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D.C. lawyer disbarred in Md. for continuing to practice law while suspended

“Ms. Ekekwe persistently violated the two suspension orders,” Judge Steven B. Gould wrote in a 21-page opinion. “In doing so, Ms. Ekekwe effectively deprived (her client)—who was battling for custody of her son—the benefit of counsel.” (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Maryland’s Court of Appeals this month disbarred a D.C. lawyer who continued representing a client in a custody case after she had been suspended from practicing law in Maryland.

The high court agreed unanimously that Olekanma A. Ekekwe had “undeniably injured” her client and misrepresented her status as an attorney to both the client and a judge.

“Ms. Ekekwe persistently violated the two suspension orders,” Judge Steven B. Gould wrote in a 21-page opinion. “In doing so, Ms. Ekekwe effectively deprived (her client) — who was battling for custody of her son — the benefit of counsel.”

The court found that disbarment was appropriate because Ekekwe’s misconduct included intentional dishonesty and the unauthorized practice of law. Ekekwe has also been disbarred in D.C., records show.

Ekekwe could not be reached for comment. A phone number listed online for her D.C. law practice is no longer active.

Ekekwe had been a lawyer in D.C. since 2002 and in Maryland since 2010, according to the court’s opinion. In June 2019, she was suspended for three years in D.C. after the District of Columbia Court of Appeals found she had violated rules related to competence, diligence, communication, safekeeping property and declining or terminating representation.

In October of that year, Ekekwe’s law license was suspended in Maryland on a petition from the Attorney Grievance Commission that was based on the misconduct finding in D.C.

Even after her law license had been temporarily suspended, Ekekwe continued to represent a pro bono client she’d been assigned through the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, according to the opinion. Although Ekekwe had not entered an appearance in the client’s case, she represented the woman at an emergency hearing in November 2019 and did not inform her client, the judge or opposing counsel that she had been suspended, Gould wrote in the opinion.

In January 2020, Ekekwe again appeared in court in connection with the custody dispute. Under questioning from a judge, Ekekwe said she was “assisting” in the case and making just a “temporary appearance.” The judge postponed the hearing and referred the case to bar counsel, according to the opinion.

Ekekwe repeatedly failed to respond to letters from bar counsel before claiming that her suspension had not yet been active at the time of the November 2019 emergency hearing and that she had appeared at the January 2020 hearing as a paralegal, rather than a lawyer.

“Ms. Ekekwe’s paralegal theory strains credulity,” Gould wrote. “The Women’s Law Center appointed an attorney, not a paralegal, to represent (the client). Upon their suspension from practicing law, lawyers do not magically transform into paralegals imbued with the authority to represent clients.”

A hearing judge found no mitigating factors in Ekekwe’s favor. Ekekwe failed to appear at a June 2021 evidentiary hearing about her alleged misconduct.

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals also disbarred Ekekwe in January. The Court found that Ekekwe, who is referred to in the opinion as Ekekwe-Kauffman, had recklessly misappropriated funds belonging to four clients, among other violations.

“Ekekwe-Kauffman’s handling of entrusted funds evinces practically all of the hallmarks of reckless misappropriation,” the D.C. high court found.  “She commingled funds between her trust and operating accounts repeatedly and indiscriminately. She likewise moved money among her personal, business, and trust accounts, haphazardly covering shortfalls in each account by drawing on the balance of the others.”