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Tuition break costs lawyer at least 30 days

An Oakland attorney who concealed her residency to receive in-state tuition during law school in the 1990s received an indefinite suspension, nearly five years after the Court of Appeals heard argument in her case.

Cristine A. Kepple attended West Virginia University College of Law while paying in-state tuition, even though she lived in Western Maryland the whole time.

Kepple graduated from law school in 1994. The Attorney Grievance Commission began investigating after her ex-husband filed a complaint in 2007.

The Court of Appeals heard Kepple’s case in September 2008. On Friday, it issued an unsigned opinion, ordering an indefinite suspension but giving Kepple the right to apply for reinstatement after 30 days.

Although intentionally deceptive conduct can warrant disbarment — and the Attorney Grievance Commission recommended indefinite suspension with the right to reapply after a year — the court took into account Kepple’s youth at the time, her remorse after it was discovered and her unblemished 14-year record as an attorney.

“Although Respondent demonstrated through her years as a member of the bar that she is a highly-regarded, practicing attorney with no other ethical violations, acts of intentional dishonesty, of the sort committed by [Kepple] at the pre-conception of her legal career, bear seriously on an attorney’s character,” the per curiam opinion said.

Kepple lived in West Virginia when she applied to the law school, but moved over the state line before classes started. She never informed the law school of her address change and continued to have her law school mail sent to a post office box in West Virginia.

Kepple argued that she was not aware she had to inform the law school of her move if her address had been in West Virginia when she was accepted. She also said she did not knowingly lie about her circumstances when she applied for admission to the Maryland Bar.

Kepple had obtained her undergraduate degree in agricultural and resource economics from the University of Maryland, College Park, where she paid in-state tuition, in 1989.

She moved to Terra Alta, W. Va., in 1990 and worked for the City of Morgantown as an assistant city planner. She passed the LSAT that same year and met with the director of admissions at the West Virginia law school, asking questions about residency and in-state tuition requirements.

Kepple then applied, giving the post office box as her address. She and her husband, Barry Sweitzer, moved to Oakland shortly before starting law school in 1991.

Throughout her three years in law school, Kepple saved $11,050 by paying in-state tuition.

Kepple also failed to disclose the cover-up to the Maryland State Board of Law Examiners when she applied for admission here in 1994.

While Kepple argued that she did not intentionally withhold information, Bar Counsel said she should have known about residency requirements having paid in-state tuition for her undergraduate degree and meeting with the director of admissions before applying.

“Because Respondent maintained instead a post office box in West Virginia, eighteen miles from her Maryland home, there was sufficient evidence for the hearing judge to infer that Respondent knowingly concealed her true residency from her law school,” the court wrote in its opinion.

Kepple could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman declined to comment on the case.

In mitigation, the Court of Appeals noted that Kepple had a good reputation among other attorneys at her firm and that only two complaints — both immediately dismissed — were filed against her in the 14 years between her admission and the time it heard the case.

Kepple also attempted to repay the difference to the law school after she learned of her ex-husband’s complaint.

“We must, therefore, balance the gravity of Respondent’s misconduct from 1994 against her subsequent behavior and conduct as a practicing attorney,” the court wrote. “Considering the length of time that passed between the misconduct and its disclosure, and Kepple’s demonstrated good behavior as a practicing attorney since being admitted to the Bar, we think Bar Counsel’s recommended sanction too harsh.”

Other sanctions

The opinion in Kepple’s case was one of several the Court of Appeals issued on attorney discipline matters in the last week. One attorney was disbarred, and the court explained its reasons for previously disbarring two others:

— The court ordered the immediate disbarment of Michael Francis Gerace on Tuesday, after Bar Counsel alleged he failed to refund unearned fees, return client files or move to terminate his representation after a client dismissed him. (Misc. AG No. 28, Sept. 2012 Term.)

— Frank M. Costanzo had been disbarred immediately after a hearing on Feb. 9, 2010, with the Court of Appeals promising an opinion to follow. The opinion, published Friday, said Costanzo never responded to Bar Counsel’s petition and did not participate in the 2010 hearing. The court found “no question” that Costanzo “engaged in egregious misconduct … by misusing his clients’ funds and failing to: (1) maintain those funds in trust; (2) account for his clients’ funds; (3) provide his clients with meaningful legal services; and, (4) pursue his clients’ claims and abide by the agreed terms of representation. (Misc. AG No. 13, Sept. 2009 Term).

— The court ordered the immediate disbarment of Dean Clayton Kremer on May 2. On Monday, it said Kremer, who was admitted to the bar in 1989, had abandoned his Ellicott City law office in 2011 without notifying at least four clients or returning unearned fees. (Misc. AG No. 15, Sept. 2012 Term.)

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Cristine A. Kepple, Misc. AG No. 55, September Term 2007. Argued Sept. 9, 2008, decided June 21, 2013. Published per curium opinion.

Issue:

What is the appropriate punishment for an attorney who lied about her residency in order to receive in-state tuition during law school?

Holding:

The appropriate punishment is an indefinite suspension with the right to reapply after 30 days. Though the attorney was intentionally dishonest, she has a clean 14-year law career, is remorseful and is well-regarded among her colleagues.

Counsel:

Fletcher Thompson of the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, for petitioner; Edward J. Hutchins Jr. of the Law Offices of Eccleston and Wolf P.C. in Hanover for respondent.

RecordFax 13-0621-20 (21 pages).