Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Attorney Grievance Commission v. Mahone (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed April 10, 2007. Opinion by Judge Clayton Greene, Jr.

From the official headnote:
ATTORNEY DISCIPLINE – Our goal in matters of attorney discipline is to protect the public and the public's confidence in the legal profession rather than to punish the attorney.

ATTORNEY DISCIPLINE – We protect the public by imposing sanctions that are commensurate with the nature and gravity of the attorneys’ violations and the intent with which they were committed. The severity of the sanction depends upon the facts and circumstances of each case, taking account of any particular aggravating or mitigating factors. Under the circumstances, the appropriate sanction is a reprimand where the attorney disrupted court proceedings in one instance; and, in another instance walked out during the court proceedings to show his disdain for the trial judge. The mitigating factors were that the attorney’s clients were not prejudiced as a result of his misconduct and that there were no prior disciplinary proceedings filed against the attorney. In addition, by imposing a reprimand in this case, we are able to send a clear message to the Bar that deliberately disruptive behavior by attorneys in court proceedings will not be tolerated.
In the course of representing two clients in three matters before two judges, Mahone was found by the hearings judge to have not shown up for a hearing in one matter, without notice to the court that he would be tardy or explaining or apologizing for his tardiness afterwards, and repeatedly interrupted the judges and acted in a condescending manner in two other matters, including leaving the courtroom and abandoning his client during the judge's rendering of his opinion in one of them. Consequently, the hearings judge found Mahone's conduct to have been prejudicial to the administration of justice in violation of Rule 8.4(d) of the MRPC.

Mahone filed exceptions on the grounds that the hearings judge failed to make findings of mitigation on the basis of his "Equitable Grounds Defense", in which he had suggested that the complaints had been filed as a product of judicial retaliation and resentment, and that the hearing judge erred in finding that one instance of lateness supported a finding of discourtesy, and in failing to find that one of the trial judges initiated a patter of interruptions, goaded him during the hearing, was discourteous to counsel, and lost control of the proceedings and created a hostile and oppressive court environment, and that Mahone's walking out was a "speech protest" rather than a substantial idsruption of the proceedings. Mahone also noted that neither judge had held him in contempt, and that one waited four months before filing a complaint.

The Court found that Mahone had had a full opportunity to be heard before the hearing judge on all matters raised in the exceptions, and found no basis for determining the factual findings below were clearly erroneous. The Court had little effort affirming the hearing judge's finding of law that Mahone had violated MRPC 8.4(d), finding that his patterns of disruption and walking out of court constituted a direct contempt, and that the exceptions proffered, even if taken at face value as true, did not excuse Mahone's conduct. Further, the restraint exercised by the judges did not serve to demonstrate that his conduct was not disruptive.

The Court did not agree with the suspension requested by Bar Counsel, noting that not every contempt of court deserves suspension or disbarment. Here, given that Mahone was, as noted by the hearing judge, a "zealous advocate" who had "[lost] his perspective", that neither client had been prejudiced by Mahone's misconduct, and that there had been no prior disciplinary proceedings against him, the Court held that the appropriate sanction was a reprimand, since that would be sufficient to "send a clear message" that such behavior will not be tolerated.

The opinion is available in PDF format.

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