In an unusual move, the Attorney Grievance Commission is seeking to stop a prominent Baltimore personal injury lawyer from practicing law in Maryland before the state’s top court can decide whether to sanction him in a disciplinary action.
Neil J. Lewis is scheduled to appear before the Court of Appeals in November for multiple violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct, including knowingly using client trust funds for unauthorized purposes. But Bar Counsel, in a complaint for an injunction filed Thursday, said it has received even more complaints from Lewis’ former clients since filing a second disciplinary action against him three weeks ago alleging he misappropriated funds.
“The defendant is engaged in an ongoing pattern of professional misconduct and poses and immediate threat of (a) substantial injury to the financial interest or property of clients and third parties, and/or (b) substantial harm to the administration of justice,” the complaint states.
Steven A. Allen, Lewis’ lawyer, said Thursday afternoon he had no comment on the injunction request. Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman declined to comment on any of the three cases.
Lewis has been a member of the Maryland Bar since June 1965. He has appeared in television commercials inviting people to call the “Lewis Law Line,” which is also his firm’s website address.
Andrew Jay Graham, who is not involved in the Lewis case but has represented many lawyers facing disciplinary hearings, said it is rare for Bar Counsel to attempt to bypass the normal attorney grievance process, which can take months. But when Bar Counsel believes there is an “imminent threat,” the Rules allow it file a complaint as it did in Lewis’ case, said Graham, of Kramon & Graham P.A. in Baltimore.
The Attorney Grievance Commission filed its first complaint against Lewis last August over his representation of clients injured in a May 2010 accident.
In February, a hearing judge assigned by the Court of Appeals, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phinn, wrote in her findings that settlement checks Lewis deposited on behalf of his clients were used for unauthorized purposes.
“It is apparent to this Court that [Lewis] believes he can use the monies in his attorney trust accounts for whatever purpose as long as the clients get paid in the long run and he does not bounce any checks,” Phinn wrote.
During the year related to the investigation, Lewis had approximately 800 open files, according to Phinn’s opinion.
Lewis maintained he acted “in good faith and in the best interest of his clients” and that any Rules violations were “inadvertent and the result of his hectic and very busy work schedule,” according to Phinn’s opinion.
The Attorney Grievance Commission filed its second petition for disciplinary action against Lewis three weeks ago in the Court of Appeals. A circuit-court hearing judge has not yet been assigned to that action, according to Thursday’s filing.
The July 3 petition alleges that Lewis failed to deliver funds owed to Injury Treatment Center of Maryland LLC, which had worked with Lewis’ clients for many years. Lewis also was accused of “regularly misrepresenting” to clients that funds were being withheld from settlement proceeds to pay ITCM.
In some cases where ITCM filed suit against Lewis’ clients for unpaid bills, “Lewis entered an appearance as counsel for the defendant without defendant’s knowledge… for the purpose of attempting to settle cases while concealing his prior misappropriations,” Bar Counsel alleged.
Between 2010 and 2012, Lewis withdrew almost $3 million from his trust fund, according to the petition. He also created written settlement distribution statements that “intentionally misrepresented” to clients where proceeds were going, according to the petition.
Thursday’s complaint for injunction also alleges Lewis has misappropriated funds owed to another treatment provider, Maryland Healthcare Clinics.
In addition to preliminary and permanent injunctions prohibiting Lewis from practicing, Bar Counsel seeks a list from Lewis of all of his active client matters and trust account records since Jan. 1, 2012. The complaint also asks the court to appoint a receiver to take charge of Lewis’ trust account.