Bar Counsel during its investigation of complaints filed by two dissatisfied clients.

Payer said the disbarment came as a blow to her and the people she represents. She said in a phone interview Monday that she still has trouble believing the decision.

“I’m a good attorney and my clients are being injured for every minute I’m not allowed to serve them,” Payer said. “I’ve been absolutely devastated over this. I’ve been doing bankruptcies for 11 years and never had a complaint before these.”

The commission filed the petition for disciplinary action against Payer in April 2011. The court assigned Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr. to act as the hearing judge, issuing findings of fact and conclusions of law.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion, written last week by retired Judge Alan M. Wilner, noted that the “heart” of Payer’s derelictions were the deliberate submission of false, adulterated documents, “intended to cover up the other violations.” In investigating the complaints dealing with commingling funds, Payer provided Bar Counsel with redacted and partial bank statements.

“The record supports Judge Cahill’s conclusion that [Payer] ‘engaged in pattern of obfuscation, deceit and dishonesty since first being contacted by Bar Counsel,’” Wilner wrote.

The court went on to chastise Payer and her attorney, Harold S. Link Jr. of Cockeysville, for the “unprofessional” tone they used in the disciplinary proceeding.

Link, who declined to comment on the case, filed 41 pages of exceptions to Cahill’s findings with the Court of Appeals. Wilner especially bristled at Link and Payer’s characterizations of Cahill and his decision, which they described as “a case study in what occurs when a trial judge mindlessly sucks down material that is spoon-fed to him in a Proposed Order and then regurgitates it … without bothering to check its accuracy.” They also referred to the clients who filed the complaints as “scoundrels” or “sleazy.”

“This kind of wholly unwarranted character assassination violates the very core of professionalism and is condemned,” Wilner wrote.

The admonishment followed oral arguments in January, where Wilner and Judge Dale R. Cathell took exception to Link’s argument that Cahill did not understand bankruptcy law. Cathell said that in attorney grievance cases, judges like Cahill acted as an arm of the Court of Appeals.

“Basically what you’re saying is, you’re coming here and saying that our hearing examiner — us — are profoundly ignorant,” Cathell said. “Do you think that helps your client’s cause?”

“Maybe yes, maybe no,” Link answered. “But, I’ll just reiterate — profoundly ignorant.”

Payer said that exchange and the 41 pages of exceptions Link filed on her behalf, which she said she gave a cursory read-over the day they were filed, might have doomed her cause.

“It was never about me, it was just them yelling at my lawyer about his behavior,” Payer said. “I think the Court of Appeals got mad at my lawyer and that just made it worse.”

Payer said she had retained Link mainly because he had successfully defended himself in a 2004 disciplinary petition.

The case against Link stemmed from a complaint by a Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration clerk with whom Link had gotten into a verbal altercation in 2002.

The hearing judge in that case found Link committed misconduct and had shown disrespect to a third party; however, Link argued before the Court of Appeals that his comments at the MVA should not be punished because he was merely criticizing a governmental agency. The top court agreed and dismissed the disciplinary petition against him.

Payer said Monday that she planned to challenge her disbarment to the Supreme Court. “I’m definitely going to appeal it, even though it will probably cost me every penny I have,” Payer said. “I just don’t know what else to do, but to have these things said about me just breaks my heart.”

Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman, the AGC’s chief investigator and prosecutor, declined to comment on the case.

The court did find that Cahill had erred on one point: his finding that there had been a conflict of interest when Payer represented one of the clients in a bankruptcy case and in a separate action without seeking consent from the bankruptcy court. The Court of Appeals said it was not convinced the record demonstrated any real or potential conflict of interest.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Attorney Grievance Commission v. Payer, AG No. 8 (Sept. Term, 2011). Reported. Opinion by Wilner, J., retired, spec. assigned. Argued Jan. 5, 2012. Filed Feb. 22, 2012.

Issue:

What is the appropriate sanction for an attorney who made false and misleading statements and presented adulterated documents to Bar Counsel, in violation of MRPC 8.1 and 8.4(c) and (d)?

Holding:

The appropriate sanction for that kind of behavior is disbarment (See Attorney Grievance v. Keiner).

Counsel:

Marianne J. Lee, Asst. Bar Counsel, for petitioners; Harold S. Link Jr. for respondent.

RecordFax # 12-0222.