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In re Berryman

12/28/2000

On Report and Recommendation of the Board on Professional Responsibility


Argued December 1, 2000


Opinion for the court by Associate Judge Reid.


Concurring opinion by Associate Judge Farrell at p. .


Contrary to the views of its hearing committee, the Board on Professional Responsibility has recommended that Matilene Berryman, Esq. be disbarred for intentional misappropriation of client funds, dishonesty, and other violations of the District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct. In light of our decision in In re Addams, 579 A.2d 190 (D.C. 1990) (en banc), and subsequent cases which recognize that although the sanction of disbarrment is harsh, it is nonetheless necessary to ensure public confidence in the integrity of the Bar; we adopt the Board's recommendation and order that Ms. Berryman be disbarred.


FACTUAL SUMMARY


The record before us shows that Ms. Berryman was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar on January 10, 1975. She practiced law part-time from 1975 to 1983, when she began practicing full-time as a solo practitioner. Her specialty was probate law, but she also handled some personal injury cases.


Bar Counsel's specification of charges against Ms. Berryman, signed on May 23, 1997, related to her handling of the affairs of Mary Patterson. Prior to rendering services to Ms. Patterson, Ms. Berryman was retained by Edward A. Patterson, the man with whom Mary Patterson resided and to whom Ms. Berryman believed she was lawfully married when Mr. Patterson died. Ms. Berryman handled the probate of Mr. Patterson's estate after his death. Subsequently, when Ms. Patterson suffered an arm injury during apparently negligent dialysis treatment, she prevailed upon Ms. Berryman to take legal action in her behalf, with respect to her injury, for a legal fee of $30,000. Ultimately, Ms. Berryman was successful in persuading the hospital to cancel Ms. Patterson's $499,000 debt to the hospital.


Instead of paying Ms. Berryman's $30,000 legal fee directly to her, Ms. Patterson asked Ms. Berryman to open a joint account with her at Citizens Bank and to permit her to personally use the $32,400, which she would deposit into the account. Ms. Berryman agreed because Ms. Patterson was experiencing cash flow difficulties at the time. Since Ms. Patterson used some of the funds in the joint account for her personal use, the account eventually lacked funds sufficient to cover all of Ms. Berryman's $30,000 legal fee, and at the time of Ms. Patterson's death on May 31, 1993, Ms. Berryman estimated that she was still owed approximately $6,000 of her legal fee.


Bar Counsel's charges that Ms. Berryman violated Rules 1.15 (a) and 1.15 (c) of the District's Rules of Professional Conduct relate to money which Ms. Patterson still owed Ms. Berryman at the time of her death, and the manner in which Ms. Berryman sought to retrieve what was owed to her. Bar Counsel's specifications regarding these rules read as follows:


Rule 1.15 (a), . . . Respondent knowingly and/or recklessly (1) failed to hold property of a client and/or third persons in her possession in connection with a representation separate from her own property (commingling) and/or (2) intentionally and/or recklessly misappropriated funds belonging to a client and/or third persons;


Rule 1.15 (c), . . . uring the course of the representation, Respondent came into possession of funds in which another person and she claimed an interest and failed to keep those funds separate from her own funds until the dispute was resolved[.]


The record before us is not crystal clear as to how the Citizens Bank joint account and Ms.

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