Jul. 1, 2019
Recent attorney disbarments, suspensions, probations, and public reprovals in California.
Richard Dennis Coats
State Bar No. 117285, Alhambra (June 15, 2019)
Coats was disbarred after he stipulated to failing to comply with several conditions imposed in an earlier disciplinary order. Specifically, he failed to timely submit one quarterly written report and completely failed to submit another quarterly written report to the Office of Probation; he also failed to attend the State Bar Ethics School as required.
In aggravation, Coats committed multiple acts of wrongdoing and had been disciplined twice before for professional misconduct.
In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation, saving the State Bar significant time and resources.
State Bar No. 306333, Rowland Heights (June 15, 2019)
Lee was summarily disbarred. He earlier pled nolo contendere to orally copulating a person under the age of 16 (Cal. Penal Code Section 288a(b)(2)), and the conviction became final. The offense is a felony involving moral turpitude.
Patrick Arthur Sizemore
State Bar No. 62803, Santa Rosa (June 15, 2019)
Sizemore was disbarred after he stipulated to committing 18 acts of professional misconduct related to a debt reduction practice spanning five states and involving three client complaints and a State Bar investigation prompted by Oregon’s Department of Consumer and Business Services Division of Finance and Corporate Securities.
He was found culpable of: three counts each of sharing legal fees with non-lawyers and collecting illegal fees; and four counts each of lending his name to non-attorneys to engage in the practice of law, aiding and abetting non-attorneys in the unauthorized practice of law, and violating various state laws.
The complaints all stemmed from a corporation Sizemore formed as a division of his law practice, specializing in debt reduction services to settle or resolve debts for creditors suffering financial hardship. He allowed another entity, staffed by non-attorneys, to use his law group’s name while they themselves out as representatives or employees of the group and solicited and handled clients in need of debt reduction services.
Clients signed an agreement authorizing a third party to debit a fixed amount every month to cover “set-up fees, service fees, and maintenance fees” as well as debt settlement services. They also signed a separate limited power of attorney-in-fact authorizing the law group to contact their creditors and negotiate settlements for them. All assumed they had entered an attorney/client relationship, though in truth, Sizemore was not involved in the services, nor did he supervise the non-attorneys. He received more than $21,000 from the non-attorney group as compensation for the use of his name and license information.
The Oregon investigation revealed at least 19 Oregon residents and one California resident who paid the law group for debt reduction services. Additional client complaints came from residents of Illinois, Georgia, and Arizona. The fee-sharing and unlicensed debt reduction service arrangements violated the laws in all five states.
In aggravation, Sizemore had a prior record of discipline, engaged in a pattern of misconduct in the instant case that lasted at least seven years, and lacked candor by initially claiming to investigating officials that he had no involvement with the law group bearing his name.
In mitigation, he entered into a pre-filing stipulation.
John Richard Contos
State Bar No. 56782, Westlake Village (June 15, 2019)
Contos was suspended from practicing law for 30 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing four acts of professional misconduct related to two client matters.
He was culpable of failing to perform legal service with competence, acting on behalf of a client without legal authority, disobeying a court order, and failing to promptly release a client’s papers and property despite requests to do so.
In one case, Contos represented a client in a dental malpractice matter, but several months before the signed a retainer agreement, he sent a Notice of Intent letter to the dentist without her knowledge or permission. Though she ultimately hired him to represent her, Contos failed to take several actions in the case — including failing to file an opposition to a motion for summary judgement, failing to appear at the hearing on the motion, and failing to file an opening brief in the appeal of the matter.
In the other client case, Contos represented a client in a medical malpractice matter on a limited basis — with the client agreeing to dismiss the action if a credible and supportive expert witness could not be secured. After reviewing medical records, Contos concluded that pursuing the case would be fruitless, and informed the client. The client appeared at a subsequent hearing on an Order to Show Cause for failing to serve the complaint and agreed to a dismissal of the case; Contos did not appear as ordered by the court. He returned a partial file to the client more than 16 months after she initially requested it.
In aggravation, Contos committed multiple acts of wrongdoing and had a prior record of misconduct: a private reproval.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and submitted evidence of substantial community and volunteer service, as well as letters from 15 individuals taken from a range in the legal and general communities — all of whom attested to his good character.
Edward Joon Lee (aka Joon Lee)
State Bar No. 221940, Los Angeles (June 15, 2019)
Lee was suspended from the practice of law for 60 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing four acts of professional misconduct related to a single client matter.
He was culpable of failing to promptly pay a contractual medical lien as the client had requested, failing to render an appropriate accounting of the client’s funds, failing to maintain appropriate accounting records for client funds, and failing to timely withdraw attorney’s fees from his client trust account once they had become fixed.
In the underlying matter, Lee was hired to represent a client who had been injured in a car accident; both signed a medical lien of almost $4,000 in favor of a treating chiropractor. Lee settled the case for $6,000, and paid the chiropractor a portion — less than 1/3 of the amount billed — though he had not negotiated an agreement to compromise in advance. The chiropractor ultimately obtained a judgment in small claims court for the balance billed against both Lee and the client. Before and after that judgment was obtained, the client had asked Lee to pay the chiropractor several times, but he failed to do so.
The State Bar’s investigation of the claim against Lee revealed he neither maintained client ledgers nor provided requested accountings of the client’s funds.
In aggravation, Lee committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that significantly harmed his client.
In mitigation, he entered into a profiling stipulation, had practiced law for approximately 12 years discipline-free, and produced declarations from seven individuals — all of whom attested to his good character.
William Larry Meek
State Bar No. 66824, Redding (June 1, 2019)
Meek was suspended from practicing law for two years and placed on probation for three years after he stipulated to committing numerous acts of professional misconduct related to seven client matters, as well as a probation violation.
His wrongdoing included: failing to keep clients informed of significant case developments and failing to respond to clients’ reasonable case status inquiries; two counts each of failing to provide legal services with competence, failing to provide clients with appropriate accountings, failing to promptly refund unearned advanced fees, and failing to cooperate in the State Bar’s investigations of the alleged misconduct; as well as four counts each of holding himself out as entitled to practice law when he was not and actually practicing law when not entitled — misconduct involving moral turpitude.
He was also culpable of filing a declaration with the State Bar that contained false statements seeking to be misleading — additional conduct involving moral turpitude.
Three of the client cases involved dissolution and marital settlement matters. After being retained, Meek stopped communicating with the clients, who were informed he was on “medical leave” or “unable to work due to an injury” when they contacted his office.
The other four cases involved clients Meek had represented before tendering his resignation from the State Bar with disciplinary charges pending. In each case, he did not inform his clients, the court, or other involved parties of his inactive status — but continued to practice law by drafting and filing declarations, accountings, and petitions and identifying himself as “attorney and counselor at law” on them.
In the disciplinary violation matter, Meek filed the declaration with the State Bar Court as part of the resignation process (Cal. Rule of Ct., Rule 9.20), erroneously claiming he had notified all clients, co-counsel, and opposing counsel of his inactive status.
In aggravation, he committed multiple acts of wrongdoing.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and had practiced law for approximately 40 years without a record of discipline.
Sheen Myong Na
State Bar No. 106541, Los Angeles (June 15, 2019)
Na was suspended from the practice of law for two years and placed on probation for three years following his appeal in which the State Bar Court panel affirmed that discipline recommendation.
He was found culpable, both in the original disciplinary proceeding and on appeal, of nine counts of professional misconduct related to four immigration matters. His wrongdoing included: two counts of failing to render accountings of clients’ funds, three counts of failing to perform legal services with competence, and four counts of failing to promptly refund unearned fees.
In one case, Na was hired to process a waiver in an immigration matter, accepting a fee of $1,500. He failed to inform the client he had aged out of the waiver, and incorrectly counseled him that he would not have to leave the country to process the adjustment. Na never filed the waiver. On appeal, he argued he was not culpable of performing legal services incompetently because he had “performed all possible services” for the client. The panel on appeal rejected that claim.
In another matter, Na was hired to handle an application for suspension of deportation — three times submitting the application to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which rejected it each time. He later learned it was the improper forum for the filing, but by then, the client had hired a new attorney to handle the matter. On appeal, Na again contested the incompetence charge, claiming that filing the application in the wrong venue was simple negligence. The panel also rejected that argument on appeal. Na also challenged the culpability finding on the charge of failure to return unearned fees, claiming he worked 10 hours on the case, earning the $3,000. The panel also rejected that contention, noting Na “did not provide any service of value.”
A third client hired Na to file a motion to reopen her case, despite being advised by three other attorneys that the motion could not succeed. Na ultimately did not file the motion, but claimed he was entitled to the $1,500 retainer paid because he provided services by reviewing the case before informing her a motion to reopen could not succeed some time later. The panel affirmed the finding of acting incompetently based on his untimely information, and also affirmed that he did not properly earn any legal fees in the case.
In aggravation, Na committed multiple acts of misconduct that significantly harmed his highly vulnerable clients to whom he failed to make restitution and had two prior records of discipline. In addition, both the hearing judge below and panel on appeal gave aggravating weight to Na’s indifference to his misconduct, citing his testimony that “he did not know why he was disciplined in the past and that he performed services for his clients, even though they were of no value to the clients.”
State Bar No. 120952, Windsor (June 1, 2019)
Pabros was suspended for 30 days and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing three acts of professional misconduct related to a single client matter. He was culpable of failing to maintain the respect due the court, suppressing evidence, and failing to report a court-ordered sanction to the State Bar as required.
In the underlying latter, Pabros represented a married couple, co-trustees of a trust, in a civil case that arose from a fire that spread from one commercial property they owned to an adjacent commercial property that they also owned. After a jury found the clients passively negligent, the judge granted a partial judgment notwithstanding the verdict, finding them actively negligent and denying them relief for contractual indemnity. That judgment was reversed on appeal, with the case remanded to the trial court.
After the remand order, Pabros learned one of his clients had died, but failed to inform the court or opposing counsel as required by a local court rule (Sonoma Cty. Sup. Ct., Local Rule 4.1(A)). As the trial neared, Pabros opposed a motion for summary judgment, arguing there was a triable issue of fact with regard to the lease — even though he knew that the deceased client was the only one who could have testified to that specific matter. The court denied the motion for summary judgment.
When the trial began, opposing counsel asked Pabros why the client was not on the witness list and why he had not been present in court, but he did not respond. Opposing counsel then learned of the client’s death through an Internet search and informed the court. The court found Pabros’ silence on the matter was “particularly egregious” because he had continued to litigate the case for more than a year after the death occurred. It sanctioned him $31,160 — which he failed to report to the State Bar.
Pabros has appealed the sanction order and a second motion for summary judgment; both those actions were still pending when the discipline was recommended.
In aggravation, Pabros significantly harmed the administration of justice.
In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation acknowledging his misconduct and had practiced law for more than 30 years without a record of discipline.
Edmond Elias Salem
State Bar No. 228274, Santa Monica (June 15, 2019)
Salem was suspended from the practice of law for 90 days and placed on probation for two years. In a single client matter, he was found culpable of misconduct involving moral turpitude: two counts of concealing a material fact from opposing counsel and two counts of wrongfully simulating a client’s signature.
In the underlying matter, Salem represented a client who had been injured in an auto accident with a truck driver who fled the scene. Their fee agreement gave Salem power of attorney to execute all documents connected with the claim.
The client’s insurer denied coverage for the uninsured motorist claim, demanding arbitration. Salem also filed a separate clam against the insurer — alleging breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, misrepresentation, and infliction of emotional distress.
The client died, though Salem was not aware of the death for some time. A few months later, he accepted a settlement offer of $42,500 from the insurer. A letter accompanying the uninsured motorist’s release directed Salem to have his client sign, date, and return it. However, Salem signed the client’s name — without indicating that it was a simulation or undertaken by the authority in a power of attorney. He also signed the client’s name to the settlement check received before depositing it in his client trust account.
About a month later, Salem learned the client had died several months earlier. He then mailed a check for $20,631 — the client’s share of the settlement — to the client’s executor. The insurer’s attorney subsequently contacted Salem, offering to settle the bad faith claim for $10,000; Salem agreed and negotiated the check that was issued by signing the client’s name — neglecting to inform the insurer that the client had died nine months earlier.
The insurer sued Salem, alleging several causes of action and noting it had incurred nearly $35,000 in attorney fees during two and a-half years of litigating the matter. The parties settled that case for $21,250.
In aggravation, Salem committed multiple acts of misconduct that significantly harmed the insurer in the case.
In mitigation, he entered into a stipulation regarding facts and the admissibility of evidence, had no prior record of discipline in eight years of practice in California and nearly 11 years of practice in Illinois, and presented evidence of his good character from 13 witnesses taken from a range of professions, as well as evidence of his pro bono legal activities.
Maria Adriana Sanford
State Bar No. 235496, Los Angeles (June 15, 2019)
Sanford was suspended from practicing law for 30 days and placed on probation for one year after she stipulated to committing professional misconduct by revealing client confidences as determined in another jurisdiction. The California State Bar Court determined that the disciplinary proceeding in the other jurisdiction provided fundamental constitutional protection, and that the proven culpability also warranted that discipline be imposed in this state.
In the underlying matter, Sanford (formerly Adriana Koeck) began working as in-house counsel at a company she felt was involved in a fraudulent scheme evading taxes rightfully owed to Brazil. She reported her findings to the company’s general counsel, who took no action. Shortly after that, she received an unfavorable performance review — and emailed the corporate ombudsman that she anticipated a retaliatory discharge. The company found her complaint to be without merit, and fired her shortly afterward.
Before being terminated, and on the advice of outside counsel, Sanford copied her company hard drive that contained some confidential document; the act also was found to violate a nondisclosure agreement she had executed when she began work.
Several months after being fired, Sanford contacted several sources: an Assistant U.S. Attorney, Brazilian government authorities, a New York Times reporter, and representatives of the Securities and Exchange Commission. In each communication, she provided information deemed to contain client confidences.
In aggravation, Sanford committed multiple acts of wrongdoing and demonstrated indifference to her misconduct by failing to answer the charges against her or participate in the disciplinary proceedings.
In mitigation, she entered into a prefiling stipulation — given only limited weight, as she did not acknowledge wrongdoing, entering it with a plea of nolo contendere.
Spencer Freeman Smith
State Bar No. 236587, San Francisco (June 15, 2019)
Smith was suspended from the practice of law for six months and placed on probation for two years following his appeal of the hearing judge’s recommendation of one year of actual suspension.
Both the hearing judge and panel on appeal found him culpable of one count of failing to obey a court order. He had failed to comply with the requirements to provide all clients with written notice to his clients that he had been suspended from practice and to timely file a declaration of compliance (Cal. Rules of Ct., Rule 9.20(a) and (c)) as directed by the California Supreme Court in an earlier discipline order.
On appeal, Smith contended he did not receive the order requiring him to give notice and file a declaration until the time to comply had passed. When the order was issued, he was incarcerated for failing to appear at a hearing in his criminal trial. The panel noted, however, that Smith testified he was in regular contact with his law office during his incarceration, that his criminal counsel informed him of his suspension, and that he was familiar with the disciplinary requirements as he had previously been suspended by the State Bar.
In aggravation, Smith demonstrated indifference toward rectifying his misconduct. The hearing judge had assigned this significant weight; the panel on appeal reduced it to “some” weight after disagreeing with some of the judge’s analysis of the evidence.
In mitigation, he had practiced law for nearly 11 years without a record of discipline and was allotted minimal weight for cooperating in his disciplinary proceeding by filing a stipulation regarding easily provable facts on the day of his trial in the matter.
Mark Daniel Holmes
State Bar No. 156660, Irvine (June 15, 2019)
Holmes was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to failing to inform his client in writing that she could seek the advice of independent counsel after he acquired an adverse interest in her case.
In the underlying matter, Holmes agreed to represent a client in an unlawful detainer action she had previously filed. The agreed strategy was to dismiss the first action and file a new unlawful detainer suit. In satisfaction of Holmes’ legal fees, the client named him trustee and beneficiary of the real property at issue — contingent upon fees she might owe him. The deed was executed and recorded, though Holmes did not advise the client in writing of her right to seek the advice of independent counsel before executing it.
The client ultimately terminated Holmes’ services; he recorded a full conveyance of the property back to the client approximately 21 months later.
In aggravation, Holmes had a prior record of discipline.
In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation, caused no actual harm to the client through his misconduct, and submitted proof of providing substantial pro bono services to mainly clients during the time of the misconduct.
Mark Vincent Kaplan
State Bar No. 58836, Los Angeles (June 15, 2019)
Kaplan was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing five acts of professional misconduct related to three client matters: two counts of accepting advanced fees from a third party without a client’s prior written consent and three counts of failing to promptly refund unearned advanced fees upon terminating employment.
The fact patterns in all cases were similar: Kaplan was retained to represent clients — two in dissolutions and the other in a child custody and support matter. In two of the cases, advanced fees were paid by the client’s estranged wife and the client’s mother — though neither of the clients gave informed written consent of the payments as required.
All three clients eventually terminated Kaplan’s representation. There was a total of more than $124,905 in unearned advanced fees that he did not refund for several months despite requests to do so. In one case, the client secured a small claims court judgment against Kaplan for the unearned fees he was owed.
In aggravation, Kaplan committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that substantially harmed his clients.
In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation, had practiced law for 44 years discipline-free, and submitted letters from eight individuals taken from the legal and general communities vouching for his good character, as well as evidence of philanthropic and volunteer service in the community.
— Barbara Kate Repa