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In re Grundstein

Supreme Court of Vermont

February 9, 2018

In re Robert Grundstein

         Original Jurisdiction From Character and Fitness Committee

          David E. Tartter, Neal Rodar and Martha O'Connor, Panel Members.

          Paul S. Gillies of Tarrant, Gillies & Richardson, Montpelier, and Robert Grundstein, Pro Se, Morrisville, for Petitioner-Appellant.

          Thomas J. Donovan, Jr., Attorney General, and Benjamin Battles, Solicitor General, Montpelier, for Respondent-Appellee.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          ROBINSON, J.

         ¶ 1. Applicant Robert Grundstein appeals the decision of the Vermont Character and Fitness Committee declining to certify his good moral character and fitness to be admitted to practice law in Vermont. We conclude that applicant has failed to satisfy his burden of demonstrating a good moral character. Accordingly, we affirm.

         ¶ 2. Applicant achieved a passing score on the February 2016 Vermont bar examination. His application was forwarded to the Character and Fitness Committee, which assigned one of its members to investigate applicant's moral character and fitness. On May 9, 2016, the member reported to the Committee that he was unable to certify applicant's good moral character and fitness. The member noted that applicant offered confusing explanations for his disbarment in Washington State and his conviction for alteration of a court document. The member was also concerned that the Washington disbarment notice stated that applicant had repeatedly violated court orders and filed meritless pleadings. A three-member panel of the Committee held a hearing on the matter on October 20, 2016. Applicant attended the hearing and was represented by counsel. In a written decision issued on January 30, 2017, the Committee declined to certify applicant's good moral character and fitness.

         I. Record Evidence

         ¶ 3. Applicant received a juris doctor degree from the Cleveland Marshall College of Law in 1985. After law school, he traveled and helped start a restaurant in New Hampshire. He worked as a clerk in New Mexico and unsuccessfully took the New Mexico bar examination in 1986. He then returned to the restaurant business. In 1991, he passed the Washington State bar examination and was admitted to the Washington bar. He did not practice law in Washington, instead remaining in the restaurant business. In 1994, he returned to Cleveland, Ohio to care for his parents. He left Ohio in 2002, moving first to New Hampshire and then settling in Vermont. He has lived in Vermont since 2003 and has supported himself in real estate development. He testified that he never "really" practiced law, although when he lived in Washington he helped a local attorney draft some documents.

         ¶ 4. On his Vermont bar application, applicant disclosed that he had two criminal convictions: a 2002 conviction for improper storage of a firearm and a 2008 conviction for alteration of a court document. Both convictions were in Ohio.

         ¶ 5. According to applicant, the 2002 case began when his car was towed for a parking violation. The police went through the car and found his .22 pistol in the glove compartment. He was charged and found guilty of improper storage of a firearm and sentenced to two years' probation with a condition that he not possess any firearms.

         ¶ 6. Applicant testified that despite this condition he returned to Vermont and attempted to purchase a new firearm. He claimed that the probation was "unsupervised" and that the Ohio court administrator told him that he could ignore the probation conditions. Applicant's request to purchase a gun was initially denied because the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) could not determine whether the Ohio gun conviction was a felony or a misdemeanor. When applicant requested a copy of the police report from the Ohio court, he noticed that the report listed the statute under which he was convicted, but did not include the specific subsection. He therefore wrote in the subsection on the police report using different-colored ink and sent it to the FBI, along with a letter stating that the Ohio court "forgot" the subsection, but "it doesn't matter because everything under [that statute] is a misdemeanor." The FBI permitted him to purchase a gun.

         ¶ 7. Applicant then received a letter from the Ohio court stating that he had violated his probation by obtaining a gun and altering a court document. He responded that the Ohio court had no jurisdiction in Vermont, and that he had not altered a court document.

         ¶ 8. The docket entries for the case indicate that the Ohio court issued a warrant for applicant's arrest in July 2003 after applicant failed to appear at a probation violation hearing. In October 2004, applicant "entered admission of probation violation charge of altering a court document and submitting the altered court document to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to obtain a firearm in violation of a condition of probation." The docket entries also state that applicant was found guilty of contempt of court in violation of Ohio Revised Code 2705.05. His probation was extended until 2007 and he was again prohibited from owning or possessing firearms. The docket entries state that applicant had "repeatedly, despite admonition by court, sent written communication directly to the undersigned judge." The court ordered that all communications be made through applicant's attorney with service upon the prosecutor. Applicant subsequently filed numerous motions challenging the court's rulings, which were denied. His probation eventually expired in April 2007.

         ¶ 9. In 2008, applicant was convicted on a new charge of altering a court document. Applicant reported on his bar application that he pleaded guilty in October 2008, that the case was filed in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, and the case number was CR-07-500545-A. The Committee requested information relating to that case number. It received a case summary indicating that applicant was charged in 2007 with tampering with records, but the jury returned a "no bill, " meaning that they refused to indict applicant on this charge. Under a section labeled "Other Cases, " the summary lists another case number, CR-07-501796-A. This suggests that applicant actually entered his guilty plea in the latter case. The precise charge in that case is unclear from the record.

         ¶ 10. Applicant testified before the Committee that he did not know what document he was accused of altering in the 2008 case. He claimed that the prosecutor was known for bringing cases with no evidence, and was later asked to resign after an FBI raid. He pleaded guilty, but he could not remember the charge. He claimed that he never found out what the allegation against him was, but that he guessed it was related to his attempt to obtain a new gun after being convicted of improper storage of a firearm in Ohio. Applicant claimed that the docket entries in the case were falsified by the docket clerk, who later went to jail. He did not provide these docket entries to the Committee.

         ¶ 11. Applicant contended that he was the target of retaliation by an Ohio judge who ruled against him in an unrelated civil case in April 2007. Applicant sued his condominium association on behalf of himself and other condominium owners, alleging that the association overcharged the owners for a roof. According to him, the judge was unprepared, didn't know the law, and did a "terrible job." After the court entered judgment in favor of the association, applicant stood on the courthouse steps and passed out an "editorial" criticizing the judge. The editorial stated that applicant, while in the courtroom, "felt as if I was standing before an emotionally ill person pursuing his mania at the expense of professional standards." Applicant did not appeal the decision, however, because he "didn't think it would do any good." According to applicant, a few months after he distributed his editorial, he was charged with altering a court document.

         ¶ 12. Meanwhile, in 2006 applicant filed suit in Washington state court against his brother, whom he accused of stealing over $100, 000 from their mother's accounts. During the course of that litigation, he noticed that his brother's attorney was being paid from their mother's trust, which he felt was improper. He filed a complaint against the attorney with the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA). The WSBA refused to do anything, so he resubmitted his complaint. "[T]he next thing you know, " in September 2010 there was a formal complaint against him filed with the WSBA.

         ¶ 13. According to applicant, the complaint alleged that he had altered a court document and made frivolous filings. He called the WSBA and said "I'm a wonderful person. I exposed corruption in Ohio. You guys should give me a medal. I did what no one else would do." He filed suit in federal court seeking to enjoin the WSBA hearing. The federal court, in a "terrible ruling, " abstained. Applicant testified that he was unable to find an attorney to represent him before the WSBA, and that a local attorney told him "it doesn't matter how bad their case is and how good yours is, you're going to get hammered."

         ¶ 14. Applicant represented himself at the WSBA disciplinary hearing, which took place in September 2011. He testified that he provided over forty exculpatory exhibits to the WSBA at the disciplinary hearing. When he received the report summarizing the hearing, however, none of his exhibits had been admitted into the record. He claimed that "they stole all my evidence." He also claimed that the WSBA improperly modified the disciplinary complaint at the hearing to request disbarment instead of a lesser form of discipline.

         ¶ 15. In June 2012, applicant was disbarred. The WSBA Discipline Notice stated that applicant:

Falsified a document in connection with obtaining a gun permit and falsified records of criminal convictions;
Filed frivolous lawsuits and pleadings related to or stemming from his criminal convictions in Ohio;
Filed frivolous lawsuits and pleadings related to or stemming from his extradition from Vermont to Ohio in state and/or federal court;
Filed motions, claims, appeals, and/or writs without foundation in connection with one ...

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