Legal loophole allows lawyers to sue dissatisfied clients who complain

January 25, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Unhappy with your lawyer's work? Well, think twice before you a file a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland -- the esquire might strike back.

Maryland is one of a handful of states without a law or court rule prohibiting lawyers from suing clients who file official complaints against them. State court precedents offer only limited protection to clients who complain.

Last year, Ralph and Alicia Ann Knothe filed a complaint against their former lawyer, A. Ronald Rubin, only to be hit with a $4 million defamation suit. Mr. Rubin filed suit two months after the commission dismissed the complaint.

The basis for Mr. Rubin's suit was four letters the Knothes sent to the commission, the quasi-judicial body that investigates charges of misconduct by lawyers.

According to the lawsuit, the letters discredited Mr. Rubin's standing among peers and potential clients by defaming him through false statements "impugning [Mr. Rubin] to be dishonest and unethical."

Melvin Hirshman, the grievance commission's counsel, who investigates complaints, said the agency does not keep records on lawsuits arising from such cases. But he said he has heard of only "one or two instances" of a suit in his 13 years with the commission.

"I've heard a lot of threats but I've only heard one or two cases, and I haven't heard of them going anyplace," Mr. Hirshman said.

The suit filed by Mr. Rubin resulted in an out-of-court settlement that bars the parties from discussing it.

Details confidential

The letters criticizing Mr. Rubin were not available. They were not attached to the lawsuit, and the grievance commission said its records are confidential. Both parties said they were under court order not to disclose any information pertaining to the case.

Nancy B. Gertner, who represented Mr. Rubin, said her client was justified in filing suit. She said a lawyer may sue for defamation if a client submits letters to the grievance commission that are not relevant to the complaint. She said the court settlement prohibited her from commenting further on the case.

The grievance commission said it is required to keep details about its cases confidential until a lawyer is charged with misconduct.

Both sides said the court case was sealed, but legal filings except for settlement papers were available in Howard Circuit Court.

According to court papers, the grievance commission investigated the complaint by Mr. and Mrs. Knothe and impaneled a fact-

finding board and heard the case against Mr. Rubin on Dec. 17, 1992.

The Knothes lived in Columbia when the suit was filed. They moved to Florida last year.

Deborah A. Adams, who defended the couple in the defamation suit, said in court filings that the suit was motivated by revenge. She argued that it should have been dismissed because a 1974 Court of Special Appeals decision bars lawyers from suing people who file grievance complaints.

In the 1974 case, the state's second-highest court ruled that a lawyer could not sue someone who filed a grievance complaint calling him "a disgrace to the legal profession," even though the complaint was later dismissed. The court ruled that anyone filing such a complaint had immunity from suits.

That ruling did not help the Knothes. Howard County Circuit Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. denied a request to dismiss Mr. Rubin's suit against them, stating in a Sept. 21, 1993, order that "a justiciable controversy" was before him.

Ms. Adams said Judge Sybert was able to keep the case going because of loopholes in the precedent from the 1974 case that lawyers can use to their advantage when they want to sue complaining clients. She said Maryland needs a statute to protect clients who believe their attorneys have conducted themselves improperly.

University of Maryland School of Law

Professor David Luban, who has written extensively on legal ethics, said he believed the 1974 court ruling protected anyone from being sued by a lawyer for defamation in response to a grievance complaint. But after hearing that the judge refused to dismiss the Knothes' case, he said a stronger law might be needed.

"If there is a judge on record saying the [1974] case doesn't apply generally, then I guess it's back to the question of whether some kind of statute or court rule should be enacted to clarify this," said Mr. Luban, a research scholar at the UM's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy.

Over the past 10 years, Maryland's grievance commission received 15,810 inquiries charging wrongdoing by lawyers, according to its most recent annual report. It dismissed all but 3,604 in the early stage of the process. Disciplinary action was taken 513 times, with 156 lawyers being disbarred.

In addition to Maryland, Alaska, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio and Vermont lack statutes or court rules granting immunity from suits to anyone filing such complaints, according to the American Bar Association's Center for Professional Responsibility.

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