Did a well-known malpractice lawyer commit a potentially disbarrable offense in seeking – perhaps with the threat of a damaging public disclosure – a $25 million consulting gig with the University of Maryland Medical System while representing a woman whose husband died, allegedly from a botched transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Center?
Maryland Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless said Stephen L. Snyder violated ethical rules barring conflict of interest and communicating directly with an opposing party rather than through his lawyer. In a petition to Maryland’s top court, Lawless has urged the Court of Appeals, to “take such disciplinary action … as it deems appropriate.”
Snyder, who has been practicing law for 50 years, countered that his actions posed no conflict because he had the widow’s permission to pursue what he called a good-faith, reasonably priced consultancy and never spoke with medical center staff without the knowledge of UMMS attorney Susan Kinter.
Snyder, in a responsive court filing, also defended his offer to be a consultant. He stated through counsel that his expertise in medical malpractice litigation could benefit UMMS, saying he has discovered irregularities in what he called the facility’s handling of organ transplant surgeries, including the use of damaged organs.
UMMS counsel, however, viewed Snyder’s reference to these allegations as a threat that he would go public with them if the hospital did not accept his offer to be a $2.5 million a year consultant for the following decade, according to Lawless’ petition for disciplinary action against Snyder. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in to investigate in 2018 but no charges have been filed.
Snyder is widely known in the Baltimore area for his television commercials telling potential clients, “Don’t just sue them; Snyder them.”
Snyder, though specializing in medical malpractice cases, was part of a legal team that secured a multimillion-dollar recovery for Jacksonville residents harmed by a 25,000-gallon Exxon Mobil gas station leak in January 2006.
Jacksonville resident Steve Tizard said around that time that he and a group of his neighbors chose Snyder because he came across as aggressive and intimidating.
“He was setting the stage, a show of force,” Tizard told The Daily Record in 2009 about his group’s interview with Snyder and his team. “I was getting sold every second. He was just so arrogant and nasty.”
Snyder is a 2003 recipient of The Daily Record’s Leadership in Law award.
A ‘sham’ consultancy?
Lawless’ petition described Snyder’s alleged scheme to secure a “sham” consultancy as borderline extortion, beginning with the attorney having frequent private meetings with UMMS’ chief medical officer to discuss a deal while threatening to bring further litigation against the hospital system or to go public with a video of his allegations of its improper transplant surgeries.
Snyder’s meetings with Dr. Stephen T. Bartlett, who was also UMMC’s chief of surgery, began in March 2018 and occurred while the attorney was seeking a settlement for the widow’s wrongful-death claim against the hospital, Lawless alleged.
Snyder “advised Dr. Bartlett that he had videos prepared for release that would publicly smear Dr. Bartlett and the transplant program,” according to Lawless.
During that meeting, Snyder invited Bartlett and his wife to visit him in Miami and drive his Rolls Royce, according to the petition.
Snyder later played the video, which he titled “Caught Red Handed,” during an April 30, 2018, settlement conference with Kinter. The video referenced the widow’s claim and alleged UMMS uses organs that other transplant centers reject, the petition stated.
At one meeting, Snyder also offered to settle the widow’s case for $25 million, an amount UMMS representatives believed was intended for the client – identified in court papers as M.S. — according to Lawless’ petition.
UMMS rejected the offer and another settlement conference was scheduled for June 22.
“At some time between the April 30 meeting and the June 22 meeting, the respondent (Snyder) decided that he did not want to share any of the $25 million” with his client, “The respondent decided that, separate and apart from any settlement in the (M.S.) case, UMMS would be required to pay him $25 million for his ‘silence.’ He decided that if UMMS refused his offer he would launch a media and advertising campaign using information learned during the representation of (M.S.).”
Snyder, knowing the ethical prohibition on lawyers’ demanding money for their silence, “developed a plan by which he could shroud his unlawful demand in legitimacy by entering into a consultancy or retainer agreement,” Lawless wrote. “The sham agreement would purport to retain the respondent as a consultant, but the reality of the situation would be that the respondent would receive $25 million in return for his silence.”
At the June 22 meeting, Snyder told UMMS representatives that he had a “goldmine” and that they should settle the case with the widow for its $6 million value and pay him $25 million directly to be a consultant, thus preventing him from suing the system again, Lawless wrote.
“When Ms. Kinter stated that she thought the $25 million demand was for the (M.S.) case, the respondent replied that (M.S.) did not ‘deserve’ that much money and that the $25 million was for him,” Lawless wrote. “When asked what he proposed to do to earn a $25 million consulting fee, the respondent said, ‘I could be a janitor.’”
Snyder again threatened to go public with his allegations if the medical system did not ‘“do the deal,’” Lawless added.
FBI and recordings
UMMS then consulted with its outside counsel, former Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, and brought Snyder’s actions to the attention of the U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI. Agents subsequently surreptitiously recorded Snyder’s Aug. 23, 2018, meeting with Kinter and DePriest Whye Jr., chief executive officer of the Maryland Medicine Comprehensive Insurance Program, which insures UMMS, Lawless’ petition stated.
“You hire me to do certain set-out things, to keep the hospital on the straight and narrow, to be involved with the transplant department as much as necessary,” Snyder is recorded as saying, according to the petition.
“If in the event something arises in the future, related to the transplant department, well I would be in conflict – conflicted out by way of implication,” Snyder said. “So, you know – so, you’re hiring me, and – and it’s – this is very important so that – I –I would do whatever you want me to do. If you don’t want to see me, over 10 years, then that’s fine, too.”
The widow, whose husband died from complications following a kidney transplant, reached a settlement with the UMMS for an undisclosed amount in September 2018. Kinter and Whye filed an ethics complaint against Snyder with bar counsel the following month.
Snyder was never offered the consultancy.
‘A serious proposal’
In his written response to Lawless’ petition, Snyder through counsel denied the allegations of ethical wrongdoing.
“The consulting agreement was … a serious proposal that was not a ‘sham’ in any way,” wrote Snyder’s attorneys: Douglas M. Bregman and Geoffrey T. Hervey, of Bregman, Berbert, Schwartz & Gilday LLC in Bethesda; and Andrew Jay Graham, of Kramon & Graham PA in Baltimore.
“To the contrary it was a proposal under serious consideration by UMMS because Ms. Kinter and others knew and understood that respondent had amassed considerable negative information about the failures of the UMMS transplant program and that respondent could use that information and his considerable talents as a plaintiffs’ personal injury (attorney) to bring similar claims against UMMS on behalf of other patients, which UMMS desired to avoid,” Snyder’s attorneys added. “Being able to engage respondent as a consultant to UMMS would mean that, instead of bringing cases against it, respondent could assist UMMS to address deficiencies in its program, avoid further claims, and deal effectively with any claims that were brought.”
The attorneys stated that “the involvement of the FBI was uncalled for and unwarranted and, in fact, was highly suspicious behavior on the part of UMMS, which involved the FBI as part of a campaign to silence respondent and freeze him out from future cases against UMMS.”
Attorney Alvin I. Frederick, who represents lawyers in disciplinary matters, declined to comment on Snyder’s case.
But he offered advice Thursday on what attorneys should do in weighing if they have a conflict of interest.
“Read the (ethics) rule and the comment and consider if there is an impact on any of your current engagements and keep in mind that these are rules of reason and they do change from time to time,” said Frederick, of the Law Offices of Eccleston & Wolf in Hanover.
“They are not the same as they were when you went to law school,” he added. “Rules are not static. They change and the courts’ interpretation of them does change.”
Dispute over waiver
Snyder participated in the consultancy discussions with UMMS while involved in settlement talks with the system on behalf of the widow, which raised the specter of a conflict of interest unless waived by the client.
Lawless and Snyder’s counsel each noted that the widow signed a document titled “waiver” in September 2018 in which she stated she was “aware that Mr. Snyder has met with key employees at the University of Maryland Medical System and their attorneys on multiple occasions to discuss both my case and the potential consulting agreement.”
The waiver also stated that M.S. “was made aware of these meetings prior to them occurring and gave Mr. Snyder my consent to do so.”
Lawless, in the petition for disciplinary action, stated the waiver carried little weight. The document was prepared not by M.S. but by a lawyer at Snyder’s firm, The Snyder Litigation Team in Pikesville; the widow had not been “fully apprised” of Snyder’s consultancy-related discussions with UMMS; and Snyder had failed to obtain her “informed consent,” Lawless wrote.
Snyder denied these allegations that his client had not waived the conflict of interest concern.
The widow “was apprised of all material facts regarding a potential consulting agreement between respondent and UMMS,” Snyder’s counsel wrote. “In fact, M.S. strongly endorsed the concept and wanted respondent to consult with UMMS to help the hospital avoid any more botched transplants.”
The Court of Appeals has assigned Baltimore County Circuit Judge Andrew M. Battista to hold a hearing on bar counsel’s allegations and make findings of fact and conclusions of law. The case would then go before the high court, which would determine whether and to what extent Snyder should be sanctioned.