Bad Lawyers Worsen Under Mild Punishments

By ANJU KAUR, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON (Dec. 19, 2007) - Maryland lawyers who plan to murder their spouse or have sex with minors have been swiftly disbarred, but many who repeatedly cheat, lie, steal, abandon their clients or torture animals can do so for years without suffering any real consequence, according to records from the state agency assigned to police the practice of law.

Take the case of Stanley E. Protokowicz, who got into trouble when he and his client broke into his client's wife's home to look for evidence in a pending divorce case. Court records show he ended up stealing her property, spilling alcohol, clogging the toilet and killing the wife's kitten by putting it in the microwave oven and turning it on.

The Court of Appeals called it "outrageous behavior" at the hearing in which charges were brought by the Attorney Grievance Commission for breaking several rules of professional conduct.

Protokowicz of Bel Air was disciplined with indefinite suspension from practicing law with the option to apply for reinstatement after one year.

The U.S. Supreme Court took more serious action. Protokowicz, who was also admitted to practice law at the country's highest court, was disbarred from it a few months later. That was 1993.

Protokowicz was reinstated in Maryland in 1997 and still practices law today. He could not be reached for comment.

In-house data obtained from the commission show many such cases of disciplined attorneys. The file of 1,612 records, from 1930 to 2006, was created by the commission's paralegals as an in-house way to take a quick look at the misconduct of attorneys and the sanctions they received.

Although the file is only about 70 percent complete, it is the sole available electronic data of individual records.

In the last 10 years, lawyers charged with some kind of incompetence received suspensions almost twice as often as reprimands and three times as often as disbarments. Many had two or three sanctions with as many complaints, spanning up to six years.

Melvin Hirshman, the commission's bar counsel of 27 years, said he has disciplined many cases, but the largest share of cases involve diligence: attorneys failing to return calls or send letters on time and run out the statute of limitations.

"(But) they need to make more than one mistake, or the commission needs to hear from more than one client before the lawyer is considered for disciplinary action," he said.

Eric Jag Kapoor was one such case of multiple complaints. He was a partner in a small law firm, Kapoor and Robaton in Baltimore City, when several of his clients filed complaints against him.

Kapoor's trouble began when he settled a personal injury case without telling his client, then forged his client's signature on the $20,000 check, deposited it into his personal account and spent part of the money. His client recovered his portion of the payment only after he sued Kapoor.

Kapoor was subsequently suspended from practicing law. But while suspended, he took on another client and spent a $50 deposit that he should have put into a trust account. He was reinstated before that client filed a grievance, and again took on another client and spent a $2,500 check that was supposed to pay for her medical bills.

Not only did Kapoor violate many rules of professional conduct with his clients, he also lied to the commission and did not attend any of the court hearings against him.

His partner, David Robaton, testified against him. And at his disbarment hearing last year at the Court of Appeals, Kapoor was a no show. He was disbarred anyway.

Neither Kapoor nor Robaton could be reached for comment.

In the last 10 years, 138 lawyers have been disciplined for theft, 138 for not responding to the commission, 11 for unauthorized practice and four for forging signatures.

In 2005, former state Delegate Barbara O. Kreamer of Aberdeen was suspended for 30 days for numerous failures: not filing divorce papers; not responding to the client's phone calls and e-mails; not providing the client's new attorney with the client's case file; taking unearned funds from the client's retainer, and for not responding to the commission. That was her third commission sanction.

In 1999, Kreamer was suspended for mishandling fees, lying and ignoring her clients. She was reinstated to practice law four months later. In 2002, she was reprimanded for mishandling a guardianship case.

"It appears that the respondent's prior sanctions by this court . . . have not caused the Respondent to improve her practice," the court said. "A substantial suspension in this matter is necessary to protect the public from future harm."

Kreamer is now under indefinite suspension, fighting yet another complaint against her. The Circuit Court of Harford County finished a fact-finding hearing and on Nov. 13 sent her case to the Court of Appeals where it is pending trial.

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