Last week, the Court of Appeals of Maryland disbarred Michael U. Gisriel, a well known real estate lawyer who hosted a talk show, and was a past member of the Maryland House of Delegates. This was considered “breaking news” by the Daily Record, Maryland’s legal newspaper. The facts of the case are interesting for several reasons and can be read at the Maryland Judiciary website.
Mr. Gisriel has been retained by clients to resolve a real estate dispute. During the course of the representation, he filed court papers that were later deemed frivolous and the trial court imposed sanctions upon Mr. Gisreal and his client of more than $3,000, which Mr. Gisriel paid to opposing counsel. He was later discharged by the clients, who continued part of their case without an attorney. They ultimately resolved their case at a mediation session where it was agreed they would be paid certain monies being held in escrow by the court.
A $1,000 check was sent by the court trustee to Mr. Gisriel who, without authority, signed the clients’ names to the check and deposited it into his general account. He assumed the payment was in partial reimbursement of the fees he paid on his own behalf and on behalf of the clients as sanctions to opposing counsel. The clients were waiting for their $1,000. When they learned that Mr. Gisriel had signed their names and cashed the check, they reported him to the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission who sought and obtained disbarment.
Mr. Gisriel had claimed that he honestly believed the check was his to cash and that he didn’t give it more than “five seconds” of thought between receiving the check and endorsing it. The Court found he intentionally misappropriated the funds and that his lack of thought was indicative of deceit and not helpful to his defense.
This case is very unfortunate, Many, including two of the seven judges on the Court of Appeals (Bell and Eldrige (retired), believed the decision was too harsh. The two judges, in a dissenting opinion, indicated they would have indefinitely suspended and not disbarred Gisriel based on his good standing and lack of discipinary problems during his more than 30 years in practice. What is also interesting is that the clients who reported Mr. Gisriel wished to withdraw their grievance and signed an affidavit that the matter had been resolved to their satisfaction and that they didn’t want to bring harm to Mr. Gisriel’s legal career. Those pleas obviously fell upon deaf ears at the Grievance Commission who has the right to do what it wishes notwithstanding what the reporting party wishes.
The bottom line is that an attorney may never sign a client’s name to a check or legal document without their express authority. That is basic law with a little common sense mixed in. This action was viewed as theft, as it very well might have been, and is just another example of how some will risk their careers over very small amounts of money.
At Belsky, Weinberg and Horowitz, we request that clients endorse a limited power of attorney whenever there is a need to sign on behalf of clients. There are more extensive powers of attorneys that can be used in other circumstances. We would be happy to discuss free-of-charge our process for preparing powers of attorney.