Friday, March 2, 2012

Understanding (And Taking Advantage Of) The 1%

The March 2012 California Bar Journal has a summary of a bar discipline case:

[An attorney] was suspended for three years, stayed, placed on three years of probation with a two-year actual suspension and until he makes restitution and proves his rehabilitation, and he was ordered to take the MPRE and comply with rule 9.20 of the California Rules of Court. The order took effect July 8, 2011.

A State Bar Court review panel found [he] committed six acts of misconduct in three matters, beginning three years after his admission to the bar in 2000. He disobeyed two court orders, charged an unconscionable fee, committed an act of moral turpitude, performed incompetently and failed to communicate with clients. Both the hearing judge and the review panel found it significant that [he] blamed others for his misconduct and was dishonest in trial testimony.

[The attorney] sought review, claiming the bar failed to prove the charges against him.

In the first matter, he represented the plaintiff in a civil case, but he was sanctioned for not attending a hearing. He neither paid the sanctions nor filed a declaration that he had done so. He missed a second hearing but paid the sanctions later. The review panel found that he failed to obey court orders.

Despite only three years of practice, [the attorney] was hired to handle a dissolution in which the community estate was worth between $40-60 million. His client, however, was an unemployed high school graduate with two children; they were living in a hotel at the time. Although the client wanted to ascertain the estate’s assets, she said [his] “biggest concern was getting paid attorneys fees.”

Although the client lived in San Diego, [the attorney] filed the case in Los Angeles, believing L.A. judges understood wealthy clients. The client denied that she asked him to file the case there, despite his assertions. He agreed to dismiss the petition in Los Angeles in exchange for $25,000 in monthly spousal support and $35,000 advance attorney fees. But when [he] responded to the husband’s dissolution petition in San Diego, he asked for monthly spousal support of $61,150 and fees and costs totaling $37,275. He included a declaration signed by his client attesting to the fees owed, although he had never sent her any billing statements. The client fired him and her new attorney immediately obtained a temporary support order for $75,000 per month.

[He] then billed and sued the client for additional fees that totaled nearly $93,000. A family law expert testified that his legal services were worth about $10,000 and the judge found found the evidence was “just over the top,” that it was“almost shameful when you look at what happened here, the price that was charged, and then to think that someone would come in and ask for almost $93,000 for this level of services is just unconscionable.” The judge said Nownejad was entitled to $10,000 and awarded his client $15,000 in restitution, which he hasn’t paid.

The review panel found that [he] charged an unconscionable fee and committed an act of moral turpitude by taking advantage of his client and trying to collect a windfall from her.

The review judges found that [he] essentially abandoned two other clients by failing to appear at scheduled hearings, respond to discovery requests, or take any action to set aside the dismissal. They also found that he intentionally allowed the case to be dismissed and did not notify his clients for almost one year. He also did not respond to his client’s many efforts to communicate with him.

There was no mitigation.

(Mike Frisch)

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