Aug. 29, 2023
Recent attorney disbarments, suspensions, probations and public reprovals in California.
Justin P. Cannon
State Bar #289715, Woodland Hills (July 15, 2023)
Cannon was disbarred by default after failing to respond to the notices of disciplinary charges filed against him.
He appeared at an initial status conference in the matter--at which the court set pretrial and trial dates and consolidated two disciplinary proceedings. However, despite having actual notice, Cannon did not otherwise participate. A default was then entered against him, which he did not move to have set aside or vacated.
As a result, the factual allegations in the charges were deemed true, and Cannon was found culpable of eight counts of professional misconduct.
In one of the consolidated cases, he violated a court rule by failing to file a declaration of compliance as required by the terms of a disciplinary suspension (Cal. Rules of Ct., Rule 9.20). In the other, a client matter, his wrongdoing included: failing to inform the client of significant case developments, failing to respond to reasonable client inquiries, improperly withdrawing from representation, failing to cooperate in the State Bar's investigation of the wrongdoing alleged, and two counts of failing to perform legal services with competence. He also failed to comply with conditions imposed in an earlier disciplinary order--specifically, failing to participate in an initial meeting with the Office of Probation and to submit two quarterly written reports when due.
Cannon had one prior record of discipline when he was disbarred in the instant case.
Alyson Jean Dykes
State Bar #319835, Los Angeles (July 7, 2023)
Dykes was disbarred by default.
She did not file a response to the notice of disciplinary charges or participate in her disciplinary proceeding, either in person or through counsel--nor did she move to have the default entered against her set aside or vacated.
The State Bar Court was satisfied that all procedural requirements had been satisfied. Consequently, the factual allegations in the notice of disciplinary charges filed in the case were deemed admitted with not further proof required, and Dykes was found culpable of all seven counts of professional misconduct charged.
Her wrongdoing--all of which related to a single client matter--included: failing to perform legal services with competence, failing to act with reasonable diligence, failing to maintain client funds in trust, improperly withdrawing from employment, failing to respond to reasonable client inquiries, failing to refund unearned advanced fees, and failing to cooperate in the State Bar's investigation of the misconduct alleged.
Katie R.J. Lichter
State Bar #314441, Portland, Oregon (July 21, 2023)
Lichter was disbarred by default after she failed to participate, either in person or through counsel, in the disciplinary proceeding in which she was charged with five counts of professional misconduct related to a single client matter.
The State Bar's Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC) initially contacted Lichter by phone, communicating the intent to file a notice of disciplinary charges against her. She then expressed her understanding and informed the OCTC that she had no intent to respond to the charges and planned instead to submit an application for her resignation.
The State Bar Court determined that all procedural requirements had been satisfied in the instant case, and that Lichter did not move to have the default eventually entered against her set aside or vacated. It also found that the factual allegations in the filed charges supported the conclusion that Lichter was culpable of all counts charged. Those counts included: failing to perform legal services with competence, failing to inform the client of significant case developments, failing to cooperate in the State Bar's investigation of the wrongdoing alleged, and failing to update her member ship address on official records. An additional count was found to involve moral turpitude: making false and misleading statement to her client, claiming that she had filed an asylum application when she had not done so.
There was one additional disciplinary case pending against Lichter at the time she was disbarred.
Rogelio Vergara Morales
State Bar #270706, Riverside (July 29, 2023)
Morales was summarily disbarred.
A jury had earlier convicted him of 60 counts of various offenses, most of them felonies--and he was then suspended from practicing law pending final disposition of the instant proceeding.
Some of the convictions were later reversed. Those affirmed included offering a forged instrument (Cal. Penal Code § 115)--a felony involving moral turpitude, and numerous counts that the State Bar determined may or may not involve moral turpitude: stalking (Cal. Penal Code § 646.9(b), as well as 12 counts of disobeying court orders (Cal. Penal Code § 166(a)(4)). Morales was then sentenced to serve three years and eight months in state prison.
The instant proceeding focused on the forgery conviction. Though Morales contended that the conviction was not final because he had filed a habeas corpus writ, the State Bar Court held the pendency of that petition did not affect the finality of his conviction for disciplinary purposes. It then found that single conviction of a felony involved moral turpitude and warranted disbarment.
Raymond David Mortier
State Bar #163120, La Jolla (July 29, 2023)
Mortier was disbarred by default after he failed to appear in the disciplinary trial in which he was charged with 58 counts of professional misconduct related to seven client matters and four bank reportable action matters.
Mortier filed responses to the first and second notices of disciplinary charges with which he was served, and attended related status conferences, as well as an initial trial at which he requested a continuance; the court denied that request. Mortier left the proceeding shortly afterward, and a default was entered against him in the case. He was then placed on involuntary inactive status. He did not move to have the default order set aside or vacated, nor did he file a response to the later petition for disbarment.
In the first matter, he was found culpable of failing to comply with several conditions imposed in an earlier reproval order.
In the second, he was charged with 57 counts of misconduct. The State Bar Court in the instant case dismissed numerous counts, but found that the factual allegations supported culpability for 41 of them. Two of those counts were dismissed at the trial's outset.
The remaining wrongdoing included: failing to perform legal services with competence, failing to promptly communicate a settlement offer to a client, failing to release a client's file upon request, failing to render an appropriate accounting of client funds and conducting an improper business transaction with a client.
He was also culpable of multiple counts of failing to deposit client funds in a trust account, mishandling mortgage loan matters, improperly withdrawing from employment, failing to notify clients of funds received on their behalf, and failing to inform clients of recent case developments; as well as five counts of failing to respond to reasonable client inquiries; and eight counts of failing to cooperate in disciplinary proceedings of the wrongdoing alleged.
An additional 11 counts involved moral turpitude: one count of misappropriating client funds, two counts of making material misrepresentations to clients, three counts of forging signature on a clients' check without obtaining advance permission, and five counts of issuing checks knowing there were insufficient funds in the client trust account to cover them.
Mortier had one prior record of discipline, and at the time he was disbarred, there were two abated disciplinary investigations pending against him.
George Vincent Vargas
State Bar #234005, Laguna Hills (July 7, 2023)
Vargas was disbarred by default after he did not file a response to the notice of charges filed against him or otherwise participate in his disciplinary proceeding.
The State Bar Court determined that all procedural requirements, including proper notice, had been satisfied--and that Vargas did not seek to have the default entered in the case set aside or vacated.
He was found culpable of one count of failing to comply with probation conditions set out in an earlier disciplinary order. Specifically, he failed to schedule an initial meeting with the Office of Probation, failed to file a declaration attesting to having read the Rules of Professional Conduct and specified sections of the Business and Professions Code, failed to submit four quarterly written reports, and failed to submit proof of completing the State Bar's Ethics School and passing its final test.
Vargas had been disciplined for professional misconduct three times previously and there were two other disciplinary investigations pending against him at the time he was disbarred in the instant case.
State Bar #239181, Los Angeles (July 29, 2023)
Adams was suspended from the practice of law for 60 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing seven acts of professional misconduct related to two client matters.
Specifically, he was culpable of failing to perform legal services with competence and failing to diligently represent a client, as well as two counts each of failing to respond to reasonable client inquiries and failing to keep clients reasonably informed of significant case developments. An additional count involved moral turpitude: making a negligent misrepresentation about the case status to a client.
In one client matter, Adams was hired to prepare and file a petition for an O-1B visa, designated for individuals with exceptional knowledge in film, television, or the arts. There was urgency in the filing, as the client's employment status was dependent on securing a petition decision 3 1/2 months later. The client approved the draft petition, and despite numerous urgings from the client, Adams failed to file the petition in time. When he did file by expedited service, the petition was rejected--and the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) later issued a notice of intent to deny the petition. Adams failed to file a response to the notice, and USCIS eventually denied the petition, based on abandonment. Adams ignored numerous requests for an update in the matter.
The other client matter also involved petitioning for O-1B visas for a brother and sister, in which time again was of the essence. Adams failed to file the brother's petition by the necessary date, though he failed to inform the client of that fact or the reality that an expired status could mean the client would be barred from reentering the United States for periods of several years. Adams failed to respond to the client's numerous requests for updates on the petition status. Ultimately, both the brother's and sister's petitions were denied.
In aggravation, Adams committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that significantly harmed his clients.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practiced law discipline-free for 13 1/2 years, and provided references from eight individuals who attested to his good character and charitable work--though that mitigation was tempered by the failure to establish that the references were aware of the full extent of his misconduct.
Robert Lewis Bachman
State Bar #56489, Tustin (July 7, 2023)
Bachman was suspended from practicing law for 18 months and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing two acts of professional conduct related to a single client case. In handling that matter, he failed to maintain the balance required in his client trust account and misappropriated client funds from it--an act involving moral turpitude.
Relevant facts included that Bachman received funds wired into his client trust account on behalf of an estate; they were to be held in trust until a court authorized their release.
However, during a 13-month period, Bachman withdrew more than $82,000 in funds belonging to the estate. During that time, Bachman and his wife and son all experienced severe medical difficulties. He attempted to replenish the funds before the probate court ordered their release--and was able to do so before the State Bar sent an initial letter investigating the matter.
In aggravation, Bachman committed multiple acts of wrongdoing.
In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation, had practiced law discipline-free for approximately 49 years, provided good character letters from nine individuals taken from a range in the legal and general communities, and made restitution in the matter before any disciplinary proceedings were threatened. He was also given mitigating credit for suffering emotional and physical difficulties due to his own and family members' health conditions during the time of the misconduct, which was supported by medical records and declarations.
State Bar #227702, West Covina (July 29, 2023)
Castellanos was suspended for two years and placed on probation for three years after he stipulated to committing seven acts of professional misconduct related to two client cases.
His wrongdoing in one case included: violating the law prohibiting unauthorized practice, practicing law while not entitled to do so--an act involving moral turpitude, disobeying a court order, and making a material misrepresentation on a court-filed declaration--another act involving moral turpitude. In the second case, he was culpable of failing to notify his clients of his disciplinary suspension as required, as well as two counts of failing to properly notify opposing parties and their counsel of his suspended status.
All the charges related to the fact that Castellanos was subject to an earlier suspension order, which included six months of actual suspension--though the court agreed to delay the date of the suspension by two months upon Castellanos's motion. The terms of the suspension included a duty to inform "all clients being represented in pending matters" as well as opposing counsel, parties, and relevant courts, and to notify the State Bar's office of Chief Trial Counsel that he had complied.
At the time he was suspended, Castellanos represented clients in 11 pending matters.
While suspended and ineligible to practice law, Castellanos appeared at a hearing and prepared and submitted a related order in one case--without notifying the client or opposing party that he was actually suspended. However, he filed a declaration under oath with the State Bar falsely attesting that he had notified all clients and co-counsel, as well as opposing counsel or adverse parties of his suspended status. He later counseled the client by phone and sent a follow-up letter identifying himself as her counsel, but again failed to mention his suspension.
Though he filed some declarations notifying the court of his impending suspension, he failed to properly notify all clients, opposing counsel, and opposing parties by certified mail as required.
In aggravation, Castellanos had a prior record of discipline and committed multiple acts of wrongdoing in the instant case.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, provided evidence of performing volunteer and community service, and provided evidence of his good character as attested to by letters from seven individuals--though the weight of that evidence was diminished by the fact that they expressed little understanding of the misconduct charged.
Stephen John Coghlan
State Bar #203376, San Francisco (July 7, 2023)
Coghlan was suspended from the practice of law for six months and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing three acts of professional misconduct related to two separate client cases.
He was culpable of failing to perform legal services with competence, failing to inform a client of a significant case development, and entering into a business transaction with a client without first disclosing its terms, advising of the right to independent counsel, or obtaining written consent.
In one case, Coghlan represented a citizen of Mexico seeking an adjustment of her immigration status. Her case was complicated by the fact that she had remained in the United States after her visa expired--and left the country after accruing more than one year of unlawful presence in a single stay. Coghlan and his staff failed to explain to the client that the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services might require a waiver of unlawful presence in her case. Her application was denied--and she then declined to pay the additional $1,000 Coghlan's office quoted her to file a response. She hired another attorney for that purpose.
In the second case, Coghlan was hired to prepare and file an application for a couple seeking to cancel a removal order that began after they had applied for asylum. Their initial applications were denied for the failure to establish that their removals would cause the requisite exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to a "child." Neither Coghlan nor his staff advised the clients that once their minor children turned 21 or married, they would no longer have a basis for pursuing a cancellation of their removals. He also failed to inform them of the possibility of voluntarily leaving the United States if they posted a bond--and that deadline passed.
A tangential issue in the case was that Coghlan had asked one of the clients to perform carpentry work on a deck on his house in exchange for a $2,000 credit for additional legal work. The two did not enter into a written agreement for the work, and in fact, disagreed about the value of the work once it was completed.
In aggravation, Coghlan had three prior records of discipline and committed multiple acts of wrongdoing to clients who were highly vulnerable due to their uncertain immigration status.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and was allotted some mitigating credit for 10 letters submitted by individuals attesting to his good character--eight of whom did not acknowledge an awareness of the misconduct at issue.
State Bar #232742, Los Angeles (July 21, 2023)
Cook was suspended from practicing law for two years and placed on probation for three years after he stipulated to failing to comply with several conditions imposed in an earlier disciplinary order.
Specifically, he failed to: schedule and participate in an initial meeting with the Office of Probation, failed to timely submit three quarterly written reports as well as a final one, failed to submit a timely declaration attesting to complying with having read the Rules of Professional Conduct and specified sections of the California Business and Professions Code, and failed to complete the State Bar's Ethics School as mandated.
In aggravation, Cook had two prior records of discipline and committed multiple acts of wrongdoing in the instant case.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and submitted evidence from his treating physician that he had suffered mental and emotional difficulties that were exacerbated during and following the pandemic--now being treated and with a program and showing "steady progress toward rehabilitation."
Dann Schipper DeMund
State Bar #142957, Sacramento (July 29, 2023)
DeMund was suspended from the practice of law for 90 days and placed on probation for two years following his successful completion of the State Bar Court's Alternative Discipline Program (ADP).
DeMund earlier pled no contest to four counts of unlawfully looking into an interior where the occupant has a reasonable expectation of privacy (Cal. Penal Code § 647(j)(1). The offense is a misdemeanor, and DeMund stipulated that it involved moral turpitude.
The violations occurred at DeMund's law firm, which had a unisex bathroom for employees. A female employee, a bookkeeper at the firm, saw a small gray object appear under the door while using the bathroom one day; the same thing occurred approximately a month later. The day after that, the bookkeeper brought her own phone into the bathroom with her, and took a picture of the unidentified object that again appeared under the door. She was then able to discern that the object was a camera lens attached to a phone.
The bookkeeper then reported the matter to a managing partner at the firm, who hired a private investigator to delve into the matter. The investigator installed a hidden camera in the hallway above the bathroom door, and footage from it was ultimately used to identify DeMund as the intruder; he was then terminated from working at the firm.
In aggravation, DeMund committed multiple acts of misconduct which significantly harmed the woman he had attempted to photograph who lives in a neighboring residence, and claims she still deals daily with related trauma.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practiced law discipline-free for approximately 21 years prior to the misconduct at issue and has had no further conviction in the nine years since it occurred. He was also allotted mitigating weight for evidence that his misconduct was caused by a mental condition that is now in "full stable remission," for evidence of performing pro bono and community service work, and for letters from seven individuals--all of whom attested to his good character.
State Bar #177811, Chula Vista (July 15, 2023)
Gutierrez was suspended for one year and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing six counts of professional misconduct--all related to mismanagement of his client trust account.
Specifically, his wrongdoing included: failing to maintain the required balance in the trust account, commingling personal and client funds in the account, and failing to maintain and produce complete records of the account, as well as three counts involving moral turpitude: writing a check on the account knowing that it contained insufficient funds and two counts of misappropriating funds belonging to the client.
The matter at issue arose when Gutierrez received settlement checks on behalf of clients and paid them their share of the proceeds before actually depositing the funds into his client trust account. One of the client checks was returned unpaid--at which point the State Bar was notified of insufficient funds activity related to the account.
The State Bar's investigation then revealed a number of additional problems with the account--including the fact that his then-spouse was a signatory, and that Gutierrez failed to maintain the required account balance on at least 27 occasions during a four-month period, misappropriating client funds. He was not able to provide complete ledgers and journals for the client funds held.
Relevant facts included that Gutierrez and his spouse were married for 34 years. She worked as his office manager for 20 years until the couple separated and he began using a professional bookkeeping service. He testified that some of the fund mismanagement at issue occurred because his wife had failed to timely deposit a settlement check while distracted by her father's illness.
In aggravation, Gutierrez committed multiple acts of misconduct.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practiced law discipline-free for nearly 22 years, and submitted evidence of performing substantial community service as well as evidence from nine individuals taken from a range in the legal and general communities--all of whom attested to his good character. In addition, he was allotted mitigating credit for not engaging in any other misconduct for five years--since the earliest date of misconduct in the instant case--indicating that the wrongful behavior was aberrational and that he is "willing and able to conform to ethical responsibilities in the future."
Frances M. Gutierrez
State Bar #283112, Oxnard (July 15, 2023)
Gutierrez was suspended from practicing law for 30 days and placed on probation for one year after she stipulated to being culpable of two counts of professional misconduct related to her involvement with a for-profit company operated by non-lawyers that claimed to offer low-cost legal services to self-represented consumers.
She was culpable of sharing legal fees with non-lawyers and aiding others in the unauthorized practice of law.
Gutierrez worked remotely as an independent contractor with two people who owned the company. She located the company through an online listing service and believed it to be a legitimate legal business, though she never met the owners, nor did she inquire about the company's management or structure. She was assigned approximately 88 legal matters while working for the company--completing required documents and offering legal advice, and paid a flat fee of $150 for each matter completed.
After approximately four years, Gutierrez left the company for other employment.
A few years later, the State Bar initiated an action against the business pursuant to a referral by the local district attorney's office, eventually granting an injunction against it and finding the owners had been engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Gutierrez was unaware of the State Bar investigation or the injunction until she received inquiries from investigators after leaving the company.
In aggravation, Gutierrez committed multiple acts of wrongdoing.
In mitigation, she entered into a prefiling stipulation, expressed spontaneous candor and cooperation during the State Bar's investigation of the matter, and also expressed regret and remorse for her misconduct. In addition, she was allotted mitigating credit for letters submitted by nine individuals taken from a range in the legal and general communities--and of whom vouched for her good character, and for maintaining an unblemished legal practice for more than five years since the misconduct occurred.
Edward Patrick Kerns
State Bar #100719, Honolulu, Hawaii (July 21, 2023)
Kerns was suspended for 60 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing 12 acts of professional misconduct related to two separate matters.
His wrongdoing included: failing to maintain only legal or just actions; two counts of engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice; and four counts each of failing to report court-imposed sanctions to the State Bar as required and failing to obey court orders. An additional count was found to involve moral turpitude: causing others to suffer severe and lasting emotional distress through his actions.
In one case, Kerns represented the seller in a real property transaction in which a dispute arose. The buyers moved into the property after an arbitration and a judgment ordering specific performance of the purchase agreement. Kerns, who knew they were living in the residence, parked his car on the property within inches of the front porch, blocking access to the front door. He then caused a large cargo container to be installed behind his car. A local court found him liable for trespass and intentional infliction of emotional distress--also finding by clear and convincing evidence that his conduct was "malicious and oppressive" (Cal. Civ. Code § 3294).
Nearly a year later, Kerns engaged in other acts related to the property and attendant legal actions--including filing two lis pendens actions and failing to withdraw them despite knowing both were void--which caused him to be sanctioned by the court three times. He failed to report any of the sanctions imposed to the State Bar as required.
In the second case at issue, Kerns represented himself in an action related to a car purchase, alleging breach of contract among other charges. After the seller attempted but was unable to depose Kerns, the court awarded discovery sanctions to the seller and then imposed monetary sanctions against Kerns in the amount of $2,080. He did not report the sanctions imposed to the State Bar.
In aggravation, Kerns committed multiple acts of misconduct that significantly harmed another person.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and had practiced law for approximately 36 years without a record of discipline.
Alison M. Madden
State Bar #172846, Redwood City (July 14, 2023)
Madden was suspended from the practice of law for three years, with credit for approximately 29 months spent on interim suspension, and placed on probation for three years.
Three disciplinary matters were consolidated in review; both Madden and the State Bar's Office of Chief Trial Counsel appealed the findings of the hearing judge below--most of which were affirmed in the instant proceeding.
Madden was found culpable of failing to obey a court order, engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, and failing to comply with conditions imposed in an Agreement in Lieu of Discipline related to an assault conviction. She also had a felony DUI conviction.
In count one of the consolidated matters, Madden was found culpable of failing to comply with notification and compliance obligations imposed as a condition of her disciplinary suspension (Cal. Rules of Ct., Rule 9.20).
Madden was also found culpable of the unauthorized practice of law after filing a pleading while on disciplinary suspension on which she referred to herself as "Counsel Madden" and included her State Bar number.
Facts underlying the assault conviction: Madden, who was stressed and upset over various life events, went to the post office hoping to find that her lost wallet had been mailed back to her. After a supervisor there refused to open her mailbox because Madden could not provide the required identification, she slapped him. She subsequently entered a plea of nolo contendere to a charge of misdemeanor assault (Cal. Penal Code § 240). The conviction was expunged after she completed two years of probation.
After the assault conviction was transmitted to the State Bar, Madden and the Office of Chief Trial Counsel entered into an agreement in lieu of discipline to resolve the matter instead of conducting a disciplinary proceeding. However, she failed to timely file several quarterly reports and one written report as mandated.
The DUI conviction occurred after Madden crashed the rental car she was driving into a parked town car; the driver, who was then outside the car loading luggage into it for a passenger, suffered numerous injuries, requiring three days of hospitalization. Police responded to the scene, where Madden admitted she had been drinking "moonshine" earlier that day. Breath tests indicated she had a blood alcohol content of .20%. After pleading nolo contendere to the felony of driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury (Cal. Veh. Code § 23153(a)) with an admitted enhancement of causing great bodily injury (Cal. Penal Code § 12022.7(a)), Madden was ordered to serve a year in jail.
In aggravation, Madden committed multiple acts of wrongdoing and caused significant physical and emotional harm to the individual injured in the car incident resulting in a DUI charge, showed indifference toward rectifying or atoning for the consequences of her wrongdoing--continuing to blame other individuals for it.
In mitigation, she was allotted moderate weight for having practiced law discipline-free for 10 years before the first misconduct at issue occurred, as well as for personal and emotional difficulties suffered during the time of the wrongdoing. In addition, she was allotted limited mitigating weight for stipulating to easily proven facts, for evidence of her good character offered by eight individuals--none of whom seemed aware of the full extent of her underlying misconduct, and for evidence for performing community service performed decades earlier.
Kevin Christopher Murphy
State Bar #248672, La Mesa (July 29, 2023)
Murphy was suspended from practicing law for 30 days and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to earlier pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts involving two separate alcohol-related incidents.
One of the counts in one of the matters at issue was resisting an executive officer. Pursuant to a plea agreement, the offense was entered as a misdemeanor (Cal. Penal Code § 69(a)). In that incident, officers were summoned to Murphy's residence after neighbors reported he was banging on their windows and doors and seemed intoxicated. When Murphy came out of his residence onto the sidewalk, they arrested him for being drunk in public. He became assaultive during the arrest, scratching and striking the officers and reaching for their tasers and handcuffs.
The other incident involved Murphy's guilty plea to one count of assault by means likely to produce great bodily harm (Cal. Penal Code § 245(a)(4)), also reduced to a misdemeanor under the terms of a plea agreement.
In that incident, Murphy and his wife called a rideshare service to pick them up from a bar, where they had been drinking. The wife became belligerent to the driver, arguing and hitting his car. Eventually, the two became involved in a physical altercation. Murphy stepped into the melee; the driver punched him, and the two continued fighting on the ground. Murphy landed the final punches, leaving the driver motionless, with multiple fractures to the bones in his face.
Both matters were referred to the Hearing Department for a determination of whether the facts and circumstances surrounding the underlying incidents involved moral turpitude. It found none, but determined that they did involve other misconduct warranting professional discipline.
In addition to the offenses at issue in this case, the State Bar Court noted Murphy had three prior alcohol-related driving convictions.
In aggravation, Murphy committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that caused significant harm to the victim he injured.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, provided letters from nine individuals taken from the legal and general communities who attested to his good character, and offered evidence of performing a substantial amount of unpaid community service. He was also allotted mitigating weight for family problems related to his wife, who was suffering from a medical condition during the incident with the driver, as well as slight mitigating weight for having practiced law discipline-free for nearly six years.
Frank R. Sariol
State Bar #140406, Santa Ana (July 21, 2023
Sariol was suspended for six months and placed on probation for two years after appealing the hearing judge's recommendation of six months of actual suspension.
He had been charged with five counts of professional misconduct. Two of those counts were dismissed by the panel on appeal. Sariol was found culpable of the remaining counts: failing to promptly distribute entrusted funds and two counts of failing to maintain client funds in a trust account.
Sariol represented a workers' compensation applicant who was seeking benefits in two pending cases. For some of the time, he managed his law practice remotely--from Florida, where he intended to retire. After he resolved the matter on behalf of the client with a Compromise and Release (C&R), which stated that the attorney's fees were to be held in trust pending agreement with the attorney who had previously represented the client. At trial, there was conflicting testimony from longtime workers' compensation practitioners about whether it's a common practice or a requirement to place attorneys' fees in a client trust account.
The previous lawyer repeatedly attempted to contact Sariol by email to resolve the attorney's lien, but received no response from him over a two-year period.
After the State Bar began an investigation into the matter, Sariol offered to settle the lien for $2,000. He stated that he had received $3,000 for attorney's fees and had deposited the funds into his firm's operating account. In making credibility findings, both the hearing judge and panel on appeal accepted Sariol's testimony that he cursorily read the C&R as opposed to focusing on every line--and that he had credibly testified about the "unusual nature" of the requirement to maintain the funds in trust, because he and his clients were not generally responsible for handling attorney's fees.
In aggravation, Sariol had a prior record of discipline.
In mitigation, he was allotted moderate weight for stipulating to facts and admitting documents, though not stipulating to culpability to the wrongdoing charged, and for showing remorse by readily admitting his errors and making improvements to his office procedures, which were at the apex of the wrongdoing in the instant case. He was also given moderate weight for performing pro bono and community service prior to the misconduct at issue and substantial mitigating credit for testimony offered by seven good character witnesses--all of whom knew Sariol for at least 20 years and were aware of the full extent of the misconduct at issue.
State Bar #326866, Simi Valley (July 29, 2023)
Tavakoli was suspended from the practice of law two years--with credit given for a period of interim suspension that began on August 8, 2022--and placed on probation for three years.
He had earlier entered a plea of nolo contendere to one charge of assault by means of force likely to product great bodily injury (Cal. Penal Code § 245(a)(4)). The offense is a felony--though under the terms of a plea agreement, Tavakoli was placed on post-plea diversion, which would allow him to be sentenced as if it were a misdemeanor conviction if he complied with terms and conditions, including paying victim restitution and completing anger management classes. He fulfilled the terms imposed.
After the conviction became final, it was transmitted to the State Bar Court, which placed Tavakoli on interim suspension and referred the case to the Hearing Department for a determination of whether the offense involved moral turpitude.
Facts relevant to the underlying offense: Tavakoli was a homeowner and member of the board of the townhome's Homeowner's Association (HOA). During meetings, he engaged in heated arguments about finances and management with several other board members. At one of the Zoom meetings of the group, in response to Tavakoli's request to see the HOA books, another board member made "unkind personal remarks" about him and claimed she would put a curse on his unborn child. Tavakoli's wife was pregnant at the time.
About three weeks later, he was driving home with balloons in preparation for his baby's gender reveal party when he saw three of the HOA board members talking with a landscaper they were interviewing. Tavakoli cursed at then, then parked his car and strode toward the group--throwing his key fob at them. He then yelled "You're going to pay!" at the woman who had threatened to put a curse on the baby and shoved her. (She was a 64-year-old woman with osteoporosis; the fracture she sustained in the fall required surgery and physical therapy.) During the fall, the woman became entangled with another board member, an 80-year-old woman who also sustained injuries, though she did not require medical attention. A third HOA board member at the scene pepper-sprayed Tavakoli.
Though Tavakoli initially gave false and equivocating details about the altercation to both law enforcement and State Bar investigators, he later admitted he had instigated it and deliberately pushed the woman.
The State Bar Court determined that the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident did not involve moral turpitude, but did involve misconduct warranting professional discipline.
In aggravation, Tavakoli initially was dishonest about his role in provoking the altercation and causing the injuries to the women involved--both of whom were deemed "highly vulnerable" due to their ages and health conditions.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation.
Phyllis Voisenat, aka Phyllis N. Rafter
State Bar #159095, Alameda (July 7, 2023)
Voisenat was suspended for 30 days and placed on probation for one year. She earlier stipulated to disobeying two court orders in connection with a single client case.
In the instant matter, Voisenat substituted in as counsel in a civil action that the client had initiated in pro per. In contravention of a court order, she added three new claims to an amended cross-complaint without first obtaining leave of court to do so. She was sanctioned $2,000 for the transgression, but did not pay as ordered until nearly three years later.
In aggravation, Voisenat had been disciplined for professional misconduct twice previously and committed multiple acts of misconduct in the present case.
In mitigation, she entered into a pretrial stipulation.
Jeffrey Alan Zuidema
State Bar #248057, Los Angeles (July 29, 2023)
Zuidema was suspended from the practice of law for 30 days and placed on probation for one year.
He was found culpable of four counts of professional misconduct related to mishandling his client trust account--all involving commingling.
Zuidema opened several banking accounts: one, a trust checking account and two trust savings accounts in the name of his client and his law office. As set forth in a stipulation, over a six-year period, he made a total of 588 deposits of funds into and withdrawals for expenses from his client trust account (CTA)--all of which were personal in nature and did not involve any client.
Zuidema testified at trial that he intended to open a general operating account for his law office, but the bank erroneously categorized it as a CTA. The State Bar Court did not find that testimony credible, noting the "deliberate and laborious process required to open a CTA" as detailed by a bank manager in trial testimony. He also had signed a business signature card documenting his request to open the account as a CTA, and received monthly bank statements identifying the account as a CTA.
Zuidema also testified that after receiving a letter of inquiry from the State Bar's Office of Chief Trial Counsel, he went to a branch office of the bank to change the account designation a decade after opening it, but produced no evidence of that. And for three additional years, he continued to receive bank statements designating the account as a CTA and to use it for personal purposes.
In aggravation, Zuidema committed multiple acts of wrongdoing and showed indifference toward rectifying the misconduct by continuing to blame the bank for misclassifying the account.
In mitigation, he was afforded moderate weight for a number of tempered factors: practicing law discipline-free for 9 1/2 years, causing no harm to clients through his wrongdoing, and cooperating in the State Bar's investigation by stipulating to central facts and admission of documents--though not culpability. Zuidema was also afforded limited mitigating credit for character testimony from two witnesses and declarations from five individuals--all of them attorneys, several who knew him for only two years and were seemingly unaware of the full extent of his misconduct.
Pablo Marcelo Zylberglait
State Bar #175037, District of Columbia (July 7, 2023)
Zylberglait was suspended from practicing law for 60 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to earlier entering a plea of guilty to one count of attempted voyeurism (D.C. Code §§ 22-3531(c)(1)(B) and (f)(1). The offense is a criminal misdemeanor.
In the underlying incident, Zylberglait stood behind a woman on an escalator and attempted to record images while aiming his cell phone camera under her skirt. After a witness alerted the woman, she confronted Zylberglait, and she viewed the images he had taken. He was arrested.
Zylberglait was subsequently subjected to a disciplinary proceeding by Bar authorities in the District of Columbia, where he was also licensed to practice and where the misconduct occurred. He was ordered to a period of six months of unsupervised probation, and successfully completed the conditions imposed in that order.
The California State Bar Court determined that the facts and circumstances surrounding the conviction in the other jurisdiction involved moral turpitude and also warranted professional discipline in this state.
In mitigation, Zylberglait entered into a pretrial stipulation, had no prior record of discipline while practicing law for almost 25 years, and was allotted limited mitigating credit for letters submitted by five individuals--all of whom were aware of the misconduct at issue and attested to his good character.
John Leonard Benson
State Bar #115440, Rancho Cucamonga (July 7, 2023)
Benson was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing three acts of professional misconduct--all of them related to commingling personal and client funds in his client trust account.
The evidence showed that over a four-year period, Benson issued four checks from his client trust account to pay personal expenses and accepted a single wire transfer of $100,000 into the account.
Client funds were maintained at all times during the period of misconduct, and no misappropriation occurred.
In aggravation, Benson committed multiple acts of misconduct.
In mitigation, he had practiced law for approximately 34 years without a record of discipline.
State Bar #159675, San Francisco (July 15, 2023)
Hansen was placed on probation for one year after she stipulated to committing two counts of professional misconduct: commingling personal and client funds in her client trust account.
Bank record evidence showed that over an 11-month period, Hansen issued 43 payments for personal expenses and made one deposit of personal funds into her client trust account.
In aggravation, Hansen committed multiple acts of wrongdoing.
In mitigation, she entered into a pretrial stipulation and had practiced law approximately 28 years without a record of discipline.
John Joseph Hyland, IV
State Bar #155201, Claremont (July 29, 2023)
Hyland was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing four acts of professional misconduct--all related to mismanaging funds.
Specifically, he was culpable of failing to promptly pay funds to a lienholder and three counts of commingling personal and client funds in his trust account.
Hyland received a settlement check of $20,000 and deposited it into his client trust account. That same day, he wrote a check for the client's portion of the funds. Several months later, a medical provider requested that Hyland pay the lien due in the matter; it filed a complaint with the State Bar several years later, after learning the settlement funds had been disbursed.
Hyland then sent the State Bar a copy of the letter he sent to the lienholder, along with a check resolving the matter. He explained that he had replaced his staff due to such oversights, and had taken steps to prevent similar occurrences in the future.
Upon examining Hyland's financial records for the time in question, State Bar investigators discovered he had also deposited personal funds into his client trust account on five occasions and had made personal payments or withdrawals of cash from the account more than 100 times.
In aggravation, Hyland committed multiple acts of wrongdoing.
In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation, had no record of discipline while practicing law for approximately 30 years, and provided letters from four individuals who had a full understanding of the charges involved and vouched for Hyland's good character, as well as his volunteer service.
Matthew J. Kumar
State Bar #283521, Sherman Oaks (July 29, 2023)
Kumar was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing three acts of professional misconduct--two of them related to mismanaging his client trust account by comingling personal and client funds and failing to remove funds to which he was entitled from the account while issuing checks from the account for his own personal expenses.
In addition, he failed to provide State Bar investigators with substantive responses to their queries in the underlying disciplinary investigation. Kumar had been notified twice previously warning against mishandling of the account.
While maintaining a client trust account, the evidence showed he used funds in it to pay business and personal expenses 36 times over a seven-month period, and deposited funds belonging to himself or his law firm 19 times within roughly that same period.
In aggravation, Kumar committed multiple acts of wrongdoing.
In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation, practiced law for approximately 10 years without a record of discipline, and submitted evidence from eight individuals aware of the misconduct at issue who attested to his good character. An additional mitigating factor: Kumar's misuse of the account funds did not harm any client, business, government, or individual.
Jason Wook Lee
State Bar #237092, Pasadena (July 29, 2023)
Lee was put on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing one act of professional misconduct: signing a declaration under oath knowing that it contained falsehoods--an act involving moral turpitude.
In the underlying matter, Lee took a job working as a litigation associate at a law firm--a departure in substance from his prior experience working as an in-house transactional attorney. Unbeknownst to Lee, the supervising attorney at the new firm--with whom he worked as co-counsel--was not entitled to practice due to an administrative suspension. Lee and the supervising attorney prepared a demand letter in connection with a breach of fiduciary matter; the supervisor signed it, and Lee sent it to the opposing parties. Opposing counsel complained to the State Bar that the transaction involved the unauthorized practice of law.
The supervising attorney subsequently fired Lee, but offered to rehire him, with a substantial decrease in pay. Lee, fearful he would not be able to find another position at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, accepted.
The supervisor then informed Lee for the first time that he was suspended from practice--and denied that he had signed the demand letter. He instructed Lee to sign a declaration, which would be submitted to the State Bar as eyewitness testimony, falsely swearing that Lee had been the one who wrote and signed the demand letter as lead counsel in the case. Lee signed.
About a year later, Lee resigned from the firm and reported his wrongful and complicit behavior to State Bar authorities.
In mitigation, Lee entered into a prefiling stipulation, cooperated in the State Bar's investigation, had practiced law discipline-free for nearly 15 years, and demonstrated remorse for his wrongful behavior. He was also allotted mitigating credit for evidence of performing pro bono and community service work, for letters from 14 members of the legal and general communities--all of whom vouched for his good character, and for suffering from emotional and mental difficulties during the time of the misconduct that were substantiated by a medical health authority.
tate Bar #210870, Los Angeles (July 21, 2023)
Motallebi was placed on probation for eight years after he stipulated to committing two counts of professional misconduct: failing to maintain the required balance in his client trust account. The wrongdoing occurred in two separate client matters.
Some relevant underlying facts: Motallebi acted as an escrow agent in a bitcoins transaction that turned out to be a fraudulent scheme. When he became aware of the fraud, he contacted the FBI to report it--submitting two written complaints via its online complaint form and then reporting the incident to the State Bar. As a result of the fraudulent transfer related to the scheme, Motallebi's client trust account was greatly depleted, eventually showing a negative balance of more than $123,000.
He brought a civil claim against the bank to recover the funds, which was dismissed. He also opened claims with both his general liability and personal property insurance companies, both of which declined coverage.
Two of Motallebi's clients lost money to which they were entitled that was held in his trust account: one lost $100,000 in settlement funds, the other lost more than $110,700 in proceeds from the sale of real estate. Both sued Motallebi in civil court to recover their losses; the cases were ongoing when the present matter was decided.
In aggravation, Motallebi's misconduct caused significant harm to two clients.
In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation, had practiced law discipline-free for nearly 19 years, and promptly reported the incident to the FBI and State Bar even before the investigation into the misconduct began--demonstrating candor and cooperation.--Barbara Kate Repa