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Court denies lawyer admission to bar
Failure to disclose arrest ‘impinges upon his character,’ court says
DANNY JACOBS
Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer
January 4, 2009 6:53 PM
A veteran lawyer seeking to practice in Maryland who failed to disclose a DWI arrest until after he passed the bar exam was denied admittance by a divided Court of Appeals.

Gregory John Strzempek spent four days in jail in April 2006 in Fairfax, Va., as part of pleading guilty to driving while intoxicated — a fact he did not disclose during his character committee interview less than two weeks after he was released. Only after Strzempek learned he passed the bar in November 2006 did he notify Maryland’s Board of Law Examiners.

Strzempek, according to transcripts, said he decided to wait until the test results were released because his arrest disclosure would be irrelevant if he did not pass the test. The committee recommended Strzempek be denied admission while the board recommended he be admitted. Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, writing for the majority, held Strzempek’s disclosure as required by the bar application was mandatory, not voluntary.

“It is not the choice of a candidate for admission whether to disclose and under what conditions,” Battaglia wrote. “His choice not to disclose in the face of these known obligations…impinges upon his character and fitness to practice law.”



WHAT THE COURT HELD


Case: In the Matter of the Application of Gregory John Strzempek for Admission to the Bar of Maryland. Misc. Docket No. 2, Sept. Term 2008. Reported. Opinion by Battaglia, J. Dissent by Bell, C.J.

Issue: Should a prospective bar applicant be admitted if he does not disclose an arrest until after he receives the results of his bar examination?

Holding: No; arrest disclosure was mandatory, not voluntary. Applicant did not carry the burden of proof that he possessed present moral character and fitness for admission.

Counsel: Melvin G. Bergman for Strzempek.


RecordFax: No. 8-1230-20 (21 pages)

Strzempek, who has been licensed to practice law in New York for more than 25 years, declined to comment when reached at his Virginia home Tuesday afternoon. Melvin G. Bergman, a Greenbelt solo practitioner who represented Strzempek before the appellate court, said he planned to meet with his client soon to discuss their options but declined further comment on the ruling.

‘Absolute candor’

Strzempek filed his application with the board in December 2005. The application includes a provision requiring applicants to update responses until formally admitted to the bar; Strzempek answered “none” when asked about a criminal record, according to the opinion.

Two months later, Strzempek was charged with DWI and reckless driving, among other charges. He pleaded guilty on April 12, 2006, and in addition to a suspended jail sentence paid $641 in fines and was placed on one years’ probation, the opinion states.

Strzempek was in jail from April 14 to April 18. Nine days later, at his committee interview, he did not disclose his arrest, according to the opinion. Strzempek took the bar exam in July and learned he passed Nov. 5, 2006. Three days later, he mailed his affirmation form along with his test results and acknowledged the DWI conviction but did not mention the jail sentence or the fine.

The board sent Strzempek’s application back to the character committee for a hearing, held in December 2007. The committee found he “did not show remorse for his actions” and said a lawyer with his experience should “understand the importance of candor.”

The board, however, recommended Strzempek’s admission following a hearing in May, calling his actions “aberrations” he did not intend to conceal. The board noted Strzempek had included his arrest on job applications and was denied at least one job because of it, the opinion said.

Battaglia sided with the committee, calling “absolute candor…a requisite of admission to the Maryland Bar.”

But Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, in a dissenting opinion, accused the majority of rendering the board meaningless by not heeding its ruling on Strzempek’s credibility. Bell said the court has only rejected the board’s recommendation in nine cases out of 65 the last 30 years, and none had credibility issues to be resolved.

The court can “determine whether any factual finding is clearly erroneous, but that does not equate to its being permitted to choose between conflicting findings,” said Bell, who was joined by Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr.