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Md. high court disbars lawyer who violated ‘fundamental obligation’

A unanimous Maryland high court this month disbarred an attorney who violated the “fundamental obligation to safeguard client funds” and withdrew much of that money for personal use.

Lawrence Daniel O’Neill, a Maryland lawyer who kept his office in New York, also lied to Maryland’s Office of Bar Counsel during its investigation of his misconduct and failed to respond timely and completely to the investigators’ request for his financial records, the Court of Appeals stated in ordering his disbarment.

“On admission to the Maryland bar, a lawyer must swear an oath to demean oneself ‘fairly and honorably as an attorney and practitioner at law,” Judge Michele D. Hotten wrote for the court.

“The oath is a solemn commitment to the ‘virtues of character, honor, and integrity,’ which we have described as ‘the cornerstone of our legal profession,’” Hotten added. “By violating several rules of professional responsibility, respondent (O’Neill) did not fairly and honorably discharge the ethical duties, embodied in the oath, as required by all members of the Maryland bar.”

O’Neill, who advised corporate clients on tax issues, mergers and acquisitions, often dipped into his attorney trust between July 2018 and September 2019, resulting in negative balances 10 different times in the client-funded account that may not be withdrawn from until earned, the high court stated in its 7-0 decision.

O’Neill also directed Chase Bank to automatically debit funds from the account to pay his monthly personal credit card bills, the court added, citing findings of the judge it assigned to review the disciplinary claims bar counsel lodged against O’Neill.

O’Neill’s misconduct came to light on July 25, 2018, when the bank reported an overdraft on the account to New York’s Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection, which then told the state’s Attorney Grievance Commission.

The New York panel, noting it lacked jurisdiction over O’Neill because he was not licensed in the state, forwarded the information to the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission in October 2018, according to the reviewing judge, Elizabeth S. Morris of Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Bar counsel, the commission’s administrative prosecutor, asked O’Neill about the overdrafts on the account in January 2019.

O’Neill responded that the overdrafts occurred when “several checks presented by clients in payment of fees were returned, unpaid, yet funds were withdrawn to pay expenses.” He also said he would provide financial records to bar counsel, as well as an accounting of client transactions as requested by bar counsel.

But O’Neill failed to submit any records to bar counsel for about nine months. He then submitted a spread sheet he claimed was an accounting of a trust account, as well as bank statements for the months of July 2018 through July 2019.

Bar counsel responded by obtaining O’Neill’s bank records for those months from Chase Bank via subpoena. The records indicated insufficient funds.

Morris found, and the high court agreed, that O’Neill’s explanation for the overdrafts was knowingly false based on the bank records that detailed the insufficiency.

O’Neill “demonstrated a dishonest and selfish motive by using client funds from the attorney trust account to cover personal expenses,” Hotten wrote.

“The repeated instances of misappropriation and improper accounting practices constituted multiple violations and a pattern of misconduct,” Hotten added. “Respondent failed to safeguard client funds and to communicate honestly and responsively with bar counsel despite over 40 years of legal experience.”

In ordering O’Neill’s disbarment, the Court of Appeals concluded he had violated Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct pertaining to competence, safekeeping of property, attorney trust account record keeping, commingling of funds, prohibited transactions and disciplinary matters.

O’Neill did not immediately respond to a telephone message Wednesday requesting comment on the high court’s decision.

Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless declined to comment on the ruling.

The high court rendered its decision in Attorney Grievance Commission v. Lawrence Daniel O’Neill, Misc. Docket AG No. 41, September Term 2020.