Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Top court disbars longtime solo practitioner

Attorney Bruce E. Goodman was disbarred last week, more than two years after the Court of Appeals heard arguments in his case and three years after it heard two other cases against him.

The Prince George’s County-based solo failed to pay two clients’ medical bills from settlement proceeds, did not maintain a client trust account or financial records, and deposited client funds into his own account.

“Such conduct erodes the public confidence in, and brings disrepute to, the legal profession and is, therefore, prejudicial to the administration of justice,” Chief Judge Robert M. Bell wrote for the unanimous court.

The Court of Appeals heard the case on March 4, 2010, and ordered Goodman’s disbarment last Tuesday. In the interim, Goodman was allowed to practice law.

Glenn M. Grossman, bar counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission, declined to comment on the case or the delay. A spokeswoman for the Court of Appeals and Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, who wrote the opinion for the court, did not return requests for comment by deadline Friday.

The Attorney Grievance Commission had two other cases pending against Goodman, both of which the Court of Appeals heard on Jan. 8, 2009. The court had not yet issued decisions in those cases, and dismissed them Tuesday in light of Goodman’s disbarment.

An attempt to reach Goodman last week was unsuccessful. The number listed for his law office in Upper Marlboro has been disconnected, and no other phone numbers were found.

Goodman, who was admitted to practice in Maryland in 1989, obtained a settlement on behalf of Nellie Spearman and Noah Silver in a personal injury lawsuit after they were injured in a November 2003 car accident.

In July 2004, Goodman asked the Upper Marlboro Physical Therapy and Wellness Center, which had provided services to both Spearman and Silver, to reduce their bills. The center’s billing agency, Premier Billing, took $400 off each bill.

Goodman later disbursed the settlement to Spearman and Silver, but never paid the center’s bill, according to Tuesday’s opinion.

Spearman and Silver first learned of the nonpayment in 2006, when they received letters from the center’s collection agency. Spearman went to Goodman’s office after not being able to reach him by phone, and Goodman told Spearman he was “fairly sure that he had paid the bill.”

Silver received a similar response from Goodman.

Though Goodman told both clients that “he would take care of the matter,” Spearman and Silver received another dunning notice in 2008, according to court documents. They then filed a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission.

Throughout the investigation and an appearance before Judge Melanie M. Shaw Geter, the hearing judge assigned to the matter, Goodman maintained that he thought he had paid the bill. He said he could not prove it because he and his wife had divorced and the records were “stranded” at her home, and he could not afford to have his bank reproduce them.

“Even when faced with the prospect of disciplinary charges, the respondent elected not to pay $400.00 to have his bank reproduce copies of the financial records of his operating account,” Bell wrote. “The respondent’s testimony in that regard was unworthy of belief, as the hearing judge implicitly found.”

Goodman, who represented himself, argued that, if sanctioned, he should not be disbarred since four years passed between the event and when he was contacted by the Attorney Grievance Commission. The court rejected that as an extenuating circumstance. Nor were Goodman’s “marital strife and poor record-storing practices” sufficient to mitigate his conduct, the court held.

“Our analysis is straightforward; the respondent admitted that he does not maintain a client trust account and that he deposited client settlement funds into his operating account without authorization,” Bell wrote. “This, our precedents establish, plainly, is unacceptable attorney conduct.”

By commingling funds and disbursing them without paying the service provider, Goodman “knowingly misappropriated client funds,” the court concluded.

“Disbarment is the appropriate sanction for attorneys who misappropriate client funds because being entrusted with the property of others is a responsibility of the highest order, and misappropriation will not be tolerated.”

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Attorney Grievance Commission v. Bruce Edward Goodman, CA No. 46, Sept. Term 2008. Argued March 4, 2010. Decided May 1, 2012. Opinion by Bell, C.J. Reported.

Issue:

Did the circuit court err by ruling to disbar Prince George’s County attorney Bruce E. Goodman for failing to pay his clients’ medical bills from settlement proceeds, not maintaining a client trust account, depositing settlement funds into his operating account and failing to maintain financial records?

Holding:

No; affirmed. The court ruled Goodman violated the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct, Maryland Rules and the Business Occupations and Professions law by mismanaging client funds.

Counsel:

James B. Botluk, assistant bar counsel, for petitioner. Bruce Edward Goodman for respondent.

RecordFax #12-0501-20 (19 pages)