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In re Johnson

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

May 4, 2017

In re Laurence F. Johnson, Respondent.

          Argued April 6, 2017

         A Member of the Bar of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals (Bar Registration No. 934398)

         On Report and Recommendation of the Board on Professional Responsibility (BDN-307-09 and BDN-453-12) (

          Justin M. Flint for respondent.

          William R. Ross, Assistant Disciplinary Counsel, with whom Wallace E. Shipp, Jr., Disciplinary Counsel, Jennifer P. Lyman, Senior Assistant Disciplinary Counsel, and Jelani C. Lowery, Senior Staff Attorney, were on the brief, for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

          Before Beckwith and Easterly, Associate Judges, and Steadman, Senior Judge.

          Steadman, Senior Judge.

         Respondent, Laurence F. Johnson, was charged by Disciplinary Counsel with multiple violations of the Maryland Lawyers' Rules of Professional Conduct (MLRPC).[1] Respondent is an experienced immigration attorney and the violations in question stem from two separate immigration matters. On appeal, respondent claims that the Board on Professional Responsibility (1) misapplied D.C. Bar Rule XI, § 11 (c) in recommending independent discipline in a matter for which respondent had already been disciplined by the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland (AGCM), and (2) recommended an unwarranted sanction for his misconduct, which was greater than that recommended by the Ad Hoc Hearing Committee. We accept the Board's recommendation.

         I. Facts and Proceedings

         The first matter involved respondent's representation of Carlina Seminiano. Respondent entered into a retainer agreement with Ms. Seminiano in April 2001 for the purpose of helping her obtain legal permanent residence in the United States, a process which included labor certification. Ms. Seminiano paid respondent approximately $2000 upon signing the retainer agreement. Her delayed labor certification was re-opened in August 2007 and respondent failed to meet a filing deadline, essential to the labor certification, in November 2007. On February 25, 2008, respondent sent a letter to Ms. Seminiano and her employer indicating that her labor certification application was closed and offered to start a new application "at a large discount." Respondent did not return the $2000 to Ms. Seminiano until June 2012, after an investigation into respondent's conduct had begun.

         The second matter involved respondent's representation of Secundo Jacinto Jerez Minchala after he was ordered removed from the United States in 2011. Mr. Minchala retained respondent's services to appeal from this removal order, which had a filing deadline of June 2, 2011, and paid respondent a total of $2060 through various monthly payments between May and October 2011. Respondent never filed the appeal. Respondent also deposited the advanced legal fees into his office's operating account without informed written consent from Mr. Minchala.

         Respondent wrote Mr. Minchala a letter on June 23, 2011, intending to terminate his representation. Despite this letter, respondent's office continued to bill Mr. Minchala, and respondent did not inform Mr. Minchala that he failed to file an appeal until February 28, 2012, at which time respondent also refunded Mr. Minchala $2000. Once Mr. Minchala retained new counsel, respondent refused to provide a letter stating that he failed to file an appeal, believing it would harm his own interests. Respondent refunded the final $60 in March 2014 after the initial Specification of Charges was filed in this case. The AGCM reprimanded respondent for misconduct related to his representation of Mr. Minchala, acknowledging that he violated MLRPC Rules 1.1, 1.3, and 8.4 (d). This jurisdiction's charges went beyond the Maryland reprimand and alleged additional MLRPC violations.

         The Ad Hoc Hearing Committee determined that respondent warranted Kersey mitigation for the period of misconduct associated with Ms. Seminiano, but not the misconduct associated with Mr. Minchala.[2] The Hearing Committee concluded that while representing Ms. Seminiano, respondent violated MLRPC Rules 1.1 (competence) and 1.3 (diligence). While representing Mr. Minchala, the Committee found that respondent violated Rules 1.1, 1.3, 1.4 (keeping the client reasonably informed of the status of the matter), 1.8 (h)(1) (making an agreement with the client prospectively limiting the lawyer's liability to the client for malpractice), 1.15 (a) (holding the client's funds in a separate account), 1.15 (c) (failure to deposit fees into a client trust account), 1.16 (d) (properly protecting the client's interests on termination of the representation), 8.4 (c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation), and 8.4 (d) (conduct that seriously interferes with the administration of justice). Ultimately, the Hearing Committee recommended a suspension of thirty days, with the entire suspension stayed in favor of a two-year period of probation.

         Respondent filed a general notice of exceptions to the Hearing Committee Report that indicated he intended to later file detailed exceptions, and Disciplinary Counsel filed a notice of some specific exceptions. However, subsequently they jointly withdrew all exceptions to the Report and Recommendation of the Ad Hoc Hearing Committee and proceeded on review to the Board on Professional Responsibility without briefing or argument. On review, the Board adopted the Hearing Committee's report except its conclusions as to the ...

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