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In re Uchendu

December 19, 2002

IN RE VINCENT C. UCHENDU, RESPONDENT. A MEMBER OF THE BAR OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS


Before Steadman and Glickman, Associate Judges, and Nebeker, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Glickman, Associate Judge

On Report and Recommendation of the Board on Professional Responsibility

Argued October 31, 2002

The Board on Professional Responsibility recommends that the respondent Vincent C. Uchendu be suspended from the practice of law in the District of Columbia for thirty days. The Board found that respondent violated Rules 3.3 (a), 8.4 (c), and 8.4 (d) of the District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct by signing his clients' names on documents filed with the Probate Division of the District of Columbia Superior Court and by notarizing some of his own signatures on these documents. We accept the Board's findings that respondent made false statements to the court in violation of Rule 3.3 (a), engaged in dishonest conduct in violation of Rule 8.4 (c), and seriously interfered with the administration of justice in violation of Rule 8.4 (d). In light of these findings, we accept the Board's recommendation on discipline and suspend respondent from the practice of law in the District of Columbia for thirty days.

I.

Vincent Uchendu was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in 1991. He also was commissioned as a Notary Public in the District of Columbia in 1990, and remained a Notary Public through at least 1998. A significant part of respondent's practice was the representation of individuals serving as guardians or personal representatives in matters before the Probate Division. In their role as court-appointed fiduciaries, respondent's clients were required on occasion to file verified documents with the Probate Division. These documents included Notices of Appointment pursuant to D.C. Code § 20-704 and Superior Court Probate Rule 403 (b)(4); inventories of the decedent's property pursuant to D.C. Code § 20-711 and Probate Rule 109; and Certificates of Completion pursuant to D.C. Code § 20-735 and Probate Rule 426.

Between 1996 and 1998, respondent signed his clients' names on at least sixteen documents requiring verification and filed fifteen of these documents with the Probate Division. *fn1 On thirteen of the documents, respondent placed his initials next to the signature line, presumably to indicate that he had signed for his clients. For example, on a Certificate of Completion purportedly filed by his client Mildred Austin, Respondent signed "Mildred P. Austin / VCU." He also notarized four of the documents, although he had signed them himself and his clients had not affirmed the contents of the documents. The Board divided the sixteen documents into four categories. Category One encompasses one document that did not have respondent's initials next to the signature and was notarized by respondent. *fn2 Category Two encompasses three documents that were not initialed but were not notarized. *fn3 Category Three encompasses three documents that were initialed and were notarized. *fn4 Category Four encompasses the remaining nine documents that were initialed and that were not notarized. *fn5

During Bar Counsel's investigation, respondent admitted to signing his clients' names on these documents and to notarizing some of these signatures. Respondent claimed that he had his client's permission to verify documents on their behalf, and he presented affidavits of his clients asserting that he had their permission to sign for them. Respondent testified that he did not know that his conduct was improper. He testified that his practice was to include his initials on all documents he signed for his clients, and that he left his initials off four of the sixteen documents through inadvertence. He claimed that the Probate Division regularly accepted documents with his initials on the signature line and that he had signed documents for clients "right in front of" Probate Division employees.

Before the Hearing Committee, Bar Counsel called several Probate Division employees who testified that the Probate Division did not knowingly accept documents without verifications signed by the personal representative. Indeed, two court employees testified that they had rejected documents filed by respondent in 1998 and in early 2000 because of improper signatures. (Respondent filed at least one document purportedly signed by a client in 1999, after he had received one of these warnings.) The Committee credited the testimony of the Probate Division employees that they did not knowingly accept documents not verified by the fiduciary and discredited respondent's contrary testimony.

The Hearing Committee found that Bar Counsel had shown by clear and convincing evidence that respondent had violated three of the District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct: Rule 3.3 (a) ("A lawyer shall not knowingly [m]ake a false statement of material fact or law to a tribunal"), Rule 8.4 (c) ("[e]ngag[ing] in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation"), and Rule 8.4 (d) ("[e]ngag[ing] in conduct that seriously interferes with the administration of justice"). The Committee found Rule 3.3 (a) and Rule 8.4 (c) violations for both the documents submitted to the Probate Division that had been notarized improperly (Categories One and Three) and the documents that did not have initials signifying that respondent had signed for his clients (Categories One and Two). *fn6 The Committee also found that the submission of all four categories of documents seriously interfered with the administration of justice in violation of Rule 8.4 (d). The Committee recommended a thirty-day suspension and six hours of continuing legal education in probate law.

The Board on Professional Responsibility accepted the Hearing Committee's findings. The Board agreed that respondent violated Rule 3.3 (a) and Rule 8.4 (c) by submitting the Category One, Two, and Three documents because the unacknowledged false signatures and the false notarizations were "false statement[s]" under Rule 3.3 (a) and dishonest under Rule 8.4 (c). Additionally, the Board found that respondent's submission of all four categories of documents seriously interfered with the administration of justice within the meaning of Rule 8.4 (d). Applying the three-part test of In re Hopkins, 677 A.2d 55, 61 (D.C. 1996), the Board first found that respondent's conduct was "improper" because it contravened the probate statute and the rules. Second, the Board found that the improper submissions bore upon the administration of justice because "court personnel might be expected to rely and act upon the documents." Finally, the Board found that the violations tainted the judicial process in more than a de minimis way because it "disrupted important lines of accountability between the court and its appointed fiduciaries."

The Board also adopted the Hearing Committee's recommended sanction of a thirty-day suspension. The Board found that respondent's conduct did not involve serious misrepresentations that would warrant lengthy suspension or disbarrment but nonetheless was more egregious than "an isolated instance of dishonesty and/or false statements to a tribunal in a purely procedural matter." The Board took into account that respondent had his clients' authorization, had not falsified substantive information, and had not prejudiced his clients or the court's decisionmaking. The Board also noted that this was respondent's first disciplinary offense. On the other hand, the Board found several aggravating factors: respondent's persistence in making false signatures and notarizations, his regular notarizations in spite of a professed unfamiliarity with the laws governing notaries, and his less than truthful recantation before the Hearing Committee of a stipulation he had made. *fn7 On balance the Board found that public censure "would not adequately redress the repeated and knowing violations evident on this record" and recommended imposition of a thirty-day suspension coupled with six hours of CLE courses - one course in ethics and one course in either probate administration or agency law.

II.

Initially, we consider whether the probate documents signed by respondent on behalf of his clients had to be signed personally by the estate fiduciaries. After reviewing the language and the purpose of D.C. Code ยง 20-102 (a) (2001) and the Superior Court Probate Rules, we conclude that verifications must be signed by the responsible personal representative or guardian. Moreover, the probate forms themselves make it ...


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