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Howard Deiner convicted for practicing without license in special-needs cases

Sharon Cheich and her husband, Ronald, paid Howard D. Deiner more than $15,000 and lost their case against the Arlington schools.
Sharon Cheich and her husband, Ronald, paid Howard D. Deiner more than $15,000 and lost their case against the Arlington schools. (John Mcdonnell/The Washington Post)
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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.

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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.

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