Maryland Court of Appeals Disbars Novice Attorney For Inadequate Representation Of His Client In A Criminal Case

On August 21, 2020, in Attorney Grievance Commission v. John Xander Yi, the Maryland Court of Appeals disbarred attorney John Yi, who had been admitted to the Maryland Bar for only three years, due to, inter alia, his failure to adequately communicate with his client, analyze discovery, and prepare adequately for the client’s defense in a criminal case. The client entered a guilty plea on Mr. Yi’s advice to a serious drug importation offense with immigration consequences, but prior to sentencing, terminated Mr. Yi’s representation. The circuit court, which had accepted the guilty plea, subsequently allowed the client to withdraw the plea, explicitly predicting that there had been issues with the plea due to Mr. Yi’s inadequate representation, which would likely warrant post-conviction relief.

After an investigation into Mr. Yi’s representation by Bar Counsel, the hearing judge in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County concluded that Mr. Yi had violated numerous Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct (“MARPC”). Reviewing the hearing judge’s findings of fact de novo, the Maryland Court of Appeals opinion concluded that Mr. Yi had violated Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1 and 1.3 (codified at Maryland Rule 19.301.1 et seq.), which require that an attorney represent his clients competently and diligently. The Court rejected Mr. Yi’s argument that the hearing judge should not have found a violation of Rules 1.1 and 1.3, because Mr. Yi was an inexperienced attorney, explaining instead that “a competent attorney recognizes the limits of his or her expertise and does not put the client at risk in venturing beyond it.” The Court also found Mr. Yi violated Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct 1.2(a) and 1.4, which require an attorney to communicate with his client, including keeping the client informed of his case’s status, complying with reasonable requests for information, and communicating regarding the scope of the representation, the objectives of the representation, and the means to achieve the objectives. The Court of Appeals upheld the hearing judge’s finding that Mr. Yi violated Rules 1.2(a) and 1.4, because he failed to properly explain the retainer agreement to his client, failed to advise his client of a plea offer from the state, and failed to advise his client of the immigration consequences of pleading guilty.

The Maryland Court of Appeals further upheld Mr. Yi’s violation of Maryland Attorneys’ Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5 and Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct 1.15(b) and 1.15(c) (incorporated by choice of law Rule 8.5(b), since Yi’s firm and account were located in Virginia). The Court of Appeals explained that the $8,000 retainer Mr. Yi charged for his representation was not unreasonable at the outset, but the $5,000 total fee charged became unreasonable since Mr. Yi “failed to perform any legal services of value” for the client. Mr. Yi violated Maryland Rule of Professional Conduct 1.16(d) and Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct 1.15(b) and 1.15(c), by failing to return the unearned portion of the fee and misappropriating the unearned funds to his operating account, as well as Maryland Rule of Professional Conduct 8.1 by knowingly misrepresenting material facts regarding the fee to Bar Counsel. For these same reasons, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Yi’s violation of 8.4(c), which prohibits a lawyer from engaging in “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.”

Finally, holding that Mr. Yi violated Maryland Attorneys’ Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(d), engaging in conduct that is “prejudicial to the administration of justice,” the Court of Appeals found that Mr. Yi “failed to serve as an advocate for his client and failed to protect her rights.” The Court explained that he did not meet the bare minimum expected of defense counsel in a criminal case, noting that “without reviewing the State’s evidence in detail with his client and without making a sufficient effort to formulate a defense,” Mr. Yi pressured his client to plead guilty to a crime she did not believe she had committed. Deciding to disbar Mr. Yi, the Court highlighted that Mr. Yi “put his client on the road to conviction, likely imprisonment, and deportation in a case with a viable defense,” adding that the misuse of client funds was “equally serious misconduct,” and the failure to respond truthfully to bar counsel’s inquiries “threatened the integrity of the attorney disciplinary process.”

Nathans & Biddle LLP is a highly respected advocate for individuals and businesses involved in a broad spectrum of white-collar criminal and civil disputes, forfeitures, criminal post-conviction proceedings, and attorney grievance matters. If you are a lawyer, and need representation concerning an attorney grievance investigation or peer review proceeding, contact Larry Nathans or Booth Ripke from our firm. With offices in Baltimore, Annapolis, and Greenbelt, we represent clients across Maryland (both federal and state courts), the Washington D.C. area, and several other federal courts across the country.

This opinion from the Maryland Court of Appeals, Attorney Grievance Commission v. Yi, sets forth some important baseline requirements for adequate representation by criminal defense attorneys. The full opinion can be found at: https://www.mdcourts.gov/data/opinions/coa/2020/21a19ag.pdf.

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