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Attorney suspended for failure to pay liens

A Pikesville attorney has been indefinitely suspended for paying liens to his clients’ health care provider almost five years late.

In an opinion issued Friday, almost three years after the Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case, it indefinitely suspended Leonard J. Sperling. He has the right to reapply after six months.

Sperling has been sanctioned four times previously.

Sperling said Monday he had no comment on the opinion. Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman also declined to comment.

Sperling’s son, attorney Jonathan Daniel Sperling, was also indefinitely suspended in July after a client came forward and claimed that he failed to notify her in 1998 that her case had been dismissed. Jonathan worked for his father’s firm at the time.

Sperling, who was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1967, represented two clients who had been injured in two separate car crashes.

A personal injury attorney, Sperling began representing Michonda Lucas and Wanda Lee Thompson in spring 2003. Both had agreements that would direct a portion of the settlement funds to the Food Employees’ Labor Relations Association and United Food and Commercial Workers’ Health and Welfare Fund for benefits that the fund had paid on behalf of the clients for the crashes.

Lucas’ claims were settled in August 2003 for $9,900 and Thompson’s were settled in December 2003 for $16,232. Both clients were paid their portion of the settlement funds.

The fund had a lien in Lucas’ case for $1,413. Sperling, however, only kept $884.90 in his attorney trust account to pay for that. Sperling said this was an unintentional error.

The fund also had a lien in Thompson’s case for $4,948. Sperling, however, was $55.63 short in the trust account for that lien due to a mathematical error.

Though the cases settled at different times in 2003, Sperling did not pay the fund’s liens until June 2008, after the fund’s attorneys filed a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland.

Sperling communicated on and off with the fund’s attorneys between the settlement dates and June 2008, sometimes not responding for years, according to Friday’s opinion. He said he was aware of the liens and the agreement to pay them with settlement funds, but he sent letters to the fund asking it to waive the liens for both clients and asked for an attorneys’ fee.

Sperling said he was simply trying to achieve a larger payout for his client. The fund, however, declined to waive or reduce the liens. At one point during back and forth negotiations, Sperling directly contacted a fund employee without notifying the fund’s attorneys.

Sperling’s previous sanctions were for violations that included not notifying medical services providers he had funds that were owed to them and not honoring a lien in a worker’s compensation case.

Sperling was also reprimanded in 1983 for not telling his client to come forward and correct the record after Sperling knowingly allowed the client to give false testimony. Sperling was indefinitely suspended with the right to reapply after 90 days in 2004 for having a trust account shortfall of over $42,000.

The Court of Appeals held that Sperling failed to maintain the proper amount of funds in his attorney trust account to cover the liens, failed to pay the fund’s liens, communicated with a person represented by counsel without counsel’s consent and delayed payment on a lien for more than four years.

The state’s top court took Sperling’s previous sanctions, as well as his cooperation with Bar Counsel, into account.

“That the respondent has previously been sanctioned for similar misconduct and yet engaged in that conduct again, on this occasion prompting the hearing court to characterize his persistent and continuing pursuit of his untenable goal as ‘unreasonable and made in bad faith,’ is deeply troubling,” former Chief Judge Robert M. Bell wrote in the court’s opinion.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Leonard J. Sperling, Misc. AG No. 47, September Term 2009, Argued Nov. 8, 2010. Decided September 27, 2013. Opinion by Bell, C. J. (retired).

Issue:

What is the appropriate sanction for an attorney who did not pay liens until more than four years after settling a case and failed to maintain the appropriate amount of funds in his attorney trust accounts?

Holding:

The Court of Appeals held that the proper sanction is an indefinite suspension with the right to reapply for reinstatement after six months.

Counsel:

Glenn M. Grossman, Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, for petitioner; Alvin I. Frederick, Law Offices of Eccleston and Wolf P.C., for respondent.

RecordFax 13-0927-23 (23 pages).