Sep. 1, 2020
Recent attorney disbarments, suspensions, probations and public reprovals in California.
Richard James Foster
State Bar No. 100710, Seal Beach (August 14, 2020)
Foster was suspended from the practice of law for 60 days and placed on probation for two years after an appeal of a hearing judge's finding that he was culpable of five counts of professional misconduct, and recommending that same discipline be imposed. Two additional counts were ultimately dismissed.
Both Foster and the Office of Chief Trial Counsel of the State Bar had appealed; Foster urged an admonition was sufficient discipline and State Bar counsel objected to the dismissal of a moral turpitude count and argued for one year of actual suspension.
On appeal, Foster was found culpable of failing to provide a client with written disclosures of an underlying professional relationship with an opposing party and that the relationship might affect the client, failing to obtain the client's written consent before accepting adverse employment after obtaining material confidential information, and two counts of breaching the confidence of the client by revealing facts without her permission.
Foster was affiliated as a member and officer of several organizations related to professional water sports. He was also attorney for a sports agent, who introduced him to a young swimmer who had recently accepted an offer of payment of rent, living expenses, and college tuition for the agreement to relinquish her amateur status and train professionally with the Olympic national swimming organization. There was no written agreement between them.
Shortly after that, the organization fired the agent and retracted the offer to the athlete, claiming it was made without authority. Foster began representing the athlete pro bono -- without disclosing that he had previously represented the agent in contract negotiations with the organization and also had a professional relationship with the group's executive director. While negotiating a resolution to the dispute, he received an outline of the executive director's thoughts on settlement informing him he would not "get involved with litigation." He did not inform the client of this limitation.
Also, during negotiations for a new agreement between the athlete and organization, Foster revealed to the organization's counsel that she was financially strapped, and forwarded an email outlining her thoughts on a settlement offer -- both without her authority.
The athlete subsequently petitioned to have her amateur status restored so she could compete at the collegiate level. She was informed she would need to submit a copy of the representation agreement her mother had signed as guardian -- and she requested it from the agent. Foster, as attorney for the agent, informed the athlete she would first need to send a letter waiving any claims against the agent. She did so.
The athlete then hired a new attorney, who requested that Foster provide her client file; he produced about 30 pages of documents and emails. After she sued him in superior court. Foster produced additional documents related to the case.
A jury found in favor of the athlete on fraudulent concealment and intentional breach of duty claims against Foster, awarding her nearly $618,000 in damages for past and future losses. That verdict was reinstated on appeal.
While the State Bar Court panel in the instant disciplinary case independently reviewed the record, it found the appellate court's factual findings bolstered the charges of culpability.
In aggravation, Foster committed multiple acts of misconduct that harmed a client deemed to be "highly vulnerable."
In mitigation, he had no record of professional discipline in approximately 29 years of practicing law, presented six character witnesses who attested to his integrity and honesty,as well as evidence of substantial pro bono and community service work, and was allotted limited mitigating weight for cooperating with the State Bar by entering into a limited stipulation of some facts in the case.
Karen Ann Knighton
State Bar No. 224005, Tustin (August 14, 2020)
Knighton was suspended from practicing law for two years and placed on probation for five years after she stipulated to one count of exercising undue influence over a client who had cognitive defects due to dementia. The misconduct involved moral turpitude.
In the underlying matter, Knighton quit her job at a law firm and shortly after, began acting as a caregiver for her grandfather, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's dementia, and his second wife. Knighton was named as her grandfather's agent in a power of attorney she had drafted.
Shortly before that, the grandfather entered into an oral contract agreeing to pay Knighton an annual flat fee of $220,000 for caregiving and legal services, though he lacked the requisite mental capacity to contract due to his diminished mental capacity.
He made an initial payment and then executed an amendment to his living trust, naming Knighton as trustee. Over the next year, he paid her an additional $285,000. She also caused her grandfather to designate her as beneficiary on several annuities, worth a total of more than $300,000; she served as a witness to his signature on the revised designation forms.
The grandfather's four adult children -- one of whom was Knighton's mother -- ultimately sued to have her removed as trustee and to have the annuities returned, and sought damages and enhanced remedies. The superior court voided the beneficiary change on the annuities and imposed surcharges of $540,000; it also credited her for caregiving and legal services in the amount of $159,240 -- then doubled the damages award, finding that she had engaged in financial elder abuse.
That judgment was affirmed on appeal, with the appellate court directing the trial court to report Knighton to the State Bar.
In aggravation, Knighton committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that significantly harmed several people -- one of whom was extremely vulnerable due to diminished mental capacity, and failed to make restitution as directed in the civil lawsuit.
In mitigation, she entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practiced law for approximately 10 years without a record of discipline, and provided letters from 11 individuals -- all of whom attested to her good character, as well as evidence of performing pro bono and community service work.
Timothy John Lithgow
State Bar No. 154347, Johnson City, New York (August 14, 2020)
Lithgow was suspended for 18 months and placed on probation for three years after he stipulated to pleading nolo contendere to one count of grand theft of personal property (Cal. Penal Code Section 487(a)). The offense is a misdemeanor.
The State Bar's Review Department determined the violation involved moral turpitude as a matter of law.
In the underlying matter, a protection specialist employed by a department store recognized Lithgow as a "person of interest" from a prior incident and observed him hiding several items beneath a child seat and canvas bags in his shopping cart while wandering about the store. Lithgow eventually paid a cashier for some items, but attempted to leave without paying for the hidden ones. Security personnel stopped him and found a total of 75 items worth about $1,117 for which he had not paid. He admitted to the attempted theft at the scene.
In mitigation, Lithgow entered into a pretrial stipulation, saving the State Bar time and money, and had practiced law for approximately 26 years without a record of discipline.
State Bar No. 280454, Alhambra (August 14, 2020)
Liu was suspended from the practice of law for one year and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing 15 acts of professional misconduct related to seven separate matters.
His wrongdoing included sharing legal fees with a nonlawyer; two counts of commingling personal funds in his client trust account, entering fee agreements to perform mortgage loan modifications without the requisite separate written statement, and collecting fees related to loan modification services before performing all services promised; as well as four counts each of collecting illegal fees and engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
Liu, over a four-year period, incorporated and then dissolved several law firms in California. He was the sole owner of each of them.
Much of his misconduct involved a substantially similar fact pattern: He was retained to perform pre-litigation and loan modification work for clients -- all of whom lived in jurisdictions in which he was not licensed to practice law.
In two cases, both involving California clients, Liu was hired to provide loan modification or forbearance services, though his retainer agreement did not contain the required disclosure that it was unnecessary to hire a third party for assistance; one of the clients subsequently obtained a loan modification on his own, the other defaulted. In both cases, Liu eventually refunded the fees paid.
In the remaining matter, Liu paid nearly $3.6 million to a firm for marketing and lead generation services for his business. The individual listed as CEO and officeholder of the firm was also listed as a signatory on Liu's client trust account. Over a two-year period, Liu transferred funds to the marketing firm through the account, and also deposited nearly $133,000 of his own personal funds into the account in contravention of controlling authority (former Rules of Prof. Conduct 4-100(A)).
In aggravation, Liu committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that substantially harmed his financially-strapped clients.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and provided evidence of good character in the form of letters from 18 individuals taken from the legal and general communities.
Rando Anthony Rodriguez
State Bar No. 221417, Sacramento (August 14, 2020)
Rodriguez was suspended from practicing law for 30 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing two acts of professional conduct related to a single client matter: forging his client's signature on a discovery verification and misrepresenting to opposing counsel that the verification was legally valid. Both acts involved moral turpitude.
Rodriguez, while employed at a law firm, filed a complaint against a bank on behalf of a married couple. He then failed to serve timely responses to discovery requests, promising to provide verified responses within the week. He failed to do so, but one month later, emailed the documents -- noting they were "without objection and verified." In reality, he had forged the signatures.
A short time later, Rodriguez resigned from his law firm, telling his supervisors about the forgery and informing opposing counsel of his transgression in a letter.
In mitigation, Rodriguez entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practiced law for approximately 13 years discipline-free, and demonstrated spontaneous remorse by informing his supervisors and opposing counsel of his wrongdoing.
Jay Stuart Rothman, Woodland Hills
State Bar No. 49739 (August 14, 2020)
Rothman was suspended from the practice of law for 30 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing a single act of professional misconduct: failing to maintain a client's confidence.
In the underlying matter, Rothman represented a client in a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and wrongful termination. They attended a mediation and entered a settlement agreement with the employer.
Shortly after that, the client wrote a negative review of Rothman's service on the Yelp page for his law firm. Rothman posted a reply to the review, identifying her as "the client from hell" and describing a number of facts in the case that the client had not divulged.
In aggravation, Rothman had been disciplined by the State Bar twice before for professional misconduct.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and offered character references from 10 individuals attesting to his good character, honesty, and diligence in representing his clients.
William Stephen Tomasi
State Bar No. 139518, Newbury Park (August 14, 2020)
Tomasi was suspended for six months and placed on probation for three years. In a consolidated disciplinary proceeding, he was found culpable of two of the three counts of professional misconduct charged: commingling by depositing from and paying personal funds into his client trust account.
During a 12-month period, Tomasi authorized 78 electronic withdrawals from his client trust account to pay personal expenses. During part of that time, he also authorized 27 deposits of his own personal funds in the account; no other client or trust funds were deposited during that time.
The record shows that when Tomasi's disciplinary suspension in a former case began, he simply began using his client trust account as a personal checking account rather than closing it or letting it sit dormant. At trial, he testified that he believed this use was appropriate, and that he stopped using the account for personal purposes when State Bar representatives informed him it was not.
In aggravation, Tomasi committed multiple acts of wrongdoing and had a prior record of misconduct,
In mitigation, he stipulated to facts establishing his culpability, and neither exhibited bad faith nor caused harm to the public or the administration of justice through his wrongful actions.
Guido Enrico Gaiteri
State Bar No. 250447, Roseville (August 14, 2020)
Gaiteri was placed on probation for one year after he successfully completed the State Bar's Alternative Discipline Program (ADP).
He had earlier pled nolo contendere to a misdemeanor charge of battery (Cal. Penal Code 243(e)(1)) after assaulting his wife while their infant daughter was in a carrier strapped to her chest. He was accepted into ADP after submitting a report establishing a nexus between his mental health and that misconduct. He stipulated that the facts ad circumstances surrounding his violation did not involve moral turpitude, but did involve misconduct warranting other professional discipline.
In aggravation, Gaiteri's actions created potential physical harm to his child.
In mitigation, he suffered stress and personal difficulties brought on by his wife's depression, anxiety, and alcoholism during the time of the misconduct. He also presented evidence of his good character, as attested to in letters from 17 individuals in the legal and general communities, had practiced law for eight years discipline-free, entered into a pretrial stipulation, and successfully completed the ADP.
Lisa M. Lawrence-Hughes
State Bar No. 240375, Los Angeles (August 14, 2020)
Lawrence-Hughes was placed on probation for one year after she stipulated to pleading nolo contendere to one count of driving with a blood alcohol concentration of .08% or higher (Cal. Veh. Code Section 23152(b)).
The matter was referred to the State Bar's Hearing Department for a determination of whether the facts and circumstances surrounding the offense involved moral turpitude or other misconduct warranting professional discipline.
In the underlying conviction matter, highway patrol officers observed Lawrence-Hughes speeding down the freeway and making sudden lane changes, and summoned her to pull over and stop. She initially denied having consumed alcoholic beverages. A status check on her license revealed a prior DUI arrest and ongoing court probation.
After further questioning, Lawrence-Hughes admitted to drinking two to three drinks of bourbon before driving. She performed poorly in a series of field sobriety tests; breath samples taken at the scene indicated blood alcohol concentration readings of .117 and .105.
The State Bar Court judge concluded the facts and circumstances involved did not involve moral turpitude, but the misconduct did warrant professional discipline.
In aggravation, Lawrence-Hughes failed to support state law by violating the terms of her criminal probation.
In mitigation, she entered into a pretrial stipulation and presented declarations from 14 individuals from various backgrounds -- all of whom attested to her good character.