Maryland’s top court has disbarred a Chevy Chase lawyer who did shoddy work for three immigration clients and essentially ignored them but kept their fees.
Edward Emad Moawad then lied to Attorney Grievance Commission investigators, telling them the immigrants were never his clients, the Court of Appeals said in its 7-0 decision Wednesday.
The high court said Moawad’s ethical wrongdoing was especially reprehensible because immigrant clients seeking to remain in the United States are inherently vulnerable, even if they are a budding paramedic, a medical researcher, or the spouse of a U.S. citizen, as his clients were.
“Mr. Moawad’s actions in this case caused substantial prejudice that risked impacting his clients’ ability to maintain jobs and homes in the United States,” Judge Joseph M. Getty wrote for the Court of Appeals.
“The potential to be removed from the country is a grave risk that is specific to immigrants who do not have permanent status within the United States, thereby making them vulnerable regardless of what occupation or socioeconomic status they have attained,” Getty added. “Attorneys play an important role in protecting this vulnerable class, and hence attorneys who provide substandard services to immigrants should, in turn, face significant consequences.”
Moawad did not immediately return a telephone message Friday seeking comment on the Court of Appeals decision.
Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless, the grievance commission’s chief administrative prosecutor, declined to comment on the high court’s ruling.
The Court of Appeals based its decision on the findings of Montgomery County Circuit Judge Cheryl A. McCally, whom it appointed to conduct a hearing in Moawad’s disciplinary proceedings.
In one of the three immigration cases, Moawad in 2014 received $4,000 in legal fees from Madio Kossi Togbetse, a Togo national seeking permanent resident status in the United States, the high court stated, citing McCally’s findings.
Moawad filed the status application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services but then failed to respond to Togbetse’s messages seeking an update on his case. Moawad also failed to respond to Togbetse after he received a request for evidence of a medical examination and vaccination record.
Togbetse told investigators he provided the evidence on his own after not hearing from Moawad.
When USCIS closed his case, citing lack of jurisdiction, Togbetse met with Moawad in late July 2016. Moawad agreed to file a motion to reopen Togbetse’s case for no additional fee but then failed to take any action, the high court said.
Togbetse fired Moawad in early 2017.
In another case, Moawad collected a $7,000 fee from Jing Hao, a Chinese national seeking employment-based immigration status. Moawad, however, filed the incorrect application in 2016.
Hao’s attempts over several months to contact Moawad about the erroneous filing were not returned.
On Oct.3 and Nov. 7, 2017, Hao emailed Moawad seeking a refund of half the legal fee she had paid as well as the cost of filing the wrong application. When Moawad failed to respond to either email, Hao fired him on Nov. 14, 2017.
In the third case, El Salvadoran national Juan Carlos Machado sought permanent residency status. He and his American wife, Joy Liang, paid Moawad $6,900 toward a $7,000 fee.
Applications were sent multiple times to USCIS but repeatedly rejected because the fee receipt provided by the State Department was missing.
The couple’s requests to speak with Moawad were not returned and they eventually sought guidance online, according to the high court.
Togbetse, Hao and Liang filed complaints with the Attorney Grievance Commission.
Moawad told bar counsel investigators he was not the attorney for the three complainants. Rather, Moawad said they were represented by one of his law partners.
Moawad also said the clients had filed the complaints to “avoid paying justly for legal work rendered.”
These statements, however, were belied by the clients’ engagement letters identifying Moawad as their attorney and their payments of his requested fees, the high court said.
“Here, Mr. Moawad intentionally attempted to cover up his involvement with respect to all three of the complainants to avoid accountability,” Getty wrote. “Mr. Moawad’s conduct went far beyond a mere lack of diligence or negligence.”
In stripping Moawad of his law license, the Court of Appeals concluded he had violated Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct pertaining to competence, diligence, communication, fees, duties regarding non-attorney assistants, disciplinary matters and general misconduct.
The Court of Appeal rendered its decision in Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Edward Emad Moawad, Misc. Docket AG No. 11, September Term 2020.