A federal judge is expected to rule this week on whether to allow a privacy-based challenge to a requirement that attorneys share their Social Security numbers with the state Judiciary, or face suspension.
Marc Alan Greidinger alleges the rule, adopted by the Court of Appeals in November, violates federal privacy laws.
The state’s top court suspended 43 lawyers in March for not providing their Social Security numbers to the Client Protection Fund of the Bar of Maryland, including Greidinger, whose case Judge Richard D. Bennett heard last week in U.S. District Court. It is one of two cases before him challenging the rule.
The judge previously denied Greidinger’s request for a temporary restraining order that would allow him to continue to practice in the state during his litigation.
Michele J. McDonald, counsel to the attorney general’s Courts and Judicial Affairs Division, argued the Judiciary’s Rules Committee has already determined the requirement is legal, in part because federal law allows for the collection of Social Security numbers.
Under the state code, the Client Protection Fund has been required since 1993 to provide Social Security numbers “to determine whether each lawyer has paid all undisputed taxes and unemployment insurance contributions.”
The state code also classifies the Court of Appeals as a “licensing authority,” and it has been required since 2007 to collect Social Security numbers, according to McDonald. The Court of Appeals is also supposed to turn over the numbers to the Child Support Enforcement Administration, which reviews the names of licensees for child support delinquencies.
Since the early 1980s, the Board of Law Examiners “for its own purposes” has required applicants to disclose Social Security numbers, according to a Rules Committee report issued in September.
The Client Protection Fund, which used to obtain Social Security numbers from the Board of Law Examiners, began requiring lawyers to submit them along with their annual fee approximately five years ago, and has collected the information on behalf of the Court of Appeals, according to the Rules Committee report.
Most attorneys complied, but as many as 9,100 lawyers refused at one point.
Matters came to a head last year, when the General Assembly threatened in April to withhold $1 million in funds if the Judiciary did not turn over the numbers to the child support agency. The Court of Appeals sent the information last July.
“Getting the Social Security number is critical,” McDonald said. “It is mandated and it is the duty of the state.”
But Jeffrey R. White, a lawyer for Greidinger, said the federal Privacy Act prohibits a state agency from denying an individual a “benefit” — in this case a law license — for not turning over a Social Security number.
“Nothing stands in the way of the state building a database,” said White, senior litigation counsel with the Center for Constitutional Litigation P.C. in Washington, D.C. “The sanction imposed is forbidden by law.”
McDonald countered a suspension is the Court of Appeals’ mechanism disciplining lawyers, and that the Privacy Act neither creates a private cause of action, nor does it apply to state agencies.
Greidinger, a Virginia and Maryland solo practitioner, was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1990 and was in good standing prior to his suspension. White argued the licensing authority of the Court of Appeals only covers “applicants” under state law, grandfathering in Greidinger.
Both sides acknowledged the legal profession is the only one in the state where practitioners do not have to renew their license. But Bennett was skeptical of White’s argument that the licensing authority only covers new lawyers.
“But for his becoming a member in 1990, the plaintiff is asking for relief from something every young lawyer does when they take the bar exam this summer,” Bennett said.
White described the Social Security number requirement as a “burden” for veteran attorneys.
“If you’re entering the profession, it seems less of a burden to me,” he said.
Bennett said he would try to issue an opinion before the July 4 holiday weekend. The case is Greidinger v. Almand, et al., 1:14-cv-01454-RDB.