Attorney Grievance v. Coppola: A Tragedy

The Court of Appeals disbarred an attorney this week for assisting a client’s children in forging her signature on a Will:

Notwithstanding these explanations, the children pleaded with Mr. Coppola to certify Ms. Swink’s execution of thedocuments in her mother’s name. He explained that if the children were not in agreement with the provisions of the estateplan, then it would be counterproductive to sign Ms. West’s name to the documents. He told the children that such a course would be improper and, if anyone of the children objected, the documents would not be honored. The children indicated to Mr.Coppola that they were, in fact, in agreement.  Mr. Coppola, to his regret, agreed to have them sign the documents and that hewould certify that they were signed by Ms. West. Ms. Swink then signed her mother’s name to the 2008 Will, the Trust Declaration, the Deed, the Assignment, and the General Durable Power of Attorney. All four children were present in the hospital room and witnessed Ms. Swink’s execution of hermother’s name on the documents. Mr. Coppola hand-wrote the change to the Trust Declaration (naming all four children assuccessor Trustees) and Ms. Swink initialed the change.

The attorney believed that he was fulfilling the intention of his client, who had expressed her desire to divide her assets in accordance with the terms of the forged Will, but had fallen severely ill between the expression of that intention and the forgery. He lied, but did so not to assist himself but to fulfill his client’s expressed intentions and to save his client’s children money in later probate.

From Judge Lynne Battaglia’s opinion:

Coppola asserts that he only was attempting to facilitate his clients’ wishes and
respond to a truly sorrowful situation and that he did not benefit from his acts. We have
already addressed these contentions in Garcia, when we said, “[v]iolations of Rule 8.4 are
not justified by reference to the ends when illegal methods are utilized, nor by whether the
attorney profited from the illicit behavior.” 410 Md. at 522, 979 A.2d at 155. There can be
no doubt that lawyers deal with situations and circumstances that are tragic, as well as
emotionally intense and vexing for clients, as happiness only may be found with a client who adopts a child.

Attorneys, however, are not and cannot be hired guns for individuals who seek to
subvert the administration of justice. Rather, the great strength of our profession lies in the
integrity with which we act and the honor that we bring to our work. Attorneys are not
permitted to discard their ethical obligations when it becomes difficult or stressful to maintain them.

What made me sick was realizing that the attorney who did this was under greater strain than I am as a parent. I have two disabled children, but he had three. Like myself, he was divorced from the children’s mother but was active in parenting, spending even more time per day/week with his children than I do with mine. I live 1 mile from my children’s mother and am about to have my office situated maybe 1/2 mile from my apartment; he commuted an hour one-way to be with his children almost daily. Now he is disbarred in Maryland and will likely be suspended indefinitely or disbarred elsewhere.  But in the end, he did facilitate a forgery and did alter other documents falsely to facilitate the filing and endowment of a probate-avoidant trust for an asset in this State.

Reading this story makes me want simultaneously to slap this attorney and to embrace him and offer support.  I do hope he gets back in someday.

Posted by Bruce Godfrey