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08/19/93 SONYA D. STEELE RESPONDENT A MEMBER BAR

August 19, 1993

IN RE: SONYA D. STEELE, RESPONDENT, A MEMBER OF THE BAR OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS


Before Farrell and King, Associate Judges, and Belson, Senior Judge. Opinion for the court by Senior Judge Belson. Concurring opinion by Associate Judge Farrell.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Belson

On Report and Recommendation of the Board on Professional Responsibility

BELSON, Senior Judge: The Board on Professional Responsibility has concluded that respondent, Sonya D. Steele, a member of the District of Columbia Bar, violated DR 6-101 (A)(3) (neglecting a legal matter), DR 1-102 (A)(5) (engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of Justice), and Rule 8.4 (d) of the Rules of Professional Responsibility (engaging in conduct that seriously interferes with the administration of Justice). The Board recommends that respondent he suspended from the practice of law for sixty days, and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $300. Challenging the Board's recommendation, the Office of Bar Counsel argues that this court should impose the additional requirement that respondent prove her fitness to return to the practice of law. While we agree with the Board's findings of violations and order that respondent be suspended from the practice of law in the District of Columbia for a period of sixty days, and that she pay restitution in the amount of $300, we also find that respondent's conduct raises substantial questions about her fitness to practice law and require that she prove her fitness to do so before returning to practice.

I.

On June 8, 1990, respondent Sonya D. Steele accepted a $300 retainer fee to represent her client as a plaintiff in a landlord-tenant action, assured her client that she would prepare and serve the necessary papers, and later represented to him that a hearing date had been set for October 26, 1990. Prior to that date, the client had settled his case and had attempted, without success, to inform Steele of the settlement. On the supposed hearing date, the client went to court and learned that Steele had never filed the case. Shortly thereafter, he filed a complaint in the Small Claims Branch and received a default judgment for the $300 he had paid to Steele, plus costs. Steele did not pay the judgment and, in November 1990, her client filed a complaint with Bar Counsel.

Neither Bar Counsel's numerous attempts to inform Steele by mail or by personal service of the pending complaint, nor the Board's order to compel an answer to the complaint, were successful. A June 26, 1991, order to compel a written response to inquiries by Bar Counsel was returned with the notation that Steele had moved.

On August 30, 1991, Bar Counsel filed a Petition Instituting Formal Disciplinary Proceedings charging Steele with violations of DR 6-101 (A)(3) (neglecting a legal matter), DR 7-101 (A)(1) (intentionally failing to seek the lawful objectives of a client), DR 1-102 (A)(5) (engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of Justice), and Rule 8.4 (d) of the Rules of Professional Responsibility (engaging in conduct that seriously interferes with the administration of Justice). The matter was submitted to Hearing Committee No. 9 on December 4, 1991. Bar Counsel argued the violations charged in the petition, except -- mistakenly -- Bar Counsel treated the original DR 7-101 (A)(1) violation as a violation of DR 7-101 (A)(2) (failing to carry out a contract of employment).

Steele never appeared at her disciplinary action hearings. During the proceedings, it was disclosed that the process server had located her in Atlanta, Georgia, and had served her with the various pleadings. The Hearing Committee then sent Steele a transcript of the hearing and copies of all exhibits and gave her an opportunity to submit a written rebuttal and any mitigating information. Steele did not respond. The Committee found violations of DR 6-101 (A)(3), DR 1-102 (A)(5), Rule 8.4 (d) of the Rules of Professional Responsibility and the argued DR 7-101 (A)(2). It initially recommended that Steele be suspended from practice in the District of Columbia for one year and that her reinstatement be subject to proof of fitness to practice law. The latter recommendation was based on evidence of Steele's "complete disregard for her obligations to her clients or the Court." The Committee subsequently added a recommendation for an order to pay restitution in the amount of $300.

On May 15, 1992, the Board issued its report, reducing the recommended suspension to sixty days and eliminating the fitness requirement. It also dismissed the original charge of violating DR 7-101 (A)(1) and declined to uphold the Committee's findings of violation of DR 7-101 (A)(2), which had been argued by Bar Counsel. *fn1 One Board member filed a Dissenting opinion in which he explained why he would require proof of fitness. *fn2

On May 25, 1992, while Bar Counsel's motion for reconsideration -- advancing the position that the issue of specific charges under DR 7-101 (A) should he remanded to the Committee and that the sanction should include the fitness requirement -- was pending before the Board, Steele sent a letter to Bar Counsel. It stated in part:

I voluntarily ceased the practice of law in the District of Columbia in June 1991, and left the Jurisdiction due to personal matters of an extremely private nature.

I understand that [my client] filed a complaint against me, but due to my uncertain living arrangements and personal problems at the time, I did not stay on top of the situation . . . .

Although I do not ever intend to return to the District of Columbia or practice law again, I would like to address this matter and resolve it. . . . My life has recently improved from the personal problems I ...


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