Twenty-eight lawyers in this area have been punished by the California State Bar in the past five years for stealing from clients, fabricating documents, lying to judges, domestic violence, drug possession and more, a Modesto Bee analysis finds.
Of those, 16 were disbarred or otherwise rendered ineligible to practice law, two died and 10 were cleared to continue working. Of 11 kicked out of the profession, more than half – six – practiced in Stanislaus County, with three in its larger neighbor, San Joaquin County, and two in tiny Calaveras County.
Not included is defense attorney Amber Lunsford, whose jail-visit privileges were revoked after a deputy allegedly caught her in a sexual act with a client in a Modesto jail meeting room in November. A spokeswoman for the State Bar, which had a Hollister attorney disbarred because the man had engaged in sexual relations with two incarcerated women, refused to say whether the bar is investigating Lunsford.
Weeding out the bad actors is crucial to protecting consumers, advocates for the State Bar say. Its discipline system shields “the public, the courts and the profession from attorneys who violate ethical rules,” its website reads.
For example, at least 1,800 attorneys were investigated from 2009 to 2014 after the bar received more than 14,000 complaints of mishandling loan modifications when a foreclosure crisis rocked the Golden State. The bar looked into 19 such Stanislaus complaints and six in San Joaquin County, leading to several enforcement actions.
But the State Bar is embroiled in withering turmoil and critics are not hard to find.
“Morale at the State Bar is as low as anyone can remember,” said Los Angeles’ Mark Geragos, who represented Modesto’s Scott Peterson in a blockbuster 2004 capital murder trial. Geragos has practiced law 32 years and represents “seven different whistleblowers at the upper echelons of the bar,” he said, including its executive director, who was fired in November.
Geragos’ top client, Joseph Dunn, is suing to get back his job, saying he was sacked after exposing a cover-up of the State Bar’s ethical problems.
Meanwhile, the state auditor’s current biennial review of the State Bar is expected to include a controversial backlog of complaints against attorneys; a 19-member commission is revising ethical rules for lawyers, which haven’t been updated in 28 years; and some federal judges recently rekindled criticism of what they see as a pattern of California judges turning a blind eye to prosecutorial misconduct.
If that weren’t enough, a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a North Carolina anti-trust case prompted a San Diego law school and two consumer organizations to question whether lawyers should police their own.
State Bar reform is just what a former attorney in Modesto has sought since he was disbarred three years ago.
“It’s a dysfunctional system running roughshod over a lot of different people,” said Tore Dahlin. He has established a website, produced documentaries running longer than five hours and is shopping to legislators a proposed bill – all aimed at changing the structure of the State Bar Court.
The upheaval has not distracted State Bar prosecutors from their focus of protecting the public from unscrupulous attorneys, said bar spokeswoman Laura Ernde, as well as two Los Angeles attorneys who make a living defending attorneys targeted for discipline.
“I don’t think (the disarray) is bleeding into the State Bar Court,” said Diane Karpman, who specializes in legal malpractice.
Arthur Margolis, who has defended accused attorneys for nearly three decades, said State Bar Court judges used to be notoriously pro-prosecution. In the past two or three years, he said, “it’s become far more independent and done what it ought to do – insist that prosecutors actually support their cases.”
Most of the 28 attorneys recently disciplined in Stanislaus, Merced, San Joaquin, Tuolumne and Calaveras counties declined to talk about allegations that landed them in hot water. A few did, though – some charging that the State Bar ignores large firms with money and influence, preferring to bully small law offices with few resources to defend themselves.
“The kind of prevalent opinion is that the State Bar Court is a kangaroo court and pretty draconian in what they do,” said Stockton attorney Roger Moore, who was suspended for 30 days last year for lax representation in a slip-and-fall case. “Some lawyers call it a witch hunt.
“In my case, I tried to turn it into a positive. You take a good hard look at yourself and make the corrections. But (I did feel), ‘Why are you picking on me when so many others do far, far worse?’”
Karpman said, “If a big firm gets into trouble, they blame it on the dead partner or find a sacrificial lamb, the newest hire. If you’re solo, there is no dead partner or sacrificial lamb.”
Oakdale attorney Frederick “Rick” Smith said his brush with the State Bar did not result from a client’s complaint, but from relatives of a dead client looking for a larger inheritance. “Facts” presented by State Bar prosecutors were “incomplete and distorted,” he said, and last year he was placed on two years’ probation.
Stephen Diamond of San Bernardino County has blogged about Dahlin’s disbarment and also his own, in 2008. He said the State Bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel, which prosecutes complaints against attorneys, is “particularly diseased,” and “prosecutorial discretion has become tyrannical.”
Clint Parish, a Sonora lawyer, said there seems to be a pattern of accused attorneys successfully overturning discipline on appeal, but pursuing appeals can cost tens of thousands of dollars that the accused must pay, win or lose.
“Life is what life is,” said Parish, who in February was publicly reproved for making false statements when running for judge in Yolo County, where he was a prosecutor, in 2012. He had accused his opponent, a sitting judge, of corporate fraud and bribery.
Dahlin, of Modesto, spent years defending charges of mishandling clients’ money. Faced with a potential $80,000 tab to continue fighting, he threw in the towel, he said, and retired.
“Obviously, if there has been some genuine misconduct, the bar should go after the lawyers,” Dahlin said. “But they’re not going to get their numbers up if they put a lot of resources into big cases fought by large firms. It’s much easier to go after smaller lawyers and steamroll through that process so when they submit their report every year (to the Supreme Court, the Legislature and the governor), they show better numbers and everyone is happy, except the lawyers who got (caught) in the system.”
Dahlin’s legislation would move State Bar judges to superior courts; currently, their paychecks come from the same place as those of State Bar prosecutors, creating an inherent conflict, he said.
So far, no lawmaker has shown interest.
More than three fourths of the State Bar’s $140 million yearly budget supports its enforcement component. Most of the money comes from attorneys themselves. All 253,000 lawyers in California belong to the bar, the majority paying $430 a year for active law licenses.
Full-time bar judges try discipline cases, recommending disbarment for serious misconduct. The judges can issue punishment for lesser offenses such as public reprovals, while the California Supreme Court rules on suspensions and disbarments.
Local groups, such as the 300-member Stanislaus County Bar Association, are “voluntary trade organizations, while the State Bar is a regulatory body,” Ernde said. The local groups provide referrals to prospective clients, allow attorneys to network and coordinate their ongoing training.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court in February issued a North Carolina ruling frowning on a dental association freezing non-dentists out of teeth-whitening services. Consumer advocates question whether the antitrust decision – challenging the fairness of an industry policing its own, rather than being regulated by another arm of the state – should apply to other trade organizations such as state bars.
The University of San Diego School of Law, the Consumers Union and the Citizen Advocacy Center sent a May 4 letter to attorneys general of all states warning that state bars are “theoretically vulnerable to federal felony prosecution” unless their enforcement system is overseen by others. Occupational licensing boards that regulate accountants, doctors, brokers, barbers and other trades don’t serve the public interest if regulated by themselves, the consumer advocates say.
“The State Bar is not long for this world,” Geragos predicted, “as presently constituted.”
Garth Stapley: (209) 578-2390
Want to complain about an attorney? The State Bar’s hotline is (800) 843-9053, or go to www.calbar.ca.gov/Attorneys/LawyerRegulation.aspx.