A prominent Rockville lawyer goes to court today to face charges of unethical and unprofessional behavior in a conflict-of-interest case brought against him by Maryland's lawyer disciplinary board.
R. Edwin Brown, 66, one of the county's longest-practicing and best-known lawyers, has been charged by the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission with violating a disciplinary rule regarding the business relation an attorney may have with a client. The charges stem from legal services that Brown handled 10 years ago for an elderly couple, who leased their farm to a firm in which Brown had a financial interest, according to court papers.
Brown could not be reached, and his attorney, Walter H. Madden, would not comment on the case. But in a document filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court by Madden, Brown denies the charges, saying he acted appropriately and there was no conflict of interest. The papers described Brown as having a "well-earned, well-respected reputation as a hard working, determined and successful lawyer who works assiduously on behalf of clients."
The commission, set up by the state's highest court to monitor complaints against lawyers, brought 53 cases in the year ending March 1, but lawyers familiar with the charges against Brown said this proceeding is different.
"This is a very unusual case because there was a conspiracy to deprive a client of property if the alleged facts are proven," said Durke Thompson, president of the Montgomery County Bar Association. "Most lawyers who get into trouble have alcohol problems, a bout of depression, family problems or fail to file their income tax returns. You don't see a situation where someone is handling an estate, and where there has been an alleged effort to take money from the estate in a complex manner."
The case surprised the legal establishment in Montgomery County, where Brown has practiced for about 45 years. He is respected by his colleagues and is known for his work on condemnation cases.
"Brown is the most prominent lawyer in this county to have a disciplinary hearing," said Andrew L. Sonner, longtime state's attorney for Montgomery County.
"Ed Brown is an old-time country gentleman," said a lawyer who has practiced in Montgomery County for many years and asked not to be identified. "He's what we would call a 'good old boy' with long Montgomery County roots. He's the common man's lawyer in many ways because he has represented people of all economic strata."
If the charges are proven, "it is probably likely that he will be disbarred -- or at the very least, suspended for a lengthy period of time," said Thompson.
The misconduct charges against Brown are scheduled to be heard today by Montgomery County Circuit Judge Peter J. Messitte, who will make a recommendation on the matter to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which will make a final ruling on the charges. The case grew out of legal services that Brown handled about 10 years ago for Walter and Elmyra Hahn, an elderly couple who owned two farms in Frederick County and hired Brown to prepare their wills and act as their "personal representative."
The attorney grievance commission has charged that Brown advised Elmyra Hahn, then in her early eighties, to enter into a lease agreement for her 162-acre farm with a company, the Washington Land Co., in which Brown owned a one-third partnership and Brown's children owned another third. The agreement also included an option for Washington Land Co. to purchase the property.
Brown proposed the agreement as a partner and legal counsel for Washington Land Co., while he was also acting as attorney for Elmyra Hahn and had been designated as personal representative in her will, according to the court papers filed by the grievance commission.
Brown denies that allegation in papers his attorney filed in court.
In entering into the lease-option agreement with Elymra Hahn, Brown did not disclose to her that if at her death he was appointed her personal representative, he would be in a conflict-of-interest position, the grievance commission said in documents filed in court. In addition, "the failure of Brown to insist that Mrs. Hahn seek independent legal advice resulted in a lease-option agreement which had many provisions unfavorable to Mr. and Mrs. Hahn," the court papers allege.
The couple's grandchildren sued Brown in 1981 to regain control of the farm, according to a lawyer close to the case. Court papers filed by Madden show that a Frederick County judge voided the lease agreement, and the lawyer close to the case said the farm was turned back to the Hahns' estate so it could be owned by his grandchildren.
The authority to regulate lawyers in Maryland lies with the state's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, which has designated certain disciplinary rules and sanctions lawyers if the ethical canons are violated. The court set up the grievance commission in 1975.