Comfort 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 six counts of professional misconduct.
The State Bar Court found that all procedural requirements had been met, and that there was an adequate basis for disciplinary misconduct. It also found affirmatively that Comfort had not responded to the petition for disbarment, despite assuring State Bar investigators over the phone that she intended to do so, nor did she move to have the default ultimately entered against her set aside or vacated.
Comfort was found culpable of all counts charged: failing to act with reasonable diligence, failing to respond to reasonable client inquiries, improperly withdrawing from representation, failing to promptly provide a client with a written accounting, failing to return unearned advanced fees, and failing to cooperate in the State Bar's investigation of the wrongdoing alleged.
The misconduct occurred during a single client matter.
State Bar #237940, Los Angeles (May 19, 2023)
Ortiz was disbarred after he stipulated to committing 28 counts of professional misconduct.
He was culpable of failing to perform legal services with competence, failing to withdraw from representing a client after being disbarred, and failing to promptly release a client's papers and property upon terminating employment; three counts of failing to respond to reasonable client inquiries; and five counts each of 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 wrongdoing alleged.
An additional six counts involved moral turpitude: one count of misappropriating client funds and five counts of collecting legal fees while holding himself out as entitled to practice law though disbarred.
While one count of which Ortiz was culpable involved failing to abide by several conditions imposed in an earlier disciplinary order, the others related to five separate client matters--all involving substantially similar fact patterns. Ortiz was suspended by the Board of Immigration Appeals--then disbarred by that tribunal, with the disbarment retroactively effective to the date he was suspended. In each case, near to or after the time of his disbarment, he took on legal representation of clients with various immigration issues--accepting payment for his services, but performing little or none of them. In all cases, he failed to provide any substantive responses to State Bar investigators seeking information related to the charges against him.
In aggravation, Ortiz had a prior record of discipline and committed multiple acts of misconduct in the instant case that substantially harmed his clients, who were highly vulnerable due to their uncertain immigration status. He also failed to refund any of the fees paid to him, which totaled $19,260.
Michael David Welch
State Bar #111022, Sacramento (May 19, 2023)
Welch was disbarred after the State Bar Court found all procedural and substantive factors had been satisfied in his disciplinary case. Specially, he had received actual notice of the charges against him and of the related proceedings prior to the default order, which was properly entered against him, as well as a satisfactory basis for professional discipline.
The factual allegations in the charges were then admitted and deemed as true, and he was found culpable of all counts charged. His wrongdoing included: failing to cooperate in the State Bar's investigation of the misconduct alleged, failing to update his address in the Bar's official records, and two counts of commingling personal and client funds in his client trust account.
At the time Welch was disbarred, there were an unstated number of additional disciplinary investigations pending against him.
Kelly DuFord Williams
State Bar #295646, San Diego (May 26, 2023)
Williams was disbarred after a contested disciplinary proceeding in which she was charged with and found culpable of 16 counts of professional misconduct.
Her wrongdoing included: committing a criminal act involving dishonesty, aiding the unauthorized practice of law, knowingly assisting another in the unauthorized practice of law, and failing to render an account of client funds; two counts each of failing to maintain client funds in a trust account and failing to promptly distribute funds to clients; and four counts of failing to cooperate in the State Bar's investigation of the misconduct alleged.
An additional four counts involved moral turpitude: making a material misrepresentation to a police dispatcher, issuing a check from account in which there were insufficient funds, and two counts of misappropriating client funds.
The State Bar Court opinion began with an analysis of the credibility of the witnesses' testimony in the instant proceeding--finding them to be "generally credible, honest, forthright, and direct." However, it underscored that Williams, on the other hand, was "consistently evasive and uncooperative in her demeanor," noting that her testimony throughout the trial was "evasive, disjointed, inconsistent--often either internally inconsistent, inconsistent with other more reliable evidence and testimony, or both--and often implausible."
Two counts involved dishonest conduct unrelated to client matters. Williams became angry when the man she was dating went on a trip to Utah with his two friends and their young daughter--leaving her behind. She sent a series of hectoring and threatening email messages to the man, then made two phone calls to the Utah police--falsely claiming that she was a deputy district attorney and needed an emergency wellness check on her "niece" who was endangered at a vacation rental there. Responding officers found the three occupants there safe and sound. At her subsequent disciplinary trial, Williams denied sending the texts and making the calls.
Another matter involved Williams' law firm, at which she employed two other lawyers. One of them was licensed to practice in New York, but not in California--though the firm's website identified her as a "senior attorney." When Williams and her firm were sued in an unlawful detainer action, the unlicensed attorney presented oral arguments on behalf of the firm at a hearing held virtually. The presiding judge found her argument "nonsensical" and "inappropriate," and discovered she was not licensed to practice in the jurisdiction. At an order to show cause proceeding in the matter, the two attorneys testified that, minutes before the hearing began, Williams directed the unlicensed attorney to handle the appearance, and had electronically provided her with arguments to read before the court. At her disciplinary trial, Williams claimed she did not know the attorney was not licensed in California and denied giving her two associates instructions about how to proceed.
In a third matter, this one involving a client, Williams was hired to represent a woman pursuing a wrongful termination claim against a former employer. Their fee agreement entitled Williams to 33% of a net recovery in settlement. The matter was settled for $61,750. Williams deposited the settlement funds into her client trust account. That account was closed before the client received any disbursement. Williams then provided the client with two checks, each for the amount she was due; neither was negotiable due to insufficient funds. Williams eventually made a partial payment to the client via wire transfers, but still owes her $14,910 in settlement funds.
In another client matter, Williams was retained to pursue a sexual harassment claims against a former employer--agreeing to a 33 1/3% contingency fee. The case was resolved with a settlement of $42,500. Williams deposited the settlement check into her client trust account, then caused the balance to fall to $43,72, without issuing any payment to the client. More than a month after receiving the settlement money, Williams falsely represented to the client that it was forthcoming. Over the next two months, Williams made various false statements to the client--claiming the check would be written the next day, that she had already sent it, that it was mailed to the wrong address. She ignored the client's repeated requests for an accounting. One month later, the client filed a complaint with the State Bar. She has not received either an accounting or payment of settlement funds.
In aggravation, Williams committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that significantly harmed both her clients and the administration of justice, demonstrated both indifference and a lack of candor concerning her wrongful conduct, and continuingly failed to make restitution to the clients to whom she owed funds.
David Allen Burgren
State Bar #86026, Hayward (May 5, 2023)
Burgren was suspended from the practice of law for one year and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to pleading no contest to a charge of being an accessory after the fact (Cal. Penal Code § 32), a misdemeanor.
The conviction was subsequently expunged from his record. After determining that the offense involved moral turpitude as a matter of law, the State Bar's Review Department referred the matter to the Hearing Department for a hearing and determination of the proper discipline to be imposed.
In the underlying matter, Burgren responded to a cold call from a real estate agent who asked if he would be interested in an investment property, and offered to set up financing for it. After viewing the property, Burgren agreed to a deal in which a $56,000 down payment would be made in his name by cashier's check, with an additional $224,000 to come in the form of a bank loan. In reality, Burgren did not put up any part of the $56,000 payment, but received a kickback of $20,000; the amount was paid in full by the realtor--an arrangement that Burgren, who was also a licensed realtor, should have been aware was improper.
In the related loan application, Burgren stated he was purchasing the property as his primary residence, and did not disclose the true status of the down payment.
Burgren received a check for $20,000 at the close of escrow, though his name was spelled incorrectly on it. He then learned the sale had been a sham; the party representing the seller had used a fraudulently notarized power of attorney when signing for the seller.
In mitigation, Burgren entered into a pretrial stipulation and had practiced law discipline-free for approximately 8 1/2 years. He was also allotted mitigating weight for rehabilitation, having a clean disciplinary record in the nine years since the matter was expunged.
Burgren was given credit in the time of his suspension for the period of interim suspension that began on August 8, 2022.
Granth Jerret Crhoelman
State Bar #259525, Van Nuys (May 5, 2023)
Crhoelman was suspended for 90 days and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing nine acts of professional misconduct related to two client matters and mishandling his client trust account.
His wrongdoing included: four counts of misappropriating client funds--misconduct involving moral turpitude, and five counts of failing to maintain the requisite balance in his client trust account.
In one case, Crhoelman was retained to represent a client injured in a slip-and-fall accident at a retail store. The case settled for $40,000. Crhoelman received a check for the full settlement amount, and deposited it into his client trust account--withdrawing $13,738.50 for his fees and costs. He then deposited $2,000 into the client's bank account, and explained that he would make another payment soon, but was holding funds aside in case a medical provider later claimed it was owed for hospitalization and treatment. Three weeks later, the client filed a complaint against Crhoelman with the State Bar. He subsequently paid both the client and all medical lienholders, but on four occasions, had allowed his client trust account balance to fall beneath the required amounts.
The second case had a similar fact pattern. Crhoelman received a settlement check, deposited it into his client trust account--withdrawing amounts for his fees, and paying the client and medical lienholders. A check written to one of the medical providers was returned for insufficient funds, however--setting off the State Bar's investigation. Though the provider was eventually issued a replacement check, the gravamen of the offense was that Crhoelman had failed to maintain a sufficient balance in his client trust account to cover the outstanding medical bills.
In aggravation, Crhoelman committed multiple acts of misconduct.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practice law discipline-free for approximately 11 years, submitted letters from eight individuals taken from a range in the legal and general communities--all of whom vouched for his good character, and took prompt steps to ensure that his clients and their lienholders would be paid, as well as enrolling in the State Bar's Ethics and Client Trust Account Schools and adopting a more efficient office management system. In addition, he provided evidence of performing a substantial amount of community service, as well as documentation of his wife's medical condition that necessitated his absence from his office for periods when the misconduct occurred.
Christopher Phillip Dobbins
State Bar #258002, Oakland (May 19, 2023)
Dobbins was suspended from the practice of law for six months and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing four acts of professional misconduct. All counts were related to a single client case: making a false representation to a judge, submitting a false declaration to a court--an act involving moral turpitude, failing to act with reasonable diligence on behalf of a client, and failing to keep his client reasonable informed of significant developments.
Dobbins was hired to represent a client who was charged with five felony counts, including attempted murder. He appeared personally at the preliminary hearing in the case, asking for a continuance and informing the judge that his client, who was incarcerated, had authorized a waiver of his right to a speedy preliminary hearing--within 60 days of arraignment. In fact, the client had not agreed to the waiver, and Dobbins failed to inform him he had waived the right. The hearing was repeatedly continued over a four-month period; the client made no court appearances due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Eventually, the client sought a new attorney--and then learned that Dobbins had waived his right to a timely preliminary hearing. The State Bar Court opinion quoted extensively from a hearing on the motion to dismiss, at which Dobbins was called as a witness. At the hearing, during cross-examination by a district attorney, Dobbins admitted he had lied to the judge about the waiver; the DA filed a complaint with the State Bar.
In response to the State Bar's investigation, Dobbins submitted a declaration containing false statements about his conversations with the client and his alleged waiver of a timely hearing.
In aggravation, Dobbins had a prior record of discipline, and committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that significantly harmed the administration of justice as well as a highly vulnerable client who was incarcerated and unable to personally appear due to COVID-19 restrictions.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation.
Chad Andrew Harris
State Bar #181103, Sparks, Nevada (May 19, 2023
Harris was suspended from practicing law for 30 days and placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to earlier pleading guilty to one count of driving a tractor without a proper license (Cal. Veh. Code § 12519(a)); an additional 21 felony counts alleging perjury and insurance fraud were dismissed.
The State Bar Court found Harris culpable of an additional two counts of professional misconduct--both involving moral turpitude: submitting knowing falsehoods in a workers' compensation claim and to an insurer.
Harris earlier entered into an informal business relationship with his parents in which he agreed to manage the family ranch. After approximately five years, he informed the ranch accountant that he had injured his back and could no longer work. He subsequently submitted a workers' compensation claim alleging trauma injury to his back that occurred while performing ranch manager duties--though he was not formally listed as a covered employee on the policy. He also filed an individual claim for disability benefits, stating he was employed at a law group as an attorney and denying both that his back injury was work-related and that he had filed a workers' comp claim.
In a declaration to the State Compensation Insurance Fund, the ranch accountant falsely stated that Harris had earned and been paid $95,500 for his ranch manager work in a 17-month period. He detailed his work duties there--including stall maintenance, barn labor, and handling horses.
Shortly after that, however, Harris told an insurance company investigator that he was not engaged in "ranching;" he had told her earlier that he had sustained his injury while working in the yard around his house. The insurer approved Harris' disability claim, finding that his injuries precluded him from working as an attorney. His claim for workers' compensation benefits was denied, and in a related deposition, Harris denied telling the insurance company that he did not work at the ranch. The State Compensation Insurance Fund submitted a suspected fraudulent claim to the Department of Insurance, tabulating costs related to the claim to be just over $47,800.
The ranch accountant then told investigators that she had never issued a paycheck to Harris, nor did she consider him to be an employee at the ranch.
In aggravation, Harris committed multiple acts of misconduct.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, had no prior record of discipline, and submitted letters from 11 individuals familiar with his misconduct who attested to his good character.
Douglas Gordon Iler
State Bar #235350, Costa Mesa (May 5, 2023)
Iler was suspended from the practice of law for 15 months and placed on probation for three years after an appeal in a consolidated disciplinary proceeding.
Both the hearing judge and panel on appeal found Iler culpable of two counts of professional misconduct: failing to file a compliant declaration as ordered by the California Supreme Court (Cal. Rules of Ct., Rule 9.20), and failing to comply with several other conditions imposed in an earlier discipline order. Specifically, he failed to timely submit four quarterly written reports, and failed to provide proof of enrolling in the State Bar's Ethics School and passing its final test. The panel on appeal recommended 15 months of actual suspension rather than 18 months as recommended by the hearing judge below, based on its finding of less weight given aggravating factors and more weight given for mitigation.
Iler stipulated to culpability as to the count involving failure to file reports and timely attend Ethics School. On appeal, he took issue with the finding that he failed to file the required 9.20 declaration, citing his attempts to comply and explanations for his failure to do so. The State Bar Court noted that the Supreme Court "has firmly established that an attorney is required to strictly comply with Rule 9.20 obligations." It found the declaration Iler had filed was noncompliant, as he was still in possession of a former client's file and still the attorney of record in a pending matter. In addition, he failed to provide the client with written notice of his suspension as required by Rule 9.20(a).
In aggravation, Iler had a prior record of discipline, and was given moderate weight for committing multiple acts of wrongdoing, which stemmed from violating a single court order.
In mitigation, he entered into a stipulation admitting facts establishing culpability and was allotted limited mitigating weight for character letters submitted by four individuals--only one of whom was fully aware of the misconduct at issue.
Eric Adrian Jimenez
State Bar #249468, North Hollywood (May 19, 2023)
Jimenez was suspended from practicing law for six months and placed on probation for one year following an appeal that affirmed that recommended discipline.
He had earlier entered a guilty plea to the misdemeanor of knowingly and without permission disrupting computer services to an authorized user of a computer system or network (Cal. Penal Code § 502(c)(5)).
Jimenez, who worked as an IT consultant, was hired by a construction company--responsible for setting up remote access, backing up data, and updating its computer system. In performing this work, he had access to the company's confidential network password. He was paid on an hourly basis after submitting monthly invoices. At some point, the company had not paid Jimenez for two months and owed him approximately $1,500. He then changed the company's password and moved accounting files to an external hard drive so that others would be unable to locate them. He refused to change the password back or provide a new password when the company CEO asked him to do so.
The CEO then hired another consultant to reset the password--paying him $1,500--and filed a complaint with the local police department, alleging unauthorized access to the company's network.
At his disciplinary trial, Jimenez maintained that the company's president had asked him to change the password and move the files, as he was concerned that the CEO was defrauding clients. The hearing judge found this claim to be unsupported by the record, based partially on the police report that contained detailed notes and interviews with several individuals. On appeal, Jimenez claimed the report contained inadmissible hearsay. The State Bar Court panel agreed that some statements in the report were inadmissible, but found some admissible as they supported the stipulation.
Jimenez also challenged the hearing judge's determination that the facts and circumstances surrounding the underlying conviction involved moral turpitude. The panel, however, affirmed that finding. It noted: "Jimenez breached his duty when he knowingly and without permission used his position of trust to restrict authorized users' access to the computer system." It concluded: "We find that Jimenez's actions demonstrate deficiencies in his character including a lack of trustworthiness and fidelity to fiduciary duties, which is evidence of moral turpitude."
In aggravation, Jimenez was given limited weight for a discipline record in which the misconduct occurred after that in the instant matter. He was also allotted substantial aggravating weight for a lack of candor in "deliberately presenting false testimony in the State Bar Court, as well as for indifference demonstrated by a lack of insight into the wrongfulness of his misconduct.
In mitigation, he was allotted moderate weight for cooperating with the State Bar by stipulating to some easily provable facts and admission of some documents and for character reference letters from 10 individuals--most of whom did not demonstrate full awareness of the extent of misconduct at issue. He was also granted substantial mitigating weight for evidence of performing pro bono work and community service.
The State Bar Court later granted motion to stay the actual suspension until August 19, 2023 so that Jimenez could conclude representation in three cases scheduled for trial.
Michael Paul Newman
State Bar #293907, Corona (May 19, 2023)
Newman was suspended for six months and placed on probation for two years.
He was found culpable, by clear and convincing evidence, of five counts of professional misconduct in connection with his representation of two clients in the same matter. His wrongdoing included: failing to disclose a relationship with an interested party through a written disclosure to a client, failing to obtain written consent before representing clients with potential conflicts, failing to maintain client funds in a trust account, failing to restore disputed funds to a trust account, and failing to promptly pay client funds after being requested to do so.
In the underlying matter, Newman represented two related transportation companies as their general counsel, as well as a truck driver who worked for them. He drafted an agreement for the companies in which its drivers were classified as independent contractors. One driver, while working for the company was seriously injured by a driver from another company--incurring approximately $500,000 in medical expenses. Newman believed the driver had been wrongly classified as an independent contractor, and advised a company owner to dissuade the driver from suing. The owner did so, agreeing to pay $1,000 weekly, as well as transportation and translation services to the driver--who primarily spoke Korean. At the company's request, Newman represented the driver in a suit against the driver who caused the injury--without securing prior written consent of either the driver or company principals, despite his awareness of potentially conflicting claims.
In the course of negotiating the driver's claims with an insurer, Newman drafted a contingency agreement, which he found online and used as a template, leaving the fee amounts blank. The agreement contained a waiver of conflict--though he did not discuss that with the driver, who received the agreement directly from the company. Newman persuaded the company owners that the driver had to sign the agreement before he could negotiate further with the insurer. The driver did so, after the agreement was modified to provide a 15% fee of any settlement as attorney fees. He later testified he would not have signed if he understood that Newman would keep 15% of the recovery, and Newman did not inform the company that he intended to enforce the provision.
The case was ultimately settled for $1 million. With payment anticipated, the company owners reached an agreement with the driver that provided he would repay the company a total of $130,000 for the services it had provided him--along with $20,000 as a bonus to Newman for his legal services. An accounting Newman later provided the driver included a line item of 15% of the settlement to be paid to him directly. The driver objected to paying a total of $280,000 rather than the $150,000 to which he had agreed.
However, when the settlement check arrived, Newman paid himself $150,000 from the funds. He did not pay the company the expected $130,000--and later contended it was illegal fee splitting. He subsequently quit his position at the company, but continued to work on the driver's case. A final accounting included $150,000 for Newman's services, but omitted the previously-agreed $130,000 reimbursement to the company. The driver paid that amount himself, and subsequently sued Newman for conversion, fraud, and malpractice. An appellate court ultimately affirmed a judgment for $130,000 against Newman, who filed for bankruptcy a few days later, seeking to discharge the judgment.
In aggravation, Newman committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that significantly harmed a client who was highly vulnerable due to language limitations, severe injuries, and high expenses at stake; showed indifference and a lack of insight into his misconduct, and continued to fail to make restitution for the $130,000 owed the client.
In mitigation, he was allotted limited weight for stipulating to limited facts but not culpability, as well as for testimony presented by seven character witnesses--only one of whom was familiar with the charges in the disciplinary case.
In recommending discipline including actual suspension, the State Bar Court noted that Newman's misconduct "involves a troubling disregard for the duties owed his clients over an extended course of dealing."
State Bar #290252, Walnut Creek (May 19, 2023)
Safavi was suspended from the practice of law for 18 months and placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing seven acts of professional misconduct related to a single client matter.
His wrongdoing included failing to maintain the required balance in his client trust account, failing to promptly inform a client of receipt of settlement funds, failing to respond to reasonable client inquiries, and failing to maintain adequate records of client funds. Three additional counts involved moral turpitude: intentionally misappropriating client funds, as well as two counts of making material misrepresentations--one to a client and one to State Bar investigators.
Safavi was retained to represent a client with a personal injury claim; their fee agreement provided he was entitled to 40% of the net recovery obtained before trial. The matter settled for $8,000 before trial; some additional costs were incurred, and three medical liens remained outstanding. After depositing the settlement check into his client trust account, Safavi made debits that reduced the balance to a minimal amount--resulting in his misappropriation of client funds.
The client then contacted Safavi to inquire about the settlement payment, which he falsely claimed he had not received; he also failed to inform the lienholders he had received the settlement funds. He eventually paid the client and resolved the medical liens, but later misrepresented to State Bar investigators that he had deposited the client funds into his operating account because his client trust account was closed.
In aggravation, Safavi committed multiple acts of wrongdoing.
In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation and was given slight mitigating credit for having practiced law for six years without a record of discipline.
William August Salzwedel
State Bar #225331, Thousand Oaks (May 19, 2023)
Salzwedel was suspended from practicing law for six months and placed on probation for one year after an appeal of that same discipline recommendation by the hearing judge below.
He was found culpable of two counts of professional misconduct: acquiring a pecuniary interest adverse to a client without disclosing it and obtaining prior informed written consent to the transaction and advising of the right to independent counsel, as well as failing to maintain respect for the courts. The wrongdoing occurred in a single client case.
Salzwedel was hired to pursue a financial elder abuse claim and prepare amendments to an estate plan. Two of the client's treating physicians had earlier diagnosed him to be mentally incompetent as suffering from dementia. They recommended that the client's daughter take over his trust as successor trustee, but the client disagreed--and revoked the power of attorney he had executed previously that had named her as his agent.
Salzwedel prepared three documents: a trustee resignation, modification of the trust naming himself as temporary successor trustee, and a durable power of attorney appointing himself as the client's agent. Salzwedel did not first advise the client he could seek the advice of independent counsel regarding the consequences of serving as trustee and attorney simultaneously, nor did he ask for written consent to the successor trustee's terms.
The daughter then filed a petition for conservatorship, as well as a petition to determine her father's capacity to execute the estate planning documents. In a subsequent hearing, a substitute temporary successor was appointed for the client's personal and trust assets. Salzwedel objected, but was ultimately terminated and ordered to render an accounting for the trust during the time he had been involved as successor trustee.
On review, the court disproved of the fees and medical expert expenses charged--and noted Salzwedel failed to keep adequate time records and had billed his attorney rate of $180 per hour for non-legal services such as scheduling medical appointments, and for talking to the State Bar when being investigated in the instant disciplinary case. The court found Salzwedel had surcharged the client's accounts by $96,077--and entered a judgment against him, which was affirmed on appeal.
Salzwedel then filed a claim for injunctive and declaratory relief and damages against several individuals--including the judge who issued the judgment for the surcharge, alleging discrimination, retaliation, and unequal treatment. The district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss, which was affirmed on appeal; Salzwedel's petition for certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court was denied, as was his request for reconsideration.
In aggravation, Salzwedel overreached in exploiting his position of trust in dealing with a highly vulnerable client who had a dementia diagnosis, demonstrated indifference in failing to recognize the wrongfulness of his misconduct, and made no attempt to make restitution--even though ordered by a court to do so.
In mitigation, he was allotted nominal weight for entering into a stipulation of "mostly easily provable facts" that made no admission of culpability.
Lawrence Jay Cox
State Bar #147376, Rolling Hill Estates (May 19, 2023)
Cox was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing five acts of professional misconduct related to a single client matter.
His wrongdoing included: failing to perform legal services with competence, failing to act with reasonable diligence in representing a client, failing to respond to the client's reasonable case status inquiries, improperly withdrawing from employment, and failing to notify the State Bar of his change of address within 30 days of moving as required.
In the underlying matter, Cox was hired to represent a client in a probate matter. After being retained, he discovered that the estate assets had not properly been placed in trust, and that the majority of the estate did not require supervision by the probate court. Seven months later, when the client contacted him about the status of the case, he admitted he had "forgotten" about the probate matter. He subsequently secured court approval for the appointment of the client as executor of the estate and filed a pleading, after which a final hearing was set for the matter.
Cox later sent the client an apologetic email, acknowledging he had been "a poor communicator," citing illness, the death of his parents, and his sister's relocation out of state.
The probate notes identified several deficiencies in the pleadings that needed to be cleared at least five court days before the scheduled court proceeding. Cox was aware of this, but took no action to resolve the deficiencies--nor did he inform the client of them or respond to her voicemail messages inquiring about the hearing. He failed to appear at the hearing. However, the client appeared--and the court granted a continuance.
A new attorney was eventually substituted into the probate matter. When the final accounting was approved, the court ordered that Cox was entitled to receive $8,917 in statutory fees for his legal services. The client mailed a check to him, deducting $2,546 for fees paid to the new attorney. Cox did not negotiate the check, and the sum then remained with the estate for the benefit of the sole beneficiary.
In aggravation, Cox committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that caused his client and the estate beneficiary significant distress.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation and had practiced law discipline-free for approximately 28 years. He was also allotted significant mitigating credit for the "aberrational misconduct" that stemmed from a "confluence" of emotional, physical, and mental difficulties that he has taken steps to address.
Brian Nicholas Folland
State Bar #157350, Fresno (May 5, 2023)
Folland was placed on probation for two years after he stipulated to committing seven acts of professional misconduct related to two client cases.
His wrongdoing included: failing to adequately supervise a non-lawyer performing services for a client, failing to reasonably consult with his client about representation objectives, failing to keep a client informed of significant case developments, and two counts each of failing to perform legal services with competence and improperly withdrawing from representation.
In one case, Folland represented a client pursuing a claim for unpaid wages. He also employed and was responsible for supervising a non-lawyer, who, in the course of helping handle the case, made false statements to the Labor Commission. As a result, the client's claim was dismissed.
In the other client matter, Folland was hired to represent a woman in juvenile dependency proceedings involving her three minor children--all of whom had been removed from her care. One of the children had been placed with an adoptive family. However, Folland failed to explain to her that his scope of representation did not include an appeal of the court's decision to terminate her parental rights, failed to supervise his staff--who gave her false assurances that Folland would file an appeal, and failed to perform any related legal services for several months. A second child had been placed with prospective adoptive parents; Folland failed to file any pleadings or make scheduled appearances in the matter--inhibiting the client's ability to take corrective action. And the third child had been placed in a foster home pending trial. Folland constructively terminated his representation by failing to file for a substitution of attorney, failing to appear at trial, and failing to inform the client, both that her parental rights to the child had been terminated and that she had the right to appeal that decision.
In aggravation, Folland committed multiple acts of misconduct, causing harm to a highly vulnerable client, and demonstrated indifference toward rectifying his wrongdoing.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practiced law discipline-free for approximately 17 years, and submitted evidence of performing substantial pro bono and community services.
Marc Steen Kohnen
State Bar #255303, San Diego (May 26, 2023)
Kohnen was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing three acts of professional misconduct: failing to deposit client funds in a trust account, failing to promptly refund unearned advance fees, and failing to cooperate in the State Bar's investigation of the wrongdoing alleged. All three counts related to a single client matter.
In that case, a client facing possible discipline by a nursing licensing board hired Kohnen to represent him, paying an advanced fee of $1,000. Kohnen received the fee and deposited it into his operating account. As the matter proceeded, Kohnen advised the client to pay the fine imposed rather than contest it--and offered to refund $750 of the fee paid. The client agreed and accepted.
Though Kohnen had promised to put the refund check in the mail, he did not do so, and ignored the client's requests for information. The client subsequently obtained a small claims court judgment against Kohnen for the refund amount plus costs. Eight months later, the client, who had not yet received the refund, filed a State Bar complaint against Kohnen, who then ignored numerous inquiries sent by State Bar investigators before eventually satisfying the judgment against him.
In aggravation, Kohnen committed multiple acts of wrongdoing.
In mitigation, he entered into a pretrial stipulation, had practiced law for more than 15 years without a record of discipline, and was allotted some mitigating weight for suffering from financial and emotional difficulties during the time of the misconduct at issue.
Darren Singh Veracruz
State Bar #294575, Santa Ana (May 26, 2023)
Veracruz was placed on probation for one year after he stipulated to committing five acts of professional misconduct related to a single client matter.
He was culpable of appearing as an attorney for a party without authority to do so, providing legal advice without disclosing a personal relationship that would risk limiting it, representing two clients with conflicting interests in a matter without obtaining their prior written consents, and two counts of failing to keep his client informed of significant case developments.
Veracruz accepted a position as general counsel and chief office of human resources at a university--representing the interests of the institution's president. He received notice from the EEOC that an individual had filed a complaint against the university alleging disability discrimination and retaliation, but did not inform the university president. Instead, he sent a grievance response to the complainant, proposing to reinstate his position.
Some months later, Veracruz advised the president about severance pay for an administrative assistant at the university who had resigned--without disclosing that he was in an intimate relationship with the woman.
Veracruz was subsequently placed on administrative leave after a complaint was received in connection with his undisclosed relationship. While on leave, Veracruz advised two university employees about preparing EEOC demand letters. He resigned the same day they sent their letters to the university.
In aggravation, Veracruz committed multiple acts of wrongdoing.
In mitigation, he entered into a prefiling stipulation, had practiced law for more than five years without a record of discipline, provided letters from eight individuals representing a range of backgrounds--all of who were aware of the details of his misconduct and vouched for his good character, offered evidence of performing community service, and took remedial measures after the investigation of his misconduct began by enrolling in the State Bar's Ethics and Client Trust Accounting Schools.--Barbara Kate Repa