The Attorney Grievance Commission cannot be sued for defamation because it has sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment, the Maryland Office of the Attorney General has argued in papers filed in federal court.
The attorney general’s office was responding Thursday to a lawsuit brought by a Washington lawyer who alleges the commission made false and defamatory statements to a peer review panel, the Court of Appeals and to Montgomery County Circuit Court.
Melinda Maldonado, a toxic mold litigation attorney with an office in Arlington, Virginia, was practicing pro hac vice in a Maryland case representing a woman whose exposure to severe water damage and toxic mold left her disabled, according to court filings.
Opposing counsel in the underlying case filed a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission. Then-Acting Bar Counsel Raymond Hein and Assistant Bar Counsel Amy Paulick, who is named as a defendant in the defamation suit, requested charges against Maldonado for allegedly breaking several Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct by continuing to work on her client’s case after the Maryland attorney sponsoring Maldonado withdrew representation. Maldonado also allegedly claimed to be a medical doctor in an attempt to get her client’s medical records changed to show mold exposure, according the Attorney Grievance Commission’s petition for disciplinary action.
Maldonado, who did not respond to a request for comment on Friday, denies the Attorney Grievance Commission’s allegations in her lawsuit, saying the commission “repeatedly lied” about her referring to herself as a physician.
“Plaintiff is appalled by such false accusations, especially given that the Defendants represent a so-called commission enforcing ‘ethics,’” Maldonado states in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on July 17.
Maldonado also alleges Paulick added a “competence” charge, without the Attorney Grievance Commission seeing it, in retaliation for Maldonado saying Paulick was incompetent in her handling of the case, according to the defamation lawsuit.
The attorney general’s office, in its motions to dismiss and for summary judgment filed Thursday, argued the commission has sovereign immunity.
“(State) personnel, including Assistant Bar Counsel of the AGC, are immune from both suit and liability when they act within the scope of their employment and without malice or gross negligence,” the motions state, adding that while Maldonado alleged Paulick’s actions were malicious and grossly negligent, she fails to allege facts to prove that claim.
The commission claims it has absolute immunity with respect to comments made to the commission’s peer review panel, the Court of Appeals and to the circuit court. Paulick also has prosecutorial immunity as bar counsel’s responsibilities are no different from that of an administrative or criminal prosecutor, the motions state.
The commission also asked the court to remand the suit to the Court of Appeals under federal abstention principles, arguing Maryland’s highest court has original jurisdiction over attorney disciplinary matters.
“The attorney disciplinary proceeding against Ms. Maldonado in state court involves a very important state interest, namely the Court of Appeals’ authority to regulate attorney misconduct,” the motions state. “The state courts provide adequate opportunity for Ms. Maldonado to defend herself or to raise any defenses.”
The Court of Appeals sent the disciplinary matter to Montgomery County Circuit Court in June, where a hearing was scheduled. The Attorney Grievance Commission to attempted to serve Maldonado a summons in the disciplinary case on three occasions, but no one answered, according to court filings.
A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s office declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
The case is Maldonado v. Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland et al, 1:17-cv-01988-ELH.