By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 11:54 PM
When an Arlington County police detective called Howard D. Deiner in September 2008 and told him he'd been accused of practicing law without a license, Deiner told the detective he didn't need a law license to represent parents of special-needs children.
That same month, the Virginia State Bar informed Deiner that it was investigating him for the unauthorized practice of law, court records show. But Deiner continued to tell people he was a lawyer and took no steps to reinstate his frequently suspended license, which would have involved simply paying his dues.
But "the icing on the cake," as an Arlington County judge put it, was when Deiner filed a lawsuit in federal court in Alexandria in December 2008 and signed another lawyer's name to it, when Deiner was neither a licensed lawyer nor admitted to the federal bar.
And so Deiner was convicted this week of four counts of felony fraud and one misdemeanor count of unauthorized practice of law by Arlington Circuit Court Judge William T. Newman Jr. after a day-long bench trial.
Deiner, 54, faces a minimum of two years and a maximum of 10 in prison on each felony count at his sentencing on Jan. 7, though Newman can run the counts concurrently and suspend some or all of the time imposed.
Deiner's case is particularly compelling because he decided about 10 years ago to specialize in the area of special education law, based on his experience with one of his own sons. Parents of children with special needs - often already stretched thin financially and emotionally - sometimes must take on the additional struggle of fighting with school districts to get their child a proper education.
This can involve hiring a lawyer - the schools respond with top-flight private attorneys - and so Deiner switched his focus from labor law to special education, according to his testimony Tuesday.
But many parents said Deiner did a poor job representing them and then failed to return phone calls, e-mails, their children's files or money they were owed. He also never disclosed that his license had lapsed in 2005.
Deiner acknowledged that he also never set up a lawyer's trust account, required of all Virginia lawyers, to keep legal fees separate from other business expenses.
One couple, Mark and Melissa Griffin of Arlington, sued Deiner last year after he apparently botched their case and then improperly filed an appeal in federal court. Deiner did not contest the lawsuit, and last November Newman imposed a default judgment of $13,552 for the fees the Griffins paid and an additional $100,000 in punitive damages, calling Deiner's conduct "one of the most egregious things I've ever heard."
Shortly after the default judgment, Arlington police arrested Deiner for one count each of fraud and practicing without a license, and prosecutors added three more fraud counts in July. Deiner paid to have his law license reinstated by the D.C. Bar in April 2009, but the bar suspended him again last month because he "appears to pose a substantial threat of serious harm to the public."
Neither Deiner nor his attorney objected to Newman's handling of the criminal case, despite the judge's statement in the civil action.
Mark Griffin was one of four victims who testified that they specifically wanted to hire a licensed attorney to handle their case, that Deiner told them he was a lawyer, and that he charged them fees of $295 an hour.
When parents challenge a school district's plans for their child, the internal processes do not require an attorney. But if the parents lose at that level, they can appeal to the state or federal courts. And that requires a licensed attorney.
Deiner listed himself as a lawyer on various Web sites for parents of special-needs children and remains on one.
One Arlington man, who requested that his name be withheld to protect his child's privacy, testified that he paid Deiner $3,150 in 2007 and that Deiner never even filed an initial brief in the administrative schools process. He said Deiner supplied numerous excuses but never any legal services. "I would stand outside of his house and wait," the man testified, hoping to catch Deiner to get his documents returned.
Kathleen Ujvari of McLean testified that after paying Deiner $1,600, her case was quickly resolved by the Fairfax County School District and that Deiner did not "provide any impact at all." But Deiner would not provide any accounting of his time or refund any of Ujvari's money.
"I was stunned," she said. "I felt like I was taken."
D.C. Bar official Karen V. Wiggins testified that Deiner's license had been suspended for failure to pay dues in 2002, 2003 and 2005, but that he had taken steps to have it reinstated the first two times. He was never licensed in Virginia.
Deiner said he didn't know his license had been suspended from 2006 through April 2009. "If you had been remotely diligent, you would have known that?" Arlington Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney R. Frances O'Brien asked rhetorically.
O'Brien noted in her closing argument that Deiner's retainer agreement informed clients that they could recover his attorney's fees if he won their cases. An unlicensed attorney is not entitled to that.
James Clark, Deiner's lawyer, argued that Deiner had no intent to defraud anyone. He simply wanted to help special-needs children and their parents, he said, but "exercised an incredible amount of inattention to the details of both his personal and professional life."
But Newman said that Deiner's improper filing of the lawsuit for the Griffins in December 2008 showed that he did have intent to defraud.