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Pro bono solo gives away his fee award

For solo attorney Daniel V. Schmitt, pro bono work goes full circle.

Schmitt, a solo attorney in Towson, gave a total of $3,000 to Maryland Legal Aid, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service and the Maryland Disability Law Center, all of which came from attorney’s fees he’d received in the settlement last month of a landlord-tenant dispute he’d handled pro bono.

Ann Lembo, chief attorney in Maryland Legal Aid’s Baltimore County office, said this was the first time a lawyer donated attorneys’ fees back to the organization in a pro bono case.

It was only in 2009 that the Court of Special Appeals ruled, in Henriquez v. Henriquez, that attorneys’ fees can be awarded to a party who was represented by a nonprofit legal services program or a pro bono attorney.

“This is the first [donation back], and we are very happy,” Lembo said. “We are just really surprised Dan did that and donated the funds to us as well as a couple other legal organizations. And he got a great result for the client, too.”

Schmitt represented a woman in a case against her landlord. A sewage backup in the house she was renting damaged her clothing, personal possessions and electronics. She filed suit initially on her own, seeking $5,800 for property damage and failure to return her security deposit.

“It was just such an outrageous situation,” Lembo said. “We thought she needed help, and we would have loved to be able to help her, but we are just swamped with calls.”

The organization connected her with Schmitt. He refiled the lawsuit in May 2011, asking for $15,000 plus fees against the landlord and the property management company.

“They did not follow the law and did not maintain property,” Schmitt said.

His client had taken extensive photos of the damage, and Schmitt settled the case in May for $10,500, including $3,000 for attorney’s fees, under an agreement Schmitt said he and his client agreed upon ahead of time. Schmitt divided the $3,000 evenly among the three local legal services nonprofits.

“Dan always does a great job for his clients,” Lembo said. “He always treats them with the utmost respect. In this case, he really went above and beyond for a pro bono client. We are really happy to have his help.”

Schmitt, who has done pro bono work for more than 25 years, has been working as a solo attorney for six years. While most of his clients are small businesses, he usually works on one or two pro bono cases at a time.

“When I take a pro bono case, I treat them the same,” Schmitt said. “They are entitled to what everyone else gets.”