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Lies don’t always mean disbarment, Maryland high court says

Court of Appeals relaxes Vanderlinde standard

“We have on multiple occasions imposed a sanction less than disbarment in cases involving intentional dishonest misconduct where there was no theft or misappropriation of funds by the attorney, the attorney had not benefited from the misconduct, and no client had been harmed,” wrote Court of Appeals Judge Shirley Watts. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

An attorney’s intentional dishonesty to a court, client or bar counsel – long regarded as a sure ticket to disbarment in Maryland – no longer results necessarily in the loss of a law license, the state’s top court ruled Friday in indefinitely suspending a lawyer caught in lies.

But disbarment remains appropriate in the absence of extenuating circumstances when the dishonesty involves theft, fraud, harm to a client or third party, or the intentional misappropriation of funds, the Court of Appeals said in its 7-0 ruling.

The high court said its newly announced standard is in recognition of several recent cases in which it has suspended rather than disbarred attorneys when no client was harmed and no money was improperly taken due to the lawyers’ intentional dishonesty.

These recent cases have diluted the court’s 2001 decision in Attorney Grievance Commission v. Vanderlinde that an attorney’s intentional dishonesty warranted disbarment in the absence of mitigating circumstances directly related to the lie, Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the high court.

“We have on multiple occasions imposed a sanction less than disbarment in cases involving intentional dishonest misconduct where there was no theft or misappropriation of funds by the attorney, the attorney had not benefited from the misconduct, and no client had been harmed,” Watts wrote.

“Going forward, it is clear that cases involving dishonesty and knowingly made false statements will be assessed on an individual basis to determine whether the misconduct at issue gives rise to deployment of the standard set forth in Vanderlinde, namely, whether compelling extenuating circumstances that are the ‘root cause’ of the misconduct are required to warrant a sanction less than disbarment,” Watts added.

Attorney Alvin I. Frederick, who represents lawyers in disciplinary proceedings, said Monday that he is not surprised by the high court’s relaxation of its Vanderlinde decision, which essentially called for automatic disbarment.

“They’re looking carefully at the facts and circumstances of each case,” said Frederick, who was not involved in the case the court decided Friday. “The rules (of professional conduct) are rules of reason. There are no automatics.”

Frederick is with Eccleston and Wolf in Hanover.

Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless, the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission’s chief administrative prosecutor, declined to comment on the high court’s ruling.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in ordering the indefinite suspension of Baltimore attorney Natalie Thryphenia Collins who, while under an unrelated 60-day suspension in 2020, had lied on her petition to the high court for reinstatement.

Specifically, Collins lied when she stated in the petition that she had not received any other disciplinary complaint from an opposing party – despite a record of bar counsel having notified her of just such a complaint, the Court of Appeals said in handing down the second-most severe professional sanction.

Collins also lied in stating she had complied with bar counsel’s requirement that she provide the names, addresses and telephone numbers of all her clients within 15 days of the start of her 60-day suspension, the high court added in citing the findings of Baltimore City Circuit Judge Julie R. Rubin.

The Court of Appeals had assigned Rubin, now a U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore, to make findings in a complaint for disciplinary action that bar counsel had filed against Collins related to the petition.

Collins’s intentional dishonesty could have resulted in disbarment under the prior Vanderlinde standard, which generally had no tolerance for lies by attorneys.

“Considering the nature and circumstances of the false statements, as well as recent case law in which we have not consistently imposed the sanction of disbarment for misconduct involving intentional dishonesty, and that we now expressly recognize that the Vanderlinde standard is not implicated in all instances of intentional dishonesty, Collins’s misconduct does not warrant disbarment,” Watts wrote.

“Collins’s misconduct did not involve circumstances for which we have generally applied the Vanderlinde standard, for instance, theft, fraud, intentional misappropriation, or harm to a client,” Watts added. “Indeed, Collins’s misconduct has resulted in harm only to herself.”

Collins did not immediately respond to a telephone message Monday seeking comment on the high court’s ruling.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Attorney Grievance Commission v. Natalie Thryphenia Collins, Misc. Docket AG 6, September Term 2021.