A record number of complaints from people who say they were cheated by one of Baltimore's best-known criminal defense lawyers have poured into the state fund that reimburses victims of lawyer misconduct.
As of yesterday, 20 people had lodged claims against M. Cristina Gutierrez with the Clients' Security Trust Fund, more than for any other lawyer. Gutierrez was disbarred May 24.
"I believe this is our all-time record," said Janet C. Moss, the fund's administrator. The claims total $226,493, and Moss said she expected several more.
Gutierrez, who said yesterday that she has cheated no one, agreed to her disbarment rather than fight complaints filed against her with the state Attorney Grievance Commission.
The commission had taken over Gutierrez's client files in the spring, after she became too ill to handle her practice.
At the time, Gutierrez said she was "not physically able to keep practicing." Starting in December, she spent about three months in the hospital, she said. She has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and has gone blind in one eye.
When investigators reviewed her financial records, they found that client money that should have been kept in a trust account was missing. At the same time, clients began complaining that they had paid Gutierrez for work she never did, said Melvin Hirshman, bar counsel to the commission.
Because Gutierrez consented to her disbarment, the complaints filed against her with the commission will not be investigated. However, the trust fund claims for reimbursement will be reviewed in the coming months, said Isaac Hecht, the fund treasurer.
Former clients say that they are sorry Gutierrez is ill, but that her poor health is no excuse for what they believe was her mishandling of their money.
Amelia "Sue" Whitman of New Freedom, Pa., said she and her husband hired Gutierrez in November 1998 to represent their 15-year-old son, who had been accused of stabbing their younger son to death.
Whitman alleges that Gutierrez, with whom she became friendly, didn't pay experts who worked on the case and didn't return money that was supposed to be in escrow. These incidents, she claims, occurred more than a year ago, before her health declined.
The Whitmans have lodged a claim with the trust fund for $45,593 against Gutierrez, the largest to date.
Eva Damario of Abingdon tells a similar story. She has asked the trust fund for $20,000. Damario hired Gutierrez about four years ago to handle the post-conviction case of her daughter. Damario says Gutierrez failed to file necessary court documents, prolonging the case. "I know that the post-conviction case should have taken no more than 14 months to file," she said. Damario said that she feels she was lied to, and that Gutierrez should not have taken her money - or kept her case.
In a telephone interview from her home in Towson, Gutierrez, 50, said yesterday she did a "tremendous amount of work" on the Whitman case, including spending days in court hearings. The case was pending an appeal at the time of her disbarment, she said.
Asked about Damario's complaints, Gutierrez said post-conviction clients frequently miscalculate how long their cases will take because they don't understand all the work that must go into them. Sometimes, she said, such cases take years to complete.
Gutierrez added that it was not unusual for clients to file complaints against criminal defense lawyers. "I've had other complaints before, but I've never had one sustained," she said.
Gutierrez said she was not familiar with the details of any of the claims filed with the trust fund.