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Court of Appeals suspends Harford Co. lawyer for ‘pattern of neglect’

The state’s top court has suspended for one year a Bel Air attorney who demonstrated a “pattern of neglect and non-responsiveness” in his representation of a client who retained him to handle a child support case.

Jerome P. Johnson failed to enter his appearance in Terrance Venable Jr.’s case or pay related court fees, a unanimous Court of Appeals held. Johnson also failed to respond to Venable’s requests for updates on the status of the case and later ignored demands for information from Bar Counsel.

“Johnson failed to diligently represent Venable, failed to adequately communicate with Venable, falsely advised Venable that a motion for reconsideration had been filed in the child custody case when it had not, and failed to take steps to protect Venable’s interests after Johnson’s representation ended,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote. “It took two letters from Bar Counsel and an extension for Johnson to provide a response to Venable’s complaint, and Johnson never responded to any of Bar Counsel’s six letters requesting documents and additional information.”

Johnson did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the ruling on Thursday. Glenn Grossman, Bar Counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission, declined to comment on the ruling.

Venable retained Johnson and paid him $1,250 to appear at a hearing in the child support case scheduled for Dec. 16, 2013, the opinion states. Johnson said at the hearing that he would enter his appearance in the case but then failed to enter his appearance or pay the appearance fee.

After the hearing, the magistrate issued a report and recommendations, and Venable asked Johnson to file exceptions, according to the opinion. But Johnson filed the exceptions after the due date, and the circuit court closed the child support case.

Johnson, who was admitted the Maryland Bar in 1998, did not tell Venable that he had not paid the fees nor submitted the exceptions on time and did not refund the $775 he charged Venable to file the exceptions, the opinion states.

After ignoring several of Venable’s requests for updates on the case, Johnson eventually told his client he was awaiting a response to a “motion for reconsideration” he had filed. In fact, he never filed that motion, the opinion states.

Missed deadlines

Venable filed a complaint with Bar Counsel on March 14, 2014. Johnson was notified of the complaint but failed to respond before the deadline passed. When Bar Counsel contacted him again to request an answer, he asked for an extension. In his eventual response, Johnson incorrectly claimed he had filed his appearance in the child custody case, the opinion states. Johnson later ignored repeated additional requests from Bar Counsel for documents and information, according to the opinion.

On Jan. 21, 2016, Bar Counsel filed a petition for disciplinary or remedial action against Johnson. He did not respond before the deadline, but eventually requested an extension, which the hearing judge, Harford County Circuit Judge Yolanda L. Curtin, granted, the opinion states.

Johnson, however, missed the revised deadline, and Curtin issued an order of default against Johnson for his failure to file a response. Although Johnson filed a motion to vacate the default order, his motion was filed the day after the deadline, and it was denied.

The Court of Appeals held oral argument in the case on Nov. 4. The court found only one factor mitigating Johnson’s misconduct — his lack of prior attorney discipline — and multiple aggravating factors, including his pattern of misconduct, his obstruction of the disciplinary proceedings, his refusal to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct and his substantial experience in the practice of law.

Those factors, along with Johnson’s violation of multiple elements of the Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct, warranted a more severe sanction than the 60-day and six-month suspensions handed down in other disciplinary cases that also involved attorneys who failed to respond to Bar Counsel inquiries or adequately communicate with clients, the Court of Appeals found.

The case is Attorney Grievance Commission v. Jerome P. Johnson, Misc. Docket AG No. 68, September Term 2015.


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