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Attorney disbarred 3 years after disciplinary hearing

Nearly three years after the hearing in her disciplinary case, Maryland’s top court last week unanimously ordered the disbarment of an attorney for her extreme lack of diligence.

The Court of Appeals found that Julia Colton-Bell failed to consult with her client about his case, to reply to his correspondence, to file a petition on his behalf and to return unearned fees.

The high court also found that Colton-Bell had impermissibly entered an appearance in three cases after being decertified for failure to pay her annual Client Protection Fund assessment. Colton-Bell, who was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1996 and was a solo practitioner in Silver Spring and Greenbelt, also obstructed the Attorney Grievance Commission’s investigation by failing to respond to inquiries from the office of bar counsel, the court said.

Colton-Bell also failed to appear at the Oct. 7, 2010, hearing on her fate at the Court of Appeals.

The high court gave no reason for waiting nearly three years to render its decision, which came Thursday in an opinion by retired Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

In that opinion, the court called Colton-Bell’s misconduct “egregious and deserving of disbarment,” the sanction bar counsel had requested.

No one answered a telephone call made Friday afternoon to a number listed as Colton-Bell’s Greenbelt office.

Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman declined to comment on the decision.

In its decision, the high court cited findings by Montgomery County Circuit Judge Robert A. Greenberg, whom it had assigned to consider testimony and evidence in Colton-Bell’s disciplinary proceeding.

Greenberg found Colton-Bell had promised to file a habeas corpus petition on behalf of Antonio Lightfoot, who is serving a life sentence in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa. On Sept. 21, 2006, Colton-Bell received the final installment of a $20,275 fee, but never filed the petition.

Eighteen months later, Colton-Bell informed Lightfoot by letter that she could no longer represent him and asked if she should refer him to another attorney. Lightfoot never responded and she never returned the fee, Greenberg found.

Lightfoot, however, did lodge a complaint with bar counsel on May 11, 2008, alleging Colton-Bell had not earned her fee and did not contact him to discuss the status of the case during the course of her representation.

On April 8, 2008, the Court of Appeals had decertified Colton-Bell for having failed to pay the assessment. Despite her decertification, Colton-Bell subsequently entered her appearance as an attorney in two circuit court civil cases in Montgomery County and a third in Prince George’s County, Greenberg found.

On May 28, 2008, bar counsel’s office sent Colton-Bell a copy of Lightfoot’s complaint and requested a response within 15 days. The office sent a second letter on June 24, 2008, again seeking a response, which Colton-Bell provided two days later.

Dennis Biennas, an investigator for bar counsel, scheduled an interview with Colton-Bell for Nov. 20, 2008, which she canceled that morning and rescheduled for Dec. 3.

But Colton-Bell canceled again within hours of that meeting, saying she had been advised to seek counsel and arrange for a new date. Biennas sent Colton-Bell a letter on Dec. 16, seeking a new date, but she never responded.

Biennas stopped the investigation on Jan. 9, 2009, Greenberg found.

In its decision ordering disbarment, the high court concluded that Colton-Bell had violated Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct pertaining to competence, diligence, charging reasonable fees, communicating and consulting with the client, cooperating with bar counsel and not practicing law unless authorized.

BELL

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Attorney Grievance Commission v. Julia Colton-Bell, CA Misc. AG No. 33, Sept. Term 2009. Reported. Opinion by Bell, C.J. (Retired). Argued Oct. 7, 2010. Filed Sept. 26, 2013.

Issue:

What is the proper sanction for an attorney who failed to consult with her client about his case, reply to his correspondence, file a petition on his behalf and to return unearned fees?

Holding:

Such misconduct is “egregious and deserving of disbarment.”

Counsel:

Fletcher P. Thompson for petitioner; No appearance for respondent.

RecordFax # 13-0926-22 (24 pages).