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Md. high court disbars unlicensed attorney

A unanimous Maryland top court Wednesday disbarred a District of Columbia attorney who practiced law in Maryland without a state license, lied to a client about the status of his personal injury claim and failed to properly keep settlement funds in a trust account.

Celio Warren Young, who was admitted to the D.C. bar in 1989, also failed to advise the client to seek independent legal advice before settling a legal malpractice claim against him. In addition, Young did not respond to bar counsel’s inquiries, the Court of Appeals stated in its 7-0 decision.

The Maryland court’s disbarment of Young prevents him from being licensed in the state and puts the District of Columbia bar on notice of his ethical violations, which could result in the city stripping him of his law license.

Young’s many ethical lapses arose from his representation of a single client, Joseph O’Pharrow III, after he was seriously injured in an April 2014 car crash in Prince George’s County, the Court of Appeals stated.

Young’s “misconduct necessitates that he be disbarred,” Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera wrote for the high court.

“We do not overlook that the misconduct in this case stems from the representation of one client,” Barbera added.  “We likewise do not ignore that respondent (Young) has been practicing law for more than 31 years, albeit not always lawfully, as this matter demonstrates. That respondent is an experienced attorney causes us to assess more critically his many violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct during his representation of Mr. O’Pharrow.”

Young declined to comment Wednesday on the court’s decision, as did Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless, the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission’s chief administrative prosecutor of wayward lawyers.

Young, after learning of the crash, went to the hospital and asked O’Pharrow, a neighbor, if he could represent him in the personal injury lawsuit on a contingency basis. Young never disclosed that he was not licensed to practice law in Maryland, according to the Court of Appeals decision.

Young and O’Pharrow, whose medical expenses exceeded $100,000, reached a settlement with the at-fault driver’s insurance company, GEICO, at the policy limit of $30,000. Young failed to deposit the money into an attorney trust account, opting instead to retain $6,400 as his fee and remitting $23,600 to O’Pharrow, the court said.

Young subsequently filed an underinsured motorist claim with O’Pharrow’s insurer, Erie Insurance Co., in an effort to further defray his client’s medical expenses.

But Erie denied the claim in December 2014 after Young failed to provide a copy of the GEICO settlement, as required under Maryland law, according to the high court.

Young “knowingly and deliberately misrepresented to O’Pharrow that Erie’s denial of the claim was not a final determination,” the high court said, quoting the judge it had appointed to hold a hearing and make findings in the attorney’s disciplinary proceeding.

Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Lawrence V. Hill Jr. also found that Young had failed to investigate the assets of the at-fault driver beyond the $30,000 paid by GEICO and to negotiate with O’Pharrow’s health care providers regarding his medical expenses.

With O’Pharrow contemplating a legal malpractice claim in May 2016, Young and his client reached a settlement of $44,208.77 without the attorney first advising his client to seek independent legal advice, as required by the ethical rules.

The high court also noted that the low-ball settlement did not factor in O’Pharrow’s future medical expenses or compensation for pain and suffering.

In addition, Young paid only $12,000 of the settlement before he stopped paying in October 2016.

Bar counsel became involved in August 2017 when O’Pharrow filed a complaint against Young with the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission.

Young failed to respond to any of bar counsel’s nine letters between October 2017 and September 2018 or to any of several voicemail messages, the high court said.

On Sept. 29, 2018, a bar counsel investigator hand-delivered a copy of O’Pharrow’s complaint to Young’s wife at their home.

Young spoke with the investigator five days later and said a response to the complaint would be forthcoming, but a response never came, the court said.

Bar counsel filed a disciplinary petition with the Court of Appeals in August 2019. The high court concluded that Young violated Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct pertaining to competence, diligence, communication, scope of representation, fees, conflicts of interest, safekeeping property, unauthorized practice of law, direct solicitation of prospective clients and general misconduct.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Attorney Grievance Commission v. Celio Warren Young, Misc. Docket AG No. 23, September Term 2019.

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