RICHMOND, Va. — A law firm has been disqualified from representing a medical malpractice plaintiff after one of the firm’s lawyers signed multiple case documents while his license was administratively suspended.
The Washington-based lawyer let his Virginia license lapse for more than two years by failing to report legal education credits, according to the judge’s opinion. Now, his former client has six months to refile her action with new counsel. The law firm has been ordered to pay the other side’s legal bills.
Norfolk Circuit Judge Joseph A. Migliozzi Jr. termed the law firm’s banishment an “extraordinary remedy,” but the judge discounted explanations by the lawyer that he was unaware of his suspended license.
Migliozzi’s Jan. 20 decision is Channell v. Pariser Dermatology Specialists (VLW 0210-8-013).
License had lapsed
Plaintiff Vanessa Channell contends the defendant dermatologists failed to timely diagnose melanoma, according to the judge’s opinion. With claimed medical bills of about $160,000 and lost wages of about $24,000, Channell’s lawsuit demanded $5 million, according to defense counsel.
The suit was filed Aug. 14, 2018, but not served on the defendants until August of 2019, court records showed. Discovery disputes and other motions came before Migliozzi in 2020.
Channell was represented by Brian K. Snyder at the Washington firm of Price Benowitz LLP. His online biography said he handles all aspects of personal injury claims in both Virginia and the District of Columbia.
But the defendants challenged the validity of three documents Snyder signed or filed with the court in 2020. He filed an order of substitution on Jan. 31 representing that he was an active member of the Virginia State Bar. He signed discovery responses the next month. In August, he issued 132 discovery requests.
But Snyder was not in good standing with the VSB when he signed those documents, Migliozzi determined. From March 14, 2018, to Sept. 4, 2020, his license was administratively suspended for not completing his continuing legal education credits, the opinion said.
As a result, the documents signed by Snyder were invalid and not legally binding, Migliozzi ruled. He cited a 2005 Virginia Supreme Court holding that pleadings filed by a suspended lawyer are invalid. “An invalid signature is not 2a clerical mistake that can be corrected by the Court,” the judge wrote.
Snyder’s persistent disregard of his suspended status warranted the “extraordinary remedy” of preclusion of all Price Benowitz lawyers from the case, Migliozzi concluded.
“Every Virginia lawyer knows he or she is required to complete twelve continuing education credits by October 31 of each year,” the judge wrote. Administrative suspension follows if the credits are not completed.
“The Court is aware that lapses in judgment happen,” Migliozzi wrote, but he noted the VSB often works with members to address issues as long as the member acts reasonably.
“The Court is befuddled at how Mr. Snyder could go through two October cycles without becoming aware of the status of his professional law license,” Migliozzi continued. “Mistakes happen. These mistakes can and should be forgiven. But to ask the Court to believe that an attorney did not know for two years that his license was administratively suspended is foolhardy. The Court will not stretch reasonableness to accommodate Mr. Snyder’s version of history,” the judge wrote.
Besides precluding Price Benowitz from representing Channell, Migliozzi ordered the firm to pay the defendants’ costs of $55,298.40.
Migliozzi allowed the plaintiff to nonsuit her case, which gave her six months to refile under Virginia statutes. But the judge said Channell had just 30 days to acquire new counsel.
The defendants were represented by Rodney S. Dillman and Jennifer L. Stevens of Virginia Beach.
“It just shows the perils of being licensed in a multitude of jurisdictions and practicing in a multitude of jurisdictions at the same time,” Dillman said of Snyder’s situation.
Certification passes muster
The plaintiff avoided penalties for other issues raised by the defendants.
The complaint filed in 2018 was signed by attorney Maxwell Paderewski, who later “resigned” his Virginia law license, according to Migliozzi’s opinion. He now practices in Texas, based on his new firm’s website.
The defendants challenged the validity of the original complaint, but Migliozzi found that Paderewski’s signature was valid since he was in good standing in Virginia when the action was filed.
The judge also concluded that the plaintiff’s expert certification was adequate. Virginia law requires that a medical malpractice plaintiff obtain a medical certification of a valid claim before serving the suit papers.
After a second in camera review of the plaintiff’s certification, Migliozzi approved.
“[A]lthough the certification may be brief, it satisfies the statute’s requirements. Furthermore, the alleged inexperience or medical training of this expert is a matter for cross examination,” the judge wrote.