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In re Lea

April 23, 2009


On Report and Recommendation of the Board on Professional Responsibility (BDN 197-01).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry, Senior Judge

Argued May 15, 2007

Before RUIZ, Associate Judge, and TERRY and FARRELL, Senior Judges.*fn1

The Board on Professional Responsibility ("the Board") recommends that respondent Terri Lea be suspended from the practice of law for thirty days and that, before resuming the practice of law, she be required to show that she has cooperated with Bar Counsel's investigation into the underlying complaint against her. The proposed sanction is based on the finding of a hearing committee that, among other things, Ms. Lea violated Rule of Professional Conduct 8.1 (b) (failure to respond to Bar Counsel's lawful demand for information), Rule 8.4 (d) (conduct that seriously interferes with the administration of justice), and D.C. Bar Rule XI, § 2 (b)(3) (failure to comply with a Board order). The Board agreed with the hearing committee's recommended sanctions, except that the Board did not recommend that Ms. Lea prove her fitness to practice law before being readmitted.

Before this court, Bar Counsel urges us to impose a fitness requirement in addition to the other sanctions recommended by the Board. Ms. Lea did not file an exception to the hearing committee's recommendation to the Board, nor has she filed a brief or otherwise challenged the Board's recommendation to this court. In fact, Ms. Lea has not been involved in her case since February 2, 2005, when she participated by telephone at a hearing conducted by the hearing committee.*fn2

We find Bar Counsel's arguments persuasive. Accordingly, we order that Ms. Lea be suspended from the practice of law for thirty days, with reinstatement conditioned on (1) the filing of a response to the underlying disciplinary complaint, which Ms. Lea has yet to address, and, as the hearing committee recommended, (2) proof of her fitness to practice law.


A. Background and Procedural History

Terri Lea was admitted to the Bar of this court in 1990. She first came to the attention of the disciplinary authorities on April 20, 2001, when the Office of Bar Counsel received a copy of an order from the Civil Division of the Superior Court imposing Rule 11 sanctions on her. See Super. Ct. Civ. R. 11. The order directed Ms. Lea and the attorney who represented her in a legal action in which Ms. Lea was the plaintiff to pay certain attorney's fees in the amount of $7,472.02. According to the order, the sanctions were imposed after Ms. Lea and her attorney, upon receiving a default judgment in the case, filed a motion to amend the amount of the judgment from $13,500 to $50,000, claiming that the previous amount had been a typographical error. The trial court found that there had been no typographical error and that Ms. Lea "provided no credible evidence that she was entitled to any fees from the defendant in excess of $13,350."

On May 11, 2001, Bar Counsel sent a copy of the order (hereafter "the complaint") to Ms. Lea, along with a letter requesting her response by May 21. The letter and complaint were sent by regular mail to Ms. Lea's address on file with the D.C. Bar, which was "4410 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Suite 140."*fn3 They were not returned by the post office, and Ms. Lea filed no response.

On June 6 Bar Counsel mailed Ms. Lea a second letter by regular mail, requesting a response by June 11, but again no response was received. On June 19 an unknown person sent Bar Counsel a facsimile of the May 11 letter bearing the handwritten notation "Wrong address. Not here." Bar Counsel did not have any other address on file for Ms. Lea.

At some point before September 18, 2001, Ms. Lea somehow learned that Bar Counsel was trying to contact her, so she called Assistant Bar Counsel Catherine Kello. After their conversation, Ms. Kello drafted a third letter to Ms. Lea, dated September 18, 2001, which stated, in relevant part:

This letter confirms our telephone conversation today during which you indicated that you would prepare today a written response to the complaint filed against you in the above-referenced matter. You also stated that you would file your response with our office within the week. We ask that you provide your written response to us by September 26, 2001.

The letter was sent to a street address in "Monessen, PA 15062," the mailing address which Ms. Lea gave Ms. Kello during their telephone conversation. Ms. Lea did not submit a response, however, nor was Ms. Kello's letter returned.

After about nine months, Bar Counsel sent Ms. Lea a fourth letter, dated June 21, 2002, and mailed by certified mail to the Pennsylvania address. The letter stated that Bar Counsel would pursue "further action through the Board on Professional Responsibility that may include filing disciplinary charges" against Ms. Lea unless she responded by July 15, 2002. This letter was returned as "unclaimed." When Bar Counsel resent the letter by certified mail, it was returned with the notations "refused" and "mail on hold" written on the envelope.

On August 23, 2002, Bar Counsel filed with the Board a motion to compel a response to the complaint. Copies of the motion were sent to Ms. Lea in Pennsylvania by first class mail. She did not respond to the motion, nor was it returned by the post office. On September 19, 2002, the Board issued an order directing Ms. Lea to respond to the complaint within ten days. This order was also sent to the Pennsylvania address. The affidavit of service indicated that the process server hand-delivered the envelope to Ms. Lea's mother on October 7, 2002. Again, however, Ms. Lea did not respond to the order.

About three months later, on January 2, 2003, Bar Counsel filed a Specification of Charges and Petition, instituting formal disciplinary proceedings against Ms. Lea, and sent copies to Ms. Lea at the Pennsylvania address.*fn4 Bar Counsel also hired process servers to deliver these documents by hand. Then, on February 5, 2003, Ms. Kello drafted and sent a letter in response to a telephone conversation with Ms. Lea. This letter stated:

Pursuant to your telephone request of February 4, 2003, enclosed please find a copy of the Specification of Charges and Petition that have been filed against you with the Board on Professional Responsibility. You have requested that we send these documents to you at the above Monessen, PA address, even though you stated that you do not reside there. Despite our request, you have declined to provide Bar Counsel with a current address where we can serve you personally with papers. You also declined our invitation to pick up a copy of the papers at our office. We advised you that we plan to seek permission to serve you by publication.

This also confirms that you acknowledged on February 4, 2003, that you have received a copy of the September 19, 2002, Board order compelling you to provide a response to the Bar Counsel complaint filed against you. You stated that you have not responded to that order.

Bar Counsel mailed the requested documents but did not receive a response. On June 11, 2003, Bar Counsel received an affidavit of attempted service, reflecting a number of unsuccessful attempts to serve Ms. Lea. The affidavit indicates that "several attempts" were made at the Pennsylvania address and that "several attempts" were also made at an address in Baltimore.

On July 2, 2003, Bar Counsel filed a motion with this court, requesting leave to serve the Specification of Charges by alternative means. A copy of the motion was sent to Ms. Lea at the Pennsylvania address. This court granted the motion and ordered Bar Counsel to send copies of the petition to Ms. Lea at her last known residence and to publish an announcement "in the Washington Post and the Washington Times, for two consecutive publications." Announcements appeared in the Washington Post (on May 20 and 21, 2004), the Washington Times (on July 16 and 17, 2004), and the Daily Washington Law Reporter (on May 21 and 24, 2004). ...

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