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Niece’s annulment ends Rockville solo’s career

Maryland’s top court ordered the disbarment of a Rockville lawyer who drafted her niece’s annulment agreement without consulting her — and while representing the niece’s husband in an immigration case.

Runan Zhang, a solo practitioner, also lied to co-counsel about having consulted the niece and never told the Virginia court handling the annulment that she was representing the young woman, the Maryland Court of Appeals said.

The high court, in its 5-2 decision, rejected Zhang’s argument that she meant no harm as she was trying to assist someone she regarded as a daughter.

“Even taking into account Zhang’s initial mental state to help a relative, and even if that initial mental state were to be deemed a mitigating factor, such circumstances would not prevent imposition of disbarment where Zhang’s conduct involved intentionally dishonest conduct — pervasive misrepresentations that are not excused by compelling extenuating circumstances,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the court. “To conclude otherwise would be to carve out a one-case exception out of years’ worth of case law.”

Zhang’s niece, a Chinese national, was married to her American husband just seven months when she sought an annulment in November 2010. Zhang, while helping the husband complete the niece’s immigration forms, offered to help her niece with the annulment.

Because she was not licensed in Virginia, Zhang asked attorney Diana Metcalf to serve as co-counsel. Zhang falsely told Metcalf that the niece did not speak English and thus all communication would go through Zhang, according to the court’s opinion.

Zhang never entered an appearance in the Virginia court because she knew her representation of the niece would conflict with her representation of the husband, the opinion says.

In January 2011, the husband’s counsel proposed an annulment in which neither party would seek monetary relief. Metcalf signed the agreement on the niece’s behalf after Zhang falsely assured her the niece had been consulted, the high court said.

The agreement was later modified to give the niece $1,500, and Metcalf again signed the agreement based on Zhang’s false assurances.

The Virginia court approved the agreement on Feb. 18, 2011.

The next day, Zhang told the niece about the agreement.

The niece responded by sending an email to Metcalf two weeks later stating, in fluent English, that she was neither advised of nor consented to the February agreement and that the ground Zhang had provided — impotence — was untrue.

On March 3, 2011, Zhang filed a motion to set aside the February agreement and consent order. Prior to the hearing, Zhang drafted talking points for Metcalf that contained “multiple misrepresentations,” including that the niece had given Metcalf authority to settle the case and that Metcalf and the niece miscommunicated due to “language difficulties,” the high court said.

Metcalf never presented those arguments and the court vacated the agreement and order.

The niece and husband were later granted a divorce.

In disbarring Zhang, the Court of Appeals concluded that she had violated Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct pertaining to competence, communication with clients, conflicts of interest, truthfulness in statements to others, the unauthorized practice of law and dishonesty, fraud or misrepresentation.

“Here, Zhang represented her niece, Wife, in an annulment/divorce matter in Virginia despite a conflict of interest with her representation of Husband in an immigration matter and despite not being licensed to practice law in Virginia,” Watts wrote for the majority on Monday. “Zhang’s abandonment of her ethical obligation to be honest on multiple occasions over such a significant period of time, combined with her involvement in sponsoring the false February agreement to the Virginia court, and her efforts to conceal her own misconduct, persuades us that disbarment is the appropriate sanction.”

Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman declined to comment on the case or the court’s decision.

Zhang’s attorney, Joseph A. Hennessey, did not return a telephone message seeking comment Tuesday. Hennessey is with Beins, Goldberg & Hennessey LLP in Chevy Chase.

Dissent

In a dissent joined by Judge Sally D. Adkins, Judge Robert N. McDonald agreed that Zhang violated rules of professional conduct but he was receptive to her argument that she acted out of love for her niece. McDonald noted that “absence of a selfish motive” is a mitigating factor in attorney discipline cases.

“In other words, an errant attorney need not be a candidate for canonization to be worthy of a sanction short of disbarment,” McDonald wrote, adding an indefinite suspension would be more appropriate for Zhang, and that he “would reserve disbarment for serious misconduct with a less benevolent motive.”

WATTS

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Attorney Grievance Commission v. Runan Zhang, CA Misc. Docket AG No. 11, Sept. Term 2013. Reported. Opinion by Watts, J. Concurrence and dissent by McDonald, J. Argued May 6, 2014. Filed July 21, 2014.

Issue:

Is disbarment the appropriate sanction for an attorney who drafts an annulment agreement without consulting her client, while representing the husband in an immigration matter and without telling the court that she is acting as counsel for the wife, who is also her niece?

Holding:

Yes; disbarment is appropriate when the conduct is “intentionally dishonest” and involves “pervasive misrepresentations that are not excused by compelling extenuating circumstances.”

Counsel:

Lydia E. Lawless for petitioner; Joseph A. Hennessey for respondent

RecordFax #14-0721-21 (54 pages)