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‘Soap opera’ ends well for lawyer

The state’s highest court has refused to impose any sanctions on a Baltimore-based lawyer whose stepmother accused him of deceit and fraud in handling the estate of his deceased father, who was a famed night club operator and real estate developer.

The Court of Appeals issued its opinion in favor of David L. Zeiger on Monday, more than four years after hearing argument in a case it called “a virtual soap opera of alleged infidelity, divorce, estrangement, lawsuits, murder accusations, and other high drama within the Zeiger family.”

The court ruled that David had not engaged in dishonest, fraudulent or deceitful conduct. The court said any errors made by Zeiger in dealing with his late father’s estate stemmed from his unfamiliarity with out-of-state law, rather than any sort of scheme.

“I am very happy for him,” said David’s attorney, Harvey Greenberg, a solo practitioner in Baltimore. “I think it’s the right decision.”

The court did not explain the delay in its decision, nor did not disclose which judge wrote the 15-page opinion, instead listing the author as “per curiam.”

Since David had not been suspended from practicing in the meantime, the court’s lengthy decision process did not cause David any inconvenience, Greenberg said.

“When there isn’t any egregious kind of conduct, we usually don’t get quick decisions,” Greenberg said. “This one’s a little long in the tooth, but no harm done.”

Multiple phone numbers listed for David had been disconnected.

His mother’s lawyer

Zeiger’s father, Leon Zeiger, owned several night clubs in Washington, D.C., including the Casino Royal, a center of 1950s jazz nightlife that hosted acts like Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett.

David Zeiger worked for his father for more than 25 years. In 1991, he was replaced by Barbara Kohl, a woman 30 years Leon’s junior.

In 1995, Leon, then in his late 70s, ended his marriage of more than 50 years to David’s mother and wed Kohl.

David represented his mother in the divorce, and his relationship with his father deteriorated.

While Leon told his sister in 1999 that he had written a will that provided for his children, he named Kohl the executor of his estate and a trust as his sole beneficiary in a will executed in 2001.

Leon Zeiger died in 2002 at the age of 84.

An attorney for David wrote to Kohl, asking about Leon’s will, but Kohl did not respond.

Since David could not find a will, he and his sister opened an estate for his father in Hampshire County, W.Va., where Leon was living when he died. Doing so would obligate anyone with a will — including Kohl — to produce it, the Court of Appeals noted.

Eventually, Kohl did produce the 2001 will and, in 2005, she filed a petition to remove David and his sister as co-administrators of Leon’s estate. They were relieved of their positions a few months later.

Kohl filed a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission, which petitioned for sanctions. The Court of Appeals assigned Baltimore City Circuit Judge Lynn K. Stewart as the hearing judge.

Stewart concluded that David Zeiger had been dishonest in filing to be administrator of the estate, noting in part that Zeiger left blank a portion of the form asking if there was an existing will.

The Court of Appeals, however, ruled that Zeiger could not have been dishonest, because he did not know himself if there was a will.

“In this case, the failure to answer questions on the form was not equivalent to an affirmative false statement,” the per curiam opinion says.

Stewart had also found that Zeiger had given an inaccurate account of his father’s property and made other errors, but the Court of Appeals said they were not fraudulent.

“Because he was focused on uncovering a valid will, and not on the administration of the estate, the inaccuracies on the form were not intended to mislead, but were, at worst, negligent,” the court wrote.

While the Court of Appeals acknowledged Zeiger had not performed his duties as co-administrator of the estate, it found this was more out of misunderstanding of West Virginia law than a sinister plot.

“There is no indication in the record that Mr. Zeiger’s actions resulted in any real harm to Ms. Kohl, his father’s estate, or to the government and citizens of Hampshire County,” the court wrote. “Without showing of ‘any actual and substantial harm,’ we decline to find that Mr. Zeiger’s delay in fulfilling his duties as administrator constituted conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

AGC v. David L. Zeiger, Misc. No. AG 28, September Term 2007. Argued April 8, 2008. Decided Sept. 24, 2012. Reported. Per Curiam opinion.

Issue:

Did the hearing judge err in finding that an attorney violated the rules of professional conduct by filing a petition to administer an estate in West Virginia in an effort to “smoke out” a will he suspected his stepmother might be concealing, and by failing to carry out his duties as administrator?

Holding:

Yes; petition for disciplinary action dismissed. The Court of Appeals ruled that the attorney did not engage in deceitful, dishonest or fraudulent conduct, but had simply made uninformed errors as his father’s estate’s administrator.

Counsel:

Assistant Bar Counsel Raymond A. Hein for petitioner; Harvey Greenberg, solo practitioner, Baltimore, for respondent.

RecordFax 12-0924-21 (15 pages).