In re Claudette M. Winstead, II, Respondent.
Argued January 29, 2013.
A Member of the Bar of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals (Bar Registration No. 447368).
On Order of the Board on Professional Responsibility (BDN-164-08 and BDN-553-08).
Johnny M. Howard for respondent.
Julia L. Porter, Senior Assistant Bar Counsel, with whom Elizabeth Herman, Deputy Bar Counsel, was on the brief, for the Office of Bar Counsel.
Before Fisher, Blackburne-Rigsby, and Thompson, Associate Judges.
BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judge.
In its order dated March 14, 2012, the Board on Professional Responsibility (the "Board") unanimously agreed with the Ad Hoc Hearing Committee that respondent, Claudette M. Winstead, II, violated Rule 7.1 (a) (false or misleading communication about lawyer's services) and Rule 7.5 (a) (using firm name, letterhead, or other professional designation that violates Rule 7.1) of the District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct ("Rules"). The Board disagreed, however, with the Hearing Committee's recommended sanction of a public censure and instead directed Bar Counsel to issue an informal admonition to respondent. This case is now before us on exception by respondent to the Board's findings of fact and ordered sanction. Respondent challenges our authority to discipline her, raises due process claims, contests the finding of misconduct, and argues that no sanction should be imposed. Bar Counsel supports the Board's order. We conclude that an informal admonition is warranted and sustain the Board's direction to Bar Counsel.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
Respondent is a member of the District of Columbia Bar, having been admitted on July 7, 1995. Although respondent previously had a license to practice law in Illinois, respondent is not currently licensed to practice in any jurisdiction besides the District of Columbia. Prior to the present matter, respondent had never been the subject of any disciplinary action.
On December 17, 2010, Bar Counsel filed a Petition Instituting Formal Disciplinary Proceedings and a Specification of Charges. The charges related to respondent's representation of Ellen and David Crowell and Beatrice Chukwumezie. Respondent entered into one retainer agreement with the Crowells, relating to a matter in Maryland, and she entered into two retainer agreements with Beatrice Chukwumezie, one relating to a matter in Pennsylvania and the other relating to a matter in Virginia. Respondent's services, as described in the retainer agreements, involved the investigation and resolution of allegedly predatory loans relating to properties in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, respectively. During the course of the representations, respondent and her nonlawyer assistant used letterhead and other business communications with the clients and with third parties.
Bar Counsel alleged that, in connection with respondent's representation of Chukwumezie and the Crowells, respondent violated Rules 7.1 (a) and 7.5 (a) by using a legal letterhead and other business communications reflecting that she was an attorney with a law office in Maryland without indicating that she was not licensed to practice law in Maryland. Bar Counsel charged respondent with further violations of Rule 7.1 (a) based on statements in her retainer agreements with the clients. First, Bar Counsel alleged that respondent violated Rule 7.1 (a) by asserting in her two retainer agreements with Chukwumezie that she was an attorney with a law office in Maryland without indicating that she was not licensed to practice law in Maryland. Second, Bar Counsel alleged that respondent violated Rule 7.1 (a) by asserting in her respective retainer agreements with Chukwumezie and the Crowells that she was permitted to provide "Counsel" for "transactional matters" when she was not licensed to practice law in any of the relevant jurisdictions.
Respondent denied the allegations, and an evidentiary hearing was held before an Ad Hoc Hearing Committee on April 26, 2011. At the hearing, Bar Counsel relied primarily on documentary evidence, calling respondent as its only witness. Although respondent did not present any evidence, she defended her actions, arguing that she made full disclosure in the respective retainer agreements that she was not licensed to practice law in the relevant jurisdiction. On October 6, 2011, the Hearing Committee issued a comprehensive Report and Recommendation in which it found that respondent had violated Rules 7.1 (a) and 7.5 (a) because the letterhead and other correspondence would have caused a reasonable recipient of the communications to be misled about respondent's authorization to provide legal services. For the same reason, it found that the retainer agreements violated Rule 7.1 (a). The Hearing Committee recommended that respondent be publicly censured. Although the Committee recognized that violations of Rules 7.1 (a) and 7.5 (a) usually result in a sanction of an informal admonition, it found respondent's "lack of remorse" to be an aggravating factor. Bar Counsel did not note an exception. Respondent took exception to the Committee's findings and its recommended sanction.
The Board, which adopted the Committee's findings with minor additions and one exception,  found that Respondent violated Rule 7.1 (a) and Rule 7.5 (a) based on her letterhead, case-related correspondence, and retainer agreements. The Board disagreed with the Committee's proposed sanction of a public censure reasoning that respondent did not display a lack of remorse but "simply mounted a good faith defense on the merits." The Board issued its order thereafter, directing Bar Counsel to informally admonish respondent for her violation of ...