Madeleine O'Neill//March 28, 2023
//March 28, 2023
A unanimous Maryland Supreme Court has disbarred a Cecil County lawyer who used a client’s power of attorney to withdraw hundreds of thousands of dollars from the woman’s bank account without permission.
The lawyer, Wendy B. Culberson, stopped practicing law in 2020 and claimed she “has no intention to practice or seek to practice law again,” according to the Supreme Court’s 31-page opinion.
Even so, her misappropriation of hundreds of thousands of dollars and subsequent efforts to cover up the misconduct merit disbarment, Justice Brynja M. Booth wrote.
“To say that misappropriation of a client’s funds ‘reflects adversely on the attorney’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness’ is an understatement and constitutes an obvious violation of (the Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct),” Booth wrote.
Culberson, who worked as a solo family law practitioner in Maryland from 1995 until 2020, could not be reached for comment. She did not appear for an evidentiary hearing on the Attorney Grievance Commission’s allegations in October 2022 and represented herself in oral argument before the Maryland Supreme Court, according to the opinion.
Acting Maryland Bar Counsel Erin A. Risch declined to comment on the case.
The disciplinary proceedings against Culberson stemmed from her representation of Gabrielle Buck, who lives on the Mt. Ararat Farm in Port Deposit, and is the beneficiary of two family trusts that were valued at $23 million as of 2014, according to the opinion.
Buck hired Culberson in 2014 to help manage her business interests and the farm, which cost several thousand dollars per month in upkeep and other expenses.
Buck agreed to pay Culberson a flat monthly fee of $3,500, with the cost of any additional legal matters to be added on top of the monthly fee. The agreement also required Culberson to provide Buck with an accounting of all payments made for Culberson’s services.
For the next two years, Buck wrote checks from her bank account to Culberson to cover the monthly fee and some additional expenses. In 2016, on Culberson’s advice, Buck gave the lawyer power of attorney and access to her bank account and to another account that held funds intended for the farm.
From April 2016 through July 2019, Culberson made 323 cash withdrawals totaling more than $940,000, according to the opinion. She deposited $342,500 into the farm bank account but could not account for the other $597,797 that was not deposited into the bank account, a hearing judge found.
Culberson did not provide her client with any documentation to support payments of more than $133,000, the amount in monthly fees she would have earned during that time, the hearing judge concluded. Culberson told Buck that the withdrawals were used to pay farm bills or to cover other expenses.
“The hearing judge found that Ms. Culberson failed to advise Ms. Buck that Ms. Culberson retained the majority of the cash withdrawals for her own personal use and benefit,” Booth wrote.
Buck terminated Culberson’s representation in July 2019 after discovering the cash withdrawals from her account. Culberson later provided Buck with invoices totaling about $300,000 for legal work, though they included costs that should have been covered under her monthly fee and did not provide an accounting for the cash withdrawals from Buck’s bank account, according to the opinion.
When bar counsel requested information from Culberson about the withdrawals, Culberson claimed that Buck had increased the monthly fee to $5,000 and had asked Culberson not to provide invoices.
The hearing judge concluded these were intentional misrepresentations, and that spreadsheets Culberson provided to bar counsel to explain the withdrawals contained numerous errors and had been created after the fact to cover up the misappropriation of funds.
The Supreme Court agreed with the hearing judge’s findings that Culberson violated attorney ethics rules governing communication with clients, conflicts of interest, safekeeping property, record-keeping and general misconduct.
The court overruled a series of exceptions raised by Culberson and found that the sole mitigating factor in her favor, a lack of prior disciplinary history, did not support a lesser penalty than disbarment.C