ANNAPOLIS – New Maryland high-court Judge Michele D. Hotten took her seat on the bench Thursday morning and did not let her first case go by without asking a question of counsel.
The case involved the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission’s request that the Court of Appeals indefinitely suspend Jennifer Vetter Landeo’s law license for a variety of alleged ethical lapses, including the charging of unreasonable fees.
Montgomery County Circuit Judge Steven G. Salant, who reviewed the AGC’s allegations last year, found Landeo’s fees were not unreasonable after hearing testimony from experts both for and against the embattled attorney. Assistant Bar Counsel Amy S. Paulick urged the court to overrule Salant’s findings on fees.
But Hotten, whom Gov. Larry Hogan appointed to the high court last month, said appellate courts generally defer to assessments by judges who actually heard the contradictory testimony and saw the witnesses testify under oath.
“What is it that we can do to overrule that” determination by the reviewing judge? Hotten said.
Paulick responded that the reasonableness of an attorney’s fee is a judgment call the high court can make independently and need not defer to the judge it assigned to review the AGC’s allegations.
At 10 a.m., Hotten took her seat on the seven-member court without any of the fanfare that accompanied her Dec. 22 swearing-in a mile from the appellate courthouse in the House Chamber. Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, effusive in welcoming Hotten at the swearing-in, made no mention of the new judge as the court’s seven members took the bench.
Hotten sat to the far left, the place reserved for the junior member of the high court, whose seats are assigned based on seniority.
The new judge was not alone in her questioning during that first argument, as the court’s six other members also fired questions at Paulick and Landeo’s attorney, David Martella.
The “hot bench,” as attorneys call particularly inquisitive appellate courts, considered Salant’s findings that immigration attorney Landeo had violated ethical rules in representing three clients, including standards of diligence, communication and the safekeeping of fees in client trust accounts.
Martella acknowledged that Landeo had placed client funds in her Gaithersburg law firm’s operating account rather than in a trust account but he disputed all other findings, saying Landeo acted in good faith and what she believed was in the best interest of her clients. These actions included filing petitions late or not filing petitions at all, despite protests from her clients, Martella said.
But Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, like Hotten, asked why the high court should not defer to the findings of Salant, who heard the testimony and could best assess the credibility of witnesses.
Martella responded that in at least one instance, the timely filing of a petition might have alerted federal authorities that a relative of a client was in the United States illegally.
Landeo’s “diligence, her competency, was appropriate,” said Martella, of Barry H. Helfand & David Martella in Rockville.
Martella told the court that Landeo should receive at least a reprimand, for the client trust fund violation, and at most a suspension for a definitive time. Landeo is with Landeo & Capriotti LLC in Gaithersburg.
Paulick urged the high court to impose an indefinite suspension, which is behind only disbarment in the severity of sanctions a Maryland lawyer can face. Paulick said disbarment was not warranted in light of mitigating factors, including Landeo’s marital and health problems at the time of her ethical misconduct, which began about five years ago.
The high court took a brief recess at the conclusion of the hour-long argument. Hotten, as befitting the court’s most junior member, was the last of the judges to leave the bench.
The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, Attorney Grievance Commission v. Jennifer Vetter Landeo, Misc. Docket AG No. 79, Sept. Term 2014.