The Court of Appeals has indefinitely suspended a Montgomery County solo practitioner who failed to maintain an attorney trust account, charged unreasonable fees and failed to keep adequate records of a client’s payments.
The state’s top court compared the case to others in which attorneys mishandled client funds — but not as a result of dishonest conduct — and considered the mitigating circumstances surrounding Andrew Ndubisi Ucheomumu’s misconduct, including his inexperience and his demonstration of remorse, Judge Michele D. Hotten wrote in the court’s opinion, filed Thursday.
Ucheomumu will be able to apply for readmission to the Maryland Bar after 90 days but must provide evidence that he is maintaining a trust account. He did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the ruling on Friday.
“Respondent engaged in serious, wide-ranging misconduct, and violated numerous (Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct), two Maryland Rules, and one provision of the Code of Maryland,” Hotten wrote for a unanimous court. “Specifically, Respondent did not maintain an attorney trust account for over two years. He formed his law practice and plainly ignored his responsibility to set up a trust account to hold separately unearned client funds and funds for third parties.”
The sanction stemmed from Ucheomumu’s representation from 2010 to 2012 of David C. Jackson and Jackson’s mortgage companies, Jalin Realty Capital Advisors and American Capital Holdings.
Montgomery County Circuit Judge Ronald B. Rubin concluded, after an evidentiary hearing on the disciplinary matter, that Ucheomumu was aware of and profited from an advance fee scheme in which Jalin Realty Capital Advisors took fees from clients and then intentionally failed to fund loans. But the Court of Appeals disagreed, holding Jackson’s eventual wire fraud conviction was based on conduct that “almost entirely preceded” Ucheomumu’s representation of him.
However, the appellate court found that Ucheomumu committed several, less severe violations of the Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct while representing Jackson and the companies.
Ucheomumu violated rules related to communication and unreasonable fees when he charged flat fees for work that was also billed on an hourly basis and failed to clarify the “ambiguous and contradictory nature” of his billing structure while serving as outside general counsel for Jackson’s firms, the opinion states.
He was also sanctioned for discovery violations while representing Jalin Realty Capital Advisors in a federal lawsuit the firm filed in 2010 because he responded to requests for documents with “frivolous and boilerplate objections,” demonstrating a lack of competence, the opinion states.
Ucheomumu failed to maintain records of his client’s payments or deposit client payments into an attorney trust account and did not send Jackson invoices and a complete copy of his file, even after Jackson had requested the documents twice, according to the opinion.
The Court of Appeals, which heard oral argument in the case on Sept. 8, found Ucheomumu’s misconduct was mitigated by his relative inexperience in the practice of law at the time, as he was admitted to the Maryland Bar in 2009 and represented Jackson and his companies from 2010 to 2012.
“Respondent admitted to the hearing court that he was engaged in matters that were ‘over (his) head’ in relation to his representation of Jackson and Jackson’s companies,” Hotten wrote. “Although Respondent had a prior career in the import/export business, and he was fifty-six years old at the time of the hearing in this matter, Respondent was, nonetheless, inexperienced in the unique challenges that confront solo practitioners, and those in private practice, generally, during his representation of Jackson and Jackson’s companies.”
In similar cases that did not involve dishonest conduct, the appropriate sanction was an indefinite suspension with the right to reapply after a set period of time, the court said.
Glenn Grossman, Bar Counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission, declined to comment on the ruling.
The case is Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Andrew Ndubisi Ucheomumu, Misc. Docket AG No. 27, September Term 2015.