Jul. 26, 2023
Recent attorney disbarments, suspensions, probations and public reprovals in California.
Alec John Baghdassarian
State Bar #265112, Pasadena (June 9, 2023)
Baghdassarian was disbarred by default.
He had earlier filed a response to the State Bar's notice of disciplinary charges and also attended an initial status conference, but subsequently failed to appear at an additional status conference, at a schedule pretrial conference, and at trial.
The State Bar Court determined that Baghdassarian had been properly served with an order of default in the case, but he failed to seek to have it set aside or vacated.
He was found culpable of all four counts charged: failing to perform legal services with competence, improperly withdrawing from representation, failing to return unearned advanced fees, and failing to cooperate in the State Bar's investigation of the wrongdoing alleged. All counts related to a single client matter.
At the time he was disbarred, Baghdassarian had one prior record of discipline, and there were additional disciplinary investigations pending against him.
Frank Thomas Buck
State Bar #68417, Suisun City (June 23, 2023)
Buck was disbarred by default after a disciplinary proceeding involving two consolidated matters: one, charging a failure to comply with the declaration requirements imposed in an earlier discipline matter (Cal. Rules of Ct., Rule 9.20), and the other, a conviction referral involving driving with a blood alcohol content of .08% or higher (Cal. Veh. Code § 23152(b)).
When the Office of Chief Trial Counsel contacted him by phone during the initial proceedings, Buck indicated he had retired and did not intend to respond. He then failed to participate in the proceeding, either in person or through counsel, and also failed to move to have the default subsequently entered against him set aside or vacated.
The State Bar Court found that all procedural requirements had been met--including actual notice--and that there was an adequate factual basis to find disciplinary misconduct.
Buck had been disciplined by the State Bar for professional misconduct twice before being disbarred in the instant case.
David Kenneth Jeffries
State Bar #81996, Lake Hughes (June 2, 2023)
Jeffries was disbarred by default after he did not participate in the disciplinary proceeding in which he was charged with a single count of professional misconduct: failing to cooperate in a State Bar investigation.
The evidence established that that all procedural requirements, including notice and entry of default, had been established, and that there was a satisfactory basis for professional discipline. He did not file a proper response to the notice of charges, nor did he move to have the default entered against him set aside or vacated.
Jeffries had been disciplined by the State Bar for professional misconduct on three prior occasions before being disbarred in the instant case.
Tyler Timothy Kieler
State Bar #257591, Rancho Santa Fe (June 18, 2023)
Kieler was disbarred after an appeal in which he was found culpable of five of the six counts with which he was found culpable by the hearing judge below. The panel on appeal also affirmed the judge's recommended discipline of disbarment.
His wrongdoing--all of which involved moral turpitude--included: intentionally misappropriating client funds, failing to disclose material information, and three counts of making misrepresentations to a party related to a loan transaction.
Relevant facts in the underlying matter: Kiehler consented to act as an escrow agent in assisting with a loan between a borrower and a company with which a client was affiliated. As part of the transaction, $65,000 in backup collateral funds were wired into Kiehler's client trust account. He then made several payment and withdrawals of the money, keeping $6,155 for himself--without informing the borrower or documenting the disbursements as mandated by the transaction agreements.
When contacted by a CPA auditing the borrower, Kiehler indicated he was holding the funds--which he had, in fact, removed from his client trust account 11 months earlier. He has not returned the funds despite numerous requests to do so.
When queried by State Bar investigators as to his business and professional relationship with the client, Kiehler denied that any existed--despite having represented him on previous occasions.
In aggravation, Kiehler committed multiple acts of wrongdoing, and demonstrated indifference about the consequences of his misconduct by repeatedly attempting to avoid responsibility for it, as well as a lack of candor and cooperation during the disciplinary proceedings against him.
In mitigation, he submitted good character evidence from six witnesses aware of the full extent of his wrongdoing, and was allotted limited weight for having practiced law for eight years without a record of discipline and for entering into a stipulation containing easily provable facts. He was also given nominal mitigating weight for evidence of performing community service that lacked specificity and detail.
Leora Rachel Lubliner
State Bar #268303, Lafayette (June 18, 2023)
Lubliner was disbarred by default after she failed to participate in the disciplinary proceedings in which she was charged with four counts of professional misconduct. The State Bar Court found that all procedural requirements had been met, including proper service of the charges and actual notice of the proceedings, and that there was an adequate factual basis for disciplinary misconduct. Lubliner did not move to have the default subsequently entered against her set aside or vacated.
She was found culpable of all counts charged: failing to cooperate in the State Bar's investigation of the wrongdoing alleged, failing to update her address in State Bar records, and two counts of failing to refund unearned advanced fees.
Steven Clifford Bailey
State Bar #146382, Placerville (June 9, 2023)
Bailey was suspended from practicing law for six months and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing numerous acts of professional misconduct in his capacity as a judicial officer. He was culpable of 12 counts of failing to support state and U.S. Constitution and laws. All the misconduct was held to have violated various canons related to judicial integrity and the appearance of impropriety.
In one instance, Bailey offered a testimonial about a judicial polling group that was posted on its website--including a link to his personal website identifying him as a judge and picturing him in his judicial robes in violation of judicial canons.
Three counts concerned Bailey's arrangements with an alcohol monitoring company at which his son was employed. In one matter, he referred five DUI defendants to the company; his son, who was paid on a commission basis, reported directly to him concerning monitoring and compliance of participants. In another matter, Bailey, as a sitting judge, ordered a defendant to pay restitution directly to his son's company--based on a letter his son had faxed to him. The father/son relationship was not disclosed.
In two cases, Bailey violated judicial canons by failing to disclose prior contacts and relationships with individuals--one of whom was the owner of the alcohol monitoring program at which his son worked, another he appointed as a special master though the appointee was not on the court-approved list.
In addition, Bailey was found to have accepted prohibited gifts and failed to adequately list his income and payments received on the Form 700 (Statement of Economic Interest) he had filed.
Bailey was also disciplined for his remarks in an open workplace cubicle during which he referred to gay men as "snappy dressers," for using his judicial title and office to influence his campaign for attorney general, as well as for soliciting and accepting funds before filing his Candidate Intention Statement for that office.
A final two counts of misconduct related to website posts that improperly referenced his judicial title, again in connection with his campaign for attorney general.
In aggravation, Bailey committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that were found to harm the public and administration of justice.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, practiced law for 18 years and sat as a judge for approximately nine years without a record of discipline. He also submitted letters from six individuals attesting to his good character, as well as evidence of having performed community service.
Brian R. Bird
State Bar #257565, Ventura (June 2, 2023)
Bird was suspended from the practice of law for 30 days and placed on probation for one year after he successfully completed the State Bar Court's Alternative Discipline Program (ADP).
He had earlier been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (Cal. Veh. Code § 23152(a)), driving with a blood alcohol content of .08% or more (Cal. Veh. Code § 23152(b)), and being involved in a hit and run accident (Cal. Veh. Code § 20002(a)). All the offenses are misdemeanors. The first two counts included special allegations that Bird had a prior conviction for a DUI, in which his blood alcohol content had been .15% or higher (Cal. Veh. Code § 23578).
While the second DUI matter was pending, Bird was arrested for a third DUI offense in violation of the probation in effect.
Bird stipulated that the facts and circumstances surrounding his conviction did not involve moral turpitude, but did involve other misconduct warranting professional discipline.
Both parties stipulated that Bird's multiple acts of misconduct was an aggravating circumstance, and he was allotted mitigating weight for having no prior record of discipline and for entering into an ADP stipulation--though the stipulation was given only nominal weight, as it was a qualifying prerequisite for participating in the ADP.
James Joseph Jimmerson
State Bar #74593, Las Vegas, Nevada (June 2, 2023)
Jimmerson was suspended for 60 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing professional misconduct in another jurisdiction.
The Southern Nevada Disciplinary Board found that Jimmerson had made five withdrawals from his client trust account that violated its Rules of Professional Conduct. Specifically, he withdrew funds that were not yet paid by clients on four separate occasions and negligently withdrew funds in another instance.
He was disciplined in Nevada with a public reproval.
The California State Bar Court found that the Nevada proceeding had provided fundamental constitutional protection and that the counts of misconduct involved were tantamount to violations in California: failing to maintain client funds in a trust account and failing to maintain records of client funds.
The instant case focused on Jimmerson's failure to report the discipline imposed by the Nevada Supreme Court within 30 days of the time he had knowledge of it.
In aggravation, Jimmerson committed multiple acts of wrongdoing and had a prior record of discipline.
In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation, suffered from emotional difficulties due to the unexpected death of his son seven months before the misconduct occurred, and provided seven letters from members of the legal community vouching for his good character as well as evidence of providing pro bono legal services. In addition, he was allotted mitigating credit for taking preemptive action to hire a bookkeeper and reconcile the account that was the subject of this proceeding.
Pamela Gayle Lacher
State Bar #174895 San Diego (June 9, 2023)
Lacher was suspended from practicing law for 90 days and placed on probation for one year after an appeal of that same discipline recomended by the hearing judge.
The panel on appeal, however, found Lacher culpable of one less count of misconduct. In the present case, she was found culpable of failure to pay client funds promptly, failing to maintain client funds in a trust account, failing to render an accounting of client funds, and failing to promptly release a client file after terminating services. All charges related to a single client case.
In that case, Lacher was retained to represent a client in a personal injury matter. As settlement discussions proceeded, the client became concerned that Lacher was not providing him with sufficient information. She refused to sign a blank substitution of attorney form that he tendered, advising him to have his new attorney contact her for the file and substitution. In the meantime, Lacher continued to work on the case, securing a settlement of $215,000; the settlement agreement included a section requiring "strict confidentiality" about the terms and parties involved.
Lacher received the settlement check and deposited it into her client trust account. Money matters between the two became complicated when the client sought a judgment against her in an unrelated matter. Lacher proposed a distribution of the settlement: $26,713.80 in liens, $71,666.66 in attorney fees, and the remainder to the client; no deductions were made for costs. She distributed the fee amount to herself in two installments, but did not pay the client any portion of the settlement--claiming she was negotiating an outstanding lien in the case and questioning a possible violation of the confidentiality section of the settlement agreement.
The client eventually hired another attorney to assist in getting the settlement funds. However, Lacher refused to relinquish the client files or pay the funds, stating she could not be terminated because she was still working on the liens related to the case. When a pending lienholder informed her of the final amount due, she texted the client that she could attempt to negotiate a reduction; the client's new attorney informed her she was improperly communicating with a represented party.
Lacher continued to send text messages to the client, who at one point responded: "As I told you before, you are no longer my lawyer." He then asked again for his file and settlement money; Lacher again refused, claiming she was "responsible for the liens."
Eventually, Lacher wired money to the client--though the amount was $1,346.67 less than the total required under their initial contingency agreement.
In aggravation, Lacher had a prior record of discipline and committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that significantly harmed her client.
In mitigation, she cooperated with the State Bar by entering into a stipulation supporting culpability.
State Bar #281893, Los Angeles (June 9, 2023)
McCall was suspended from the practice of law for 30 days and placed on probation for one year after she stipulated to earlier entering a plea of nolo contendere to one count of driving with a blood alcohol level of .08 or higher (Cal. Veh. Code 23152(b)).
The matter was referred to the State Bar Court's Hearing Department for a determination of whether the facts and circumstances surrounding the offense involved moral turpitude or some other misconduct warranting professional discipline.
The instant proceeding stemmed from highway collisions in which McCall was involved. She initially collided with another car, damaging its side mirror. When the driver approached her, she denied being involved--then drove away at a high rate of speed. A short time later, she collided with a fire engine that was turning at an intersection; she then put her car in reverse and sped away. At some point, her 13-year-old daughter, who had been a passenger in the vehicle, got out and sat on the stoop of a nearby building.
McCall then collided with a third vehicle parked in a residential area; the incident was observed by officers in a police helicopter sent to pursue her. Officers at the scene observed fresh dents and scratches on her car. McCall denied being under the influence of alcohol and became agitated when arrested; she was restrained on a gurney, with a spit guard on her face, when transported on a gurney in an ambulance. She could not recall the whereabouts of her daughter, who had called her father to pick her up at the roadside. A later test at the hospital indicated McCall had a blood alcohol level of .17%.
The State Bar Court judge found the violation at issue did not involve moral turpitude, but did warrant professional discipline.
In aggravation, McCall committed multiple acts of misconduct that significantly harmed the community and the administration of justice.
In mitigation, she entered into a pretrial stipulation and had practiced law for more than nine years without a record of discipline.
David Michael Simonini
State Bar #64615, San Rafael (June 9, 2023)
Simonini was suspended for 60 days and placed on probation for one year. He was given credit for the period of interim suspension, which commenced on November 14, 2022.
Simonini had earlier entered guilty pleas to one count of making criminal threats (Cal. Penal Code § 422)--a felony, and to one misdemeanor count of battery (Cal. Penal Code § 243(e)(1)). The State Bar Court found that the facts and circumstances surrounding the violations did not involve moral turpitude, but did involve other misconduct that warranted professional discipline.
The facts underlying the convictions involved an incident in which Simonini and his wife went out for a social evening with another couple, who were longtime friends. All of them drank "numerous alcoholic beverages," then went to the Simoninis' residence and drank additional alcohol. At some point, Simonini went to sleep, drowsy from the combination of alcohol and prescription medication he had taken. When he awoke a while later, he found the couple and his wife engaged in sexual activity. Simonini's arm was in a sling due to an earlier injury, but he pulled his wife away from the interaction--and ordered the male in the couple to leave the house, and when he refused, Simonini went upstairs and returned with a gun he had stored there. The two men scuffled, and the gun was fired--hitting Simonini's friend in the foot. Neighbors summoned the police, who found the injured man outside and Simonini asleep in his bedroom.
In mitigation, Simonini entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practiced law discipline-free for approximately 44 years without a record of discipline, and provided evidence of performing pro bono services, as well as letters from 52 individuals taken from a range in the legal and general communities--all of whom were aware of the specific misconduct at issue and attested to his good character.
Terry Reed Spencer
State Bar #155146, Sandy, Utah (June 2, 2023)
Spencer was suspended from the practice of law for one year and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing three acts of professional misconduct related to two client matters: charging and attempting to collect numerous unconscionable fees and two counts of making material misrepresentations to a client and to the court.
The violations occurred in Utah, where he was found culpable and actually suspended from practicing in that jurisdiction for six months and one day.
The California State Bar Court found that the Utah disciplinary proceeding provided fundamental constitutional protection, and also warranted discipline in this state.
In one of the underlying matters, Spencer began representing a client in the property distribution portion of her divorce case, presenting her with a fee agreement that she did not sign for approximately six months. In the meantime, Spencer made appearances in the divorce matter and also began representing the client in an ongoing real estate case that included lots encumbered by a promissory note and trust deed. To prevent a threatened bank foreclosure, the client's father purchased the promissory note with Spencer's assistance--which including providing $8,155 in capital. The father and Spencer entered a payment agreement that included the amount Spencer had advanced. The original client was not a party to the agreement, nor did she agree to be responsible for her father's debts.
After addressing a simple matter--a typo in the property title--Spencer charged the client $8,200 for that purported work. With a tax sale impending on one of the client's lots, Spencer drafted a repayment agreement in which he agreed to pay nearly $6,000 and she agreed to pay back $7,500 upon the closing of the first lot she owned. It was then that Spencer presented her with a notice of an attorney lien for work performed previously; he did not explain any specifics of the amount, nor that it included a substantial amount--$27,155--that her father owed Spencer. Subsequent billing statements show he billed for 19 hours of work--an amount he admitted at trial was "unreasonable." He continued to bill the client for various work allegedly performed even after she had terminated his services. It was subsequently determined that Spencer's attorney's lien on one of the lots was wrongful.
In the second client matter, Spencer represented the husband in a pending divorce and protective order action. A court ordered temporary use and possession of the couple's marital residence to the wife--with the sale proceeds to be placed in trust. Spencer then filed a breach of contract action against his client and the estranged wife in another court on behalf of his client's mother, alleging she had failed to make loan payments on the property as agreed earlier. In his motion to the court, Spencer failed to mention that the subject property was under court order directing sale proceeds to be held in trust. The client then quit claimed the property to Spencer; the court in the original divorce matter subsequently found it was the couple's marital property.
In aggravation, Spencer committed multiple acts of wrongdoing.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and had actively practiced law in California discipline-free for approximately 17 years.
Robert John Stroj
State Bar #242982, San Clemente (June 18, 2023)
Stroj was suspended from practicing law for two years and placed on probation for three years.
His disciplinary proceeding originated from Stroj's felony conviction for aiding and abetting an illegal bookmaking business (18 U.S.C. §§ 2 and 1955).
Stroj had appealed the Review Department's determination that the violation involved moral turpitude per se, but the State Bar Court ultimately determined that the facts and circumstances surrounding the crime did in fact involve it. Specifically, it noted that Stroj's conduct "involved deceptive behavior and a flagrant disrespect for the law and societal norms and unquestionably demonstrates that he has failed to fulfill his ethical obligation to support the laws of the United States and to maintain the respect due to the court of justice."
Stroj pled guilty to conducting and directing a bookmaking business over a 10-month period--a business that involved at least five people and garnered a gross revenue of at least $2,000 per day on numerous days. During an FBI investigation, he had been identified as a "sub-agent" or "sub-bookie" in an illegal gambling business involving sports betting operated by his brother. The profits generated were laundered in part through casinos, card rooms, and various bank accounts.
Initially, Stroj participated only through a personal online betting account, regularly placing bets on sporting events. While he did not actively recruit clients to the bookmaking business, he "facilitated the creation" of accounts for personal contacts--in particular, three friends, a co-worker, and his brother-in-law.
Stroj also served as a broker for payments between his customers and his brother, and the brother applied a 20% "discount" for their losses. In addition, he helped transfer "tens of thousands of dollars" in cash payments for gambling proceeds, delivered a $60,000 gambling debt in the form of casino chips, and allowed his cohorts to deposit gambling losses into his personal bank account on at least three occasions.
In mitigation, Stroj practiced law discipline-free for approximately 14 years and presented evidence of performing pro bono work and community service. He also was allotted moderate mitigating weight for cooperating with government investigators, for demonstrating remorse, and for evidence from 18 character witnesses--many of whom were not aware of the full extent of his misconduct. In addition, he was granted limited mitigating weight for suffering from various emotional difficulties that triggered his involvement in the misconduct at issue.
Paal Hjalmar Bakstad
State Bar #213630, Sherman Oaks (June 18, 2023)
Bakstad was placed on probation for 18 months following his successful completion of the State Bar Court's Alternative Discipline Program (ADP).
He had earlier been convicted of three misdemeanors: one count of willfully disturbing the peace (Cal. Penal Code § 415(2) and two counts of driving with a blood alcohol content of .08% or more (Cal. Veh. Code § 23152(b)). The three violations occurred in separate incidents and were consolidated in a single disciplinary proceeding.
Bakstad then submitted a statement to the State Bar Court, establishing a nexus between his alcoholism and the criminal misconduct at issue, and was admitted to the ADP.
The court-approved stipulation in the matter established that the facts and circumstances surrounding each conviction did not involve moral turpitude, but did involve other misconduct warranting discipline.
In aggravation, Bakstad committed multiple acts of misconduct.
In mitigation, he had practiced law discipline-free for approximately 20 years, successfully completed the ADP, and was allotted nominal weight for entering into a stipulation, which was a prerequisite for participating in the program.
Mark J. Hannon
State Bar #107829, Stockton (June 9, 2023)
Hannon was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing several acts of professional misconduct.
His wrongdoing included: employing an ineligible attorney to represent a client and enabling him to practice, commingling personal and client funds in a client trust account, and failing to maintain appropriate records of client funds.
Hannon purchased a law firm from another lawyer who had been suspended from practicing law in accord with a disciplinary order, and became the sole shareholder, president, treasurer, CEO, CFO, director and agent for service of process of the firm. He also mailed a letter to the State Bar signaling his intent to employ the suspended lawyer as a paralegal.
Both Hannon and the disciplined lawyer appeared at a hearing for a client declaring bankruptcy, at which four judges and a bankruptcy trustee expressed concern over the suspended layer's involvement. In fact, he subsequently filed a response, request for continuance, and a status report that included his bar number, and also appeared as a representative for bankruptcy clients and engaged in other transactions that constituted the practice of law. In addition, the suspended lawyer maintained a bank account and was a signatory on additional accounts that Hannon maintained in which client funds were held and processed.
In the two counts related to mishandling client funds, State Bar investigators found Hannon had deposited personal funds into his trust account on three occasions and failed to maintain a trust account journal, written ledgers, or monthly reconciliations of the client funds.
In aggravation, Hannon committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that significantly harmed the administration of justice related to proceedings in which the ineligible attorney's funds were disgorged.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and had practiced law for approximately 36 years without a record of discipline.
Michael Christian Steele
State Bar #274633, Indianapolis, Indiana (June 2, 2023)
Steele was placed on probation for one year in a conviction referral matter.
The State Bar Court received proof of the finality of his conviction of a misdemeanor committed in Indiana: invasion of privacy (Ind. Code Ann. § 35-46-1-15.1(a)(1)). The instant proceeding was held to determine whether the facts and circumstances surrounding the violation involved moral turpitude or other disciplinable misconduct.
An Indiana court had issued a civil protection order prohibiting Steele from "harassing, annoying, telephoning, contacting, or directly or indirectly communicating with" his former romantic partner. While the order was in effect, he sent her a text message threatening to have her and her two children "locked up in jail" and proclaiming he would "show the whole world, in video, exactly the whore you are." In response, the local prosecutor filed a criminal information against Steele, who admitted during a bench trial of the matter that he had sent the offensive text.
In both his criminal and disciplinary trials, Steele defended that he sent the message because he was "desperate" to be heard in the protective order proceedings, as that order was issued ex parte, and he needed to violate the order to get the judge to pay attention. Steele later expressed the view that his strategy was a success.
The State Bar Court found that while Steele was culpable of knowingly violating a court order--a disciplinable act--his misconduct did not fit within the definition of moral turpitude.
In aggravation, Steele demonstrated a lack of insight into the wrongfulness of his behavior--vowing he would "do the exact same thing again" and that he would "apologize for nothing."
In mitigation, he was allotted nominal weight for having practiced law for approximately nine years without a record of discipline.--Barbara Kate Repa