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Complaints up, disbarments down, Md. attorney grievance panel finds

Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless. (Submitted Photo)

The number of ethics complaints against Maryland attorneys rose slightly in fiscal year 2022, but the number of disbarments was the lowest in 13 years, the state’s Attorney Grievance Commission reported.

The 1,589 complaints lodged with the commission in FY 2022, which runs from July 1 to June 30, ended a five-year downward trend, which culminated in FY 2021, when 1,433 complaints were received – the least amount in 20 years.

Bar Counsel Lydia E. Lawless attributed the year-to-year increase in complaints to the resumption of jury trials after they were suspended during 2021 to stanch the spread of COVID-19.

“It makes sense that the numbers were down (in 2021) because the courts were closed,” Lawless said Tuesday. “The majority of our (attorney grievance) cases come from litigation, so as those cases proceed we see more complaints.”

The 19 attorneys either stripped of their licenses by Maryland’s top court or who consented to disbarment in FY 2022 marked the lowest number of defrocked lawyers since 2009, when 18 were disbarred, based on data in the commission’s recently released annual report and its predecessors. The total number of attorneys receiving any sanction — from public reprimand to disbarment – fell to 79 in 2022 from 81 the prior year, the commission reported.

The most common violation among sanctioned attorneys pertained to competence, diligence, communication or failure to abide by their clients’ decisions, which was cited in 24 of the cases in 2022. Other common violations involved failure to maintain complete records (cited in 11 cases), misappropriation of client funds (10 cases) or misconduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation (eight cases).

According to the commission’s report, 303 cases were deemed worthy of further investigation in 2022, compared to 196 such “docketed” cases the prior year.

The most common docketed complaint — alleged in 44 cases — involved allegations that the attorney failed to safeguard client property. The next most common docketed complaints were that the lawyer lacked diligence or communication, 28 and 20 cases, respectively.

According to the 2022 report, civil litigation led to the most docketed complaints, 40, followed by criminal defense cases, which led to 32, and family law proceedings, which accounted for 31. Civil litigation also drew the most complaints in 2021.

The plurality of docketed complaints about attorneys in 2022 came from Montgomery County, with 61; out of state, 49; Baltimore County, 41; Baltimore City, 38, and Prince George’s County, 34. Allegany, Calvert, Caroline, Somerset, St. Mary’s and Talbot counties had no docketed complaints in fiscal 2022, according to the commission’s report.

Ethical complaints are administratively prosecuted by bar counsel. Sanctions are handed down by the Maryland Supreme Court.

For the second consecutive year, bar counsel in 2022 established 11 new conservatorships of the client files and accounts for attorneys who died, were disbarred or abandoned their practices without a succession plan, the commission’s report stated. .

Bar counsel closed 19 conservatorships in 2022, which left 32 open as of June 30, the report added.

“My office spends an increasing amount of time on conservatorship cases,” Lawless said of the numbers.

Lawyers should “have a succession plan for an attorney to step in if something unforeseen happens,“ she added.

The number of Maryland attorneys increased for the eighth straight year in fiscal year 2022 — to 42,050 from 41,611 in 2021, the commission noted in its 47th annual report.