Article in Bar Newsletter: The May 2012 issue of the Montgomery County Bar Association Newsletter contains Stewart A. Sutton’s article on the attorney’s use of an interpleader action to resolve a fee dispute with a client.
Tree Hugger: In March 2012, Stewart A. Sutton obtained a $1,200 settlement for a client whose 85 foot white oak tree was hit by a car. The impact left a scar on the base of the tree. Maryland Natural Resources Code Section 5-409 provides that a landowner is entitled to triple the value of a merchantable tree that is damaged by a trespasser plus the cost of any surveys, appraisals, and attorney’s fees.
Alimony Reduction: In February 2012, Stewart A. Sutton negotiated a 25% reduction in his client’s non-modifiable alimony obligation due to a corresponding decrease in his client’s income caused by the recession. Practice pointer for clients: Non-modifiable alimony can be terminated to avoid a harsh and inequitable result, such as when the payer suffers a substantial reduction in earnings due to an illness or the economy. See Maryland Family Law Code section 11-108(3).
Child Support Modification: In December 2011, Stewart A. Sutton obtained an 83% reduction in his client’s child support obligation. The material change in circumstances justifying the reduction included one child reaching the age of 18, another child no longer residing with either parent, a substantial increase in one parent’s income, and a substantial decrease in the other parent’s income. Practice pointer for clients: Any time there is a material change in circumstances, the parent paying child support should immediately move to modify his or her child support obligation. A Maryland court cannot retroactively modify child support.
Attorney Fee Dispute: In December 2011, Stewart A. Sutton successfully represented a client in a fee dispute with her former attorney. The former attorney disputed that the client was entitled to almost $500,000 in proceeds from a personal injury settlement.
Aunt and Uncle Visitation: In September 2011, Stewart A. Sutton was retained by a married couple to secure visitation rights with their nephew. Stewart A. Sutton was able to negotiate a visitation agreement. Practice pointer for clients: There must be exceptional circumstances for a court to award a non-parent visitation rights with a child.
Smoke Detector Manufacturer: In September 2011, Stewart A. Sutton obtained a settlement from a smoke detector manufacturer for two families whose boys perished in a house fire during a power outage. The families’ position was that the embossed warning on the AC-only powered smoke detector’s plastic case (“detector will not operate if power is interrupted”) was unreadable, unless the homeowner stood on a ladder.
Divorce Trial: In July 2011, Stewart A. Sutton represented a wife in a divorce trial. Her self-employed husband was seeking alimony on the grounds that his income was only 23% of his wife’s. Stewart A. Sutton was able to prove that the husband had underreported his income and overreported his business expenses. The wife’s expert witness testified that the husband could more than double his income within months by implementing a marketing plan to promote his business. As a result of the overwhelming evidence that the husband was capable of being self-sufficient, the husband wisely withdrew his claim for alimony.
Vacation of Fraudulent Conveyance: In May 2011, Stewart A. Sutton’s client was awarded summary judgment to vacate a fraudulent conveyance of real property. The client’s spouse conveyed the family home to an Irrevocable Trust to prevent the client’s expected monetary award from becoming a judgment lien on the subject property.
Persistence: Stewart A. Sutton’s client was denied a monetary award at his divorce trial. The case was appealed; and the judgment was vacated. At the second trial, the client was received only a $7,500 monetary award. The case was again appealed; and the judgment was again vacated. In March 2011, the client received a $30,000 monetary award at the third trial.
Lack of Informed Consent: In January 2011, Stewart A. Sutton settled a case in which a client/patient unwittingly participated in a medical research study. The client/patient lacked the capacity to provide the medical researcher with informed consent due to the fact that he suffered from a cognitive impairment and was experiencing flu symptoms on the day he executed the informed consent form.
Modification of Custody: In October 2010, Stewart A. Sutton successfully obtained for his client a consent order to modify residential custody of a severely disabled teenager. The relocation of the custodial parent from Maryland was the impetus for the change in custody.
Article in Bar Newsletter: Stewart A. Sutton’s article addressing when a contingency fee is earned by an attorney in a personal injury case was published in the October 2010 issue of the Bar Association of Montgomery County’s Newsletter. An attorney’s contingency fee is not earned when a case is settled, but rather when the settlement check is deposited and the funds are transferred to the attorney’s trust account.
Article in Law Journal: In its September/October 2010 issue, the Maryland Bar Journal published Stewart A. Sutton’s article on the recovery of emotional distress damages in legal malpractice cases.
Appellate Decision: In May 2010, Stewart A. Sutton obtained a favorable family law opinion from the Court of Special Appeals. A married couple bought a home, but the family home was titled only in the wife’s name. At the time the marriage was breaking apart, she conveyed the family home to a Trust for zero consideration. In an unreported decision, the Appellate Court agreed that the family home was marital property, that the wife had dissipated the property, and that the husband was entitled to a monetary award for his share of the equity in the home.
Pet Sitter Liability: In April 2010, Stewart A. Sutton represented a client in a case involving the liability of pet sitters and the application of the doctrine of gratuitous bailment. The client’s neighbors had agreed to pet sit while she was on vacation. The neighbors allowed the untrained puppy to run loose in the HOA’s common areas in violation of the county leash law, the dog ran away, and it was hit in the snout by a passing vehicle. The dog suffered a fractured jaw; and the client incurred over $10,000 in veterinary expenses. However, Maryland Courts & Judicial Article section 11-110 places a $7,500 limit on the recovery of veterinary expenses when a household pet is injured.
Man Bites Dog: In March 2010, Stewart A. Sutton obtained a $10,000 judgment for a client who broke his hand by repeatedly hitting a pitbull. The pitbull had attacked the man’s dog. The man punched the pitbull in its head so that it would open its jaw and loosen its vise-like grip on his pet. As a result of his heroic efforts, the client succeeded in thwarting the dog attack, but he unfortunately broke his hand in the process.
Expert witness: In January 2010, Stewart A. Sutton testified as an expert witness in a case where a parent opposed his children’s Best Interest Attorney’s petition for fees. It was Stewart A. Sutton’s expert opinion that the BIA’s block billing of time (such as “case work”; “review email”, and “telephone call with parent”) were insufficient, because these billing entries neither stated the nature of the work performed by the attorney nor why the work was reasonably necessary. As a result of the BIA’s improper billing practices and other factors, the BIA’s fees were reduced by 85%.
Automobile Injury Trial: In November 2009, Stewart A. Sutton obtained a verdict for a client who was injured in an automobile accident. The amount of the judgment was 3 times greater than the last offer made by the other driver’s insurance carrier.
Reported Decision In June 2009, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court had improperly dismissed his clients’ wrongful death claims against a home builder and a smoke detector manufactuer. The clients’ boys were sleeping over at a friend’s home during a power outage. The boys perished in a house fire, because the smoke detectors lacked a battery back-up. Pittway v. Collins 409 Md. 218 (2009).
Interspousal Tort In December 2008, Stewart Sutton obtained a judgment for a wife whose husband had used her credit card without her authority. In 2003, Maryland completely abrogated the doctrine of interspousal immunity. Spouses now have the same right to sue his or her spouse as they would a stranger who committed either an intentional or non-intentional tort. This is an extremely important right, because it is common knowledge that a large percentage of credit card fraud and identify theft is commited by family members, including estranged spouses.
Pro Bono Case In October 2008, Stewart Sutton successfully obtained a $30,000 settlement for a pro bono client. The client had lost her home to foreclosure. The attorneys for the mortgage company improperly had deposited and retained the $43,000 in surplus proceeds from the foreclosure sale in their non-interest bearing escrow account for 12-years. After the $43,000 in surplus proceeds were finally released to his client, Stewart A. Sutton negotiated a settlement in which the attorneys for the mortgage company agreed to pay $30,000 to his client for her 12-years of lost interest on her surplus proceeds.
Defense Verdict In July 2008, Stewart Sutton successfully represented a diet/health club that was sued by a customer for a refund of her monthly membership fees. Stewart Sutton proved at trial that the customer’s membership cancellation letter, which was allegedly sent by certified mail, was in fact a forgery.
Divorce Trial On February 29, 2008, Stewart Sutton’s client was granted a $26,500 monetary award and $12,000 in attorney’s fees, because her husband had sold the family home without her knowledge and then had dissipated over $50,000 in net proceeds from this sale.
Review Granted On February 13, 2008, the Maryland Court of Appeals granted Appellees’ Petitions for Writ of Certiorari to review the Court of Special Appeals’ decision in Collins v. Li 176 Md.App. 502 (2007).
Custody Trial In November 2007, Stewart A. Sutton’s client was awarded sole legal and physical custody of her 2 young children, despite the fact that the parents had maintained an equal access parenting schedule for more than 1-year.
Reported Decision Stewart A. Sutton’s clients prevailed on their appeal that the trial court had improperly dismissed multiple defendants in their wrongful death lawsuit arising from a house fire. Collins v. Li 176 Md.App. 502 (2007).
Foreclosure In August 2007, Stewart A. Sutton vacated the foreclosure of his clients’ Germantown home on the grounds that their lender had not provided proper notice that the homeowners had defaulted on their mortgage. By vacating the foreclosure, the homeowners were able to preserve their $200,000 in home equity.
Expert Witness In March 2007, Stewart A. Sutton testified as an expert witness about the practice of law in a personal injury trial for an attorney who had suffered brain damage in an automobile accident and had to retire. He explained to the jury the higher level or executive decisions that an attorney is required to make in the course of practicing law from the initial meeting with a client to trying the client’s case. The Montgomery County jury returned a substantial verdict for the plaintiff.
Custody Trial In July 2006, Stewart A. Sutton represented a mother in a custody trial. Before the first witness had finished testifying, the father entered into a Consent Order that provided that the mother would have sole legal and physical custody of the parties’ son.
Adverse Possession In 2006, Stewart A. Sutton successfully represented a client in an adverse possession lawsuit for real property in Germantown. The land was titled in the name of his great-grandmother, who had died more than 50-years ago. By quieting title in his favor, the great-grandson was able to sell the valuable real estate.
Reported Decision In an appeal, Stewart A. Sutton represented parents whose children had perished in a house fire. In a published decision, the Court of Special Appeals found that the voluntary dismissal of appellants’ remaining claims was not a final, appealable order. Collins v. Li 158 Md.App. 252 (2004).
Premise Liability In March 2003, a jury awarded Stewart Sutton’s client $15,000 in emotional distress damages for having been accidentally locked in a drug store at closing time.
Wrongful Death In January 2003, Stewart Sutton obtained an insurance policy limits settlement for the parents of two children, who perished in a house fire while sleeping in the basement at a friend’s home. The fire was caused by an unattended candle, which was being used during an area wide electrical outage. The home’s AC-power smoke detectors were not functioning due to the power outage.
All homes built in Maryland since 1990 are required to have dual-power smoke detectors. It is unlawful to sleep in an enclosed basement room that lacks an egressable window.
Reported Decision In 2002, Stewart A. Sutton represented clients in a declaratory relief lawsuit against an insurance company regarding coverage for his clients’ legal malpractice judgment against an attorney; and the U.S. District Court’s decision was reported. Maynard v. Westport Insurance Corp. 208 F.Supp.2d 568 (D.Md. 2002).
Consumer Protection In 2002, Stewart Sutton became the first private attorney in Maryland to obtain a judgment against a credit repair business due to its failure to comply with the Maryland Credit Services Businesses Act. The Court awarded the client trebled damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees.
Security Guard Legislation In February 2002, Stewart Sutton testified before the House of Delegate’s Committee on Commerce & Government Mattersin favor of HB 1127, which proposed to establish a task force to study how security guards are trained in Maryland and to make recommendations to correct any deficiencies. HB 1127 was overwhelmingly passed by the House of Delegates.
Legal Malpractice Judgment In February 2001, Stewart Sutton obtained a $130,000 legal malpractice judgment, which included $15,000 in emotional distress damages and $75,000 in punitive damages in a case where a lawyer had failed to file a breach a contract case prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations and then intentionally misrepresented to the client that the lawsuit had been filed in a timely manner.
The Stephon and Sammy Dual-Power Smoke Detector Bill Stewart Sutton is representing the parents of 2 children, who perished in a June 1998 house fire in Gaithersburg. The smoke detectors in the home were not functioning due to a power outage. On January 31, 2001, Stewart Sutton and his clients testified before the House of Delegates in support of Delegate Paul Carlson’s bill to require homeowners and landlords to disclose to purchasers and tenants that their residences lack dual-power smoke detectors and that the smoke detectors will not function during a power outage. This important fire-safety legislation was enacted and the law became effective on October 1, 2001.
Severance Pay Trial An employee was required to sign a non-competition agreement after she was fired. In December 2000, Stewart Sutton successfully argued that the former employee was entitled to 30-days of severance pay, because she had not received any valuable consideration when she agreed to the restrictive covenant.
Legal Malpractice Trial In August 2000, a jury awarded two of Stewart Sutton’s clients $272,000 in a legal malpractice cases against an attorney. The clients had lost their beloved home, because their attorney failed to file their Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition prior to the scheduled foreclosure date. Although their home did not have any equity, the jury awarded $172,000 in economic damages. The clients were also awarded $100,000 for their emotional and mental distress for losing their home. The jury deliberated for only 25 minutes.
Modification of Visitation Trial Stewart Sutton represented a divorced father in a modification of visitation trial in August 2000. The mother’s position was that the current visitation schedule should remain in place. The trial lasted 2-days; and the Court more than doubled the number of the father’s overnight visits with his 7-year old daughter.
Legal Malpractice Trial Stewart A. Sutton was retained to prosecute a legal malpractice action against an established Rockville firm that had failed to file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition prior to the clients’ foreclosure date. The result was that the clients lost their home and their credit was ruined. Stewart A. Sutton tried the legal malpractice case in mid-March 1999. The jury awarded $27,000 in economic damages and $100,000 in emotional distress damages.
Custody Trial Stewart A. Sutton and his co-counsel obtained joint legal and physical custody award for a husband after a 2-day trial, despite the fact that he had lost 95% of his vision.
Security Guard Legislation Stewart Sutton successfully represented four clients in two different cases against a local security guard company. The undertrained and overzealous security guards had been harassing citizens and unlawfully detaining them. As a result of this litigation and the Gazette’s publication of an award winning article on the lack of regulation of security guard firms and their employees, Maryland passed legislation to require security guards to undergo a criminal background check every 3-years and allowed the State Police to revoke the license of a security guard who lacks good moral character.