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New Summary Disbarment: Now With Extra Summary!

Keaton largeCalifornia lawyers who commit felony crimes found their sledding a bit tougher on January 1, 2019. On that date new amendments to Business and Professions Code section 6102(c) went into effect, expanding the definition of crimes subject to summary disbarment. Summary disbarment, as the name implies, is disbarment without a hearing where the attorney is allowed to present evidence at mitigating circumstances. The prior version of the statute provided for summary disbarment for felony crimes that involved moral turpitude per se, crimes that involve moral turpitude in every instance. The new version of the statute provides for summary disbarment upon not just for conviction of crimes of moral turpitude per se but also for felony crimes that involve moral turpitude in the surrounding facts and circumstances.

The summary disbarment statute has been around for a long time and it’s gone through many changes. Originally it provided for summary disbarment upon conviction of either a misdemeanor or felony involving moral turpitude (see In the Matter of Rothrock (1940) 16 Cal.2d 449. 451. In the 1950’s, perhaps reflecting a more lawyer-friendly environment, the statute was changed to provide for felony disbarment in crimes where “(1) An element of the offense is the specific intent to deceive, defraud, steal, or make or suborn a false statement” and “(2) The offense was committed in the course of the practice of law or in any manner such that a client of the attorney was a victim.”  In the Matter of Lilly (Review Dept. 1992) 2 Cal. State Bar Ct. Rptr. 473, 478; 1993 WL 277528.  The statute was amended in 1997 to its penultimate formulation, removing the requirement that the crime victimized a client or occurred in the course of the practice of law and expanding it to any crime of moral turpitude.

Moral turpitude is an “elusive concept incapable of precise general definition.” (In re Higbie (1972) 6 Cal.3d 562, 569. Older case law defined moral turpitude broadly as “an act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes to his fellow men, or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and man.” In re O’Connell (1920), 184 Cal. 584, among many other different formulations (see People v. Castro (1985) 38 Cal.3d 301, 333 (J. Bird, dissenting): “As one commentator stated, “[j]udicial definitions of moral turpitude are so imprecise that it is only a matter of conjecture   whether a particular crime involves it.” (Note, Entrance and Disciplinary Requirements for Occupational Licenses in California (1962) 14 Stan.L.Rev. 533, 542.) With respect to attorney discipline, the definition has been refined through the years to a slightly more precise formulation: “[I]n attorney discipline cases; moral turpitude should be defined with the aim of protecting the public, promoting confidence in the legal system, and maintaining high professional standards.”  In Re Grant (2014), 58 Cal. 4th 469, 476.  Once we get away from the relative certainty of crimes involving dishonesty and intentionally violence, moral turpitude evokes Justice Potter Stewart’s famous (paraphrased) statement on obscenity:  “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

So if the crime itself doesn’t necessarily involve moral turpitude, what does moral turpitude in the surrounding circumstances mean?  In Re Alkow (1966) 64 Cal.2d 838 involved an attorney convicted of voluntary manslaughter, which is not a crime of moral turpitude per se (see People v. Coad (1986) 181 Cal. App. 3d 1094, 1104).

“After his driver’s license expired in 1961 Alkow made one attempt to secure another license, but it was refused on the ground that he had defective vision.  From the time his license expired until he committed the manslaughter, he was convicted of more than 20 traffic violations, at least 11 of which were for driving without a license. On December 5, 1963, he pleaded guilty to a violation of right of way and driving without a license, and on December 6, 1963, he pleaded guilty to driving without a license and without evidence of registration. He was placed on probation for one year in each action upon the condition that he not violate any laws. On January 16, 1964, he pleaded guilty to a failure to observe a boulevard stop and driving without a license and was placed on probation for one year upon the condition that he not violate any laws and upon the further specific condition that he not drive without a license.

About 6 p.m. on February 15, 1964, while driving without a license in violation of the terms of his probation and the law, he struck and killed a woman pedestrian in Santa Ana. His defective vision was one proximate cause of the accident. Although he did not intend the accident, he knew his vision was defective and reasonably must have known that injury to others was a possible if not a probable result of his driving.

Alkow, at 839–40.  A more contemporary example is the result in an unpublished State Bar Court Review Dept. opinion in In the Matter of Wyatt, State Bar Court case no. 11–C–17662,  2014 WL 642699, filed February 7, 2014.  Wyatt plead nolo contendere to felony vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (Penal Code section 191.5.)  Wyatt lied to a police officer about how much he had to drink (his BAC was .18%).  Both the hearing judge and the Review Department found that lie to be moral turpitude in the surrounding circumstance.

An example on the other side of the ledger is In Re Fahey (1973) 8 Cal.3d 842, where an attorney’s repeated failure to file tax returns over a period of years was found not to involve moral turpitude in the surrounding circumstances because expert psychiatric testimony evidence was introduced suggesting that the conduct was the result of Fahey’s “suffering from a psychoneurotic condition that substantially impaired his ability to take proper care of his personal financial affairs.” Fahey, at 850.

Some might say that the change in section 6102(c) isn’t that great since applicable discipline standards (Standard 2.15) provide that disbarment is the presumptive discipline for a felony involving moral turpitude in the surrounding circumstances.  But Wyatt at least had the opportunity to demonstrate mitigation, wanting though it was found, something future respondents in his position won’t enjoy.  There will be a hearing in every felony conviction to determine if it qualifies for summary disbarment and if it does, no further hearing to discuss mitigation.

Over time, the discipline system has gotten less and less sympathetic to attorneys who commit crimes.  This latest change certainly won’t be the last in that progression.  There has never been a worse time to be both an attorney and criminal. But that will change.

Reversal of Fortune: Disbarment Becomes Dismissal on Appeal

A recent unpublished but public opinion from the State Bar Court Review Department tells a story unique in most observer’s experience:  a disbarment recommendation from the Hearing Department is completely overturned on appeal and the case is dismissed.

The case is In the Matter of Bradshaw, State Bar Court case no. 16-O-15588, opinion filed July 30, 2019.

Bradshaw created testimentary documents, including a revocable living trust, for his client Ora Gosney in 2006.  After she fell and became incapacitated in August 2013, he became her conservator and spent money from her trust for repairs on her house,  contracting the work to a company he had played some role in setting up.  After he was removed as conservator by the San Francisco Superior Court, the State Bar Office of Chief Trial Counsel brought discipline charges alleging misrepresentations, a scheme to defraud the trust and misappropriation of money from the trust, all acts of moral turpitude in violation of Business and Professions Code 6106 the amounts paid for the repair work done on Ms. Gosney’s home.  Mr. Bradshaw’s State Bar member page was tagged with a “Consumer Alert” badge when the discipline charges were filed.  After a three week trial, the hearing judge issued her deciscion recommending disbarment and placing Bradshaw in involuntary inactive enrollment on August 30, 2018.

The Review Department reversed, finding that the evidnce for moral turpitude was not clear and convincing, the burden of proof in a disciplinary proceeding.  It noted that Ms. Gosney wanted to keep living at home, that the work was necessary and priced at fair market value.  Moreover, there was no evidence that Bradshaw, while involved in its creation, had an ownership interest, as found by the Hearing Judge.

The dismissal means that Bradshaw will be able to recover some of his out of pocket costs for the long trial and appeal but not his attorney fees.  There will be no compensation for being branded as a consumer threat and for the year of ineligibility to practice law.

The Superior Court decision to remove Bradshaw as conservator undoubtedly loomed large in the decision to prosecute this case and the Hearing Judge’s decision as well.  But civil and criminal courts do get it wrong and cutting through the deference given those decisions in the discipline system takes hard work and the skill of an experienced discipline defense lawyer.  Bradshaw luckily had one and apparently the resources to keep fighting after a bruising trial.  Yes, the system did work as it was supposed to but you can’t help wondering if this trip was really necessary.

 

Stranger Things: Will California Legalize Nonlawyer Ownership of Law Firms?

On July 11, 2019, the State Bar Board of Trustees voted to put out for public comment the recommendations of the Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services (ATILS).  ATILS was formed in July 2018 following the Board’s consideration of a report from Prof. William Henderson of the University of Indiana Maurer School of Law.

Prof. Henderson is well known for the groundbreaking scholarly work on the dynamics of the legal marketplace and the effect those dynamics have on the legal profession.  The Board commissioned Prof. Henderson to report on those changing dynamics.  His Legal Market Landscape Report concluded that

There is widespread consensus among lawyers, judges, legal academics, regulators and sophisticated clients that the legal market is in a period of significant tumult.  Further, there is also agreement that this tumult may be the early stages of a fundamental transformation. Yet, what is new and disconcerting for many is that these changes are not being driven by licensed lawyers or the organized bar. Rather, the causes are powerful external market forces that cannot be easily categorized using our familiar and well-established frameworks. At a minimum, our frameworks need updating.

Now, after a year of study, ATILS has produced an outline of how those frameworks could be updated.  The recommendations, while still tentative, are nothing less than revolutionary.  They include creating new exceptions that authorize the practice of law by nonlawyers in specified areas, allowing certified nonlawyers to provide legal services through technology (e.g. Legal Zoom), and changing the rules that prohibit nonlawyers from having ownership interest in entities providing legal services, principally California Rule of Professional Conduct 5.4 “Financial and Similar Arrangements with Nonlawyers.”

There is a lot to unpack in the ATILS report. It deserves close attention from every lawyer who represents private clients, and especially from lawyers who represent real people as clients, what Prof. Henderson calls the PeopleLaw sector of the profession. These changes could fundamentally change your professional life.

The proposed changes to Rule 5.4 are perhaps the most revolutionary. The current Rule, only adopted November 1, 2018, but reflecting legal principles long held, says

(a) A lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees directly or indirectly with a nonlawyer or with an organization that is not authorized to practice law, … [limited exceptions];

(b) A lawyer shall not form a partnership or other organization with a nonlawyer if any of the activities of the partnership or other organization consist of the practice of law.

(c) A lawyer shall not permit a person who recommends, employs, or pays the lawyer to render legal services for another to direct or regulate the lawyer’s independent professional judgment or interfere with the lawyer-client relationship in rendering legal services.

(d) A  lawyer  shall  not  practice  with  or  in  the  form  of  a  professional  corporation  or other organization authorized to practice law for a profit if: (1) a nonlawyer owns any interest in it, except that a fiduciary representative of  a  lawyer’s  estate  may  hold  the  lawyer’s  stock  or  other  interest  for  a reasonable time during administration; (2) a  nonlawyer  is  a  director  or  officer  of  the  corporation  or  occupies  a position of similar responsibility in any other form of organization; or (3) a  nonlawyer  has  the  right  or  authority  to  direct  or  control  the  lawyer’s independent professional judgment.

(e) The Board of Trustees of the State Bar shall formulate and adopt Minimum Standards for Lawyer Referral Services, which, as from time to time amended, shall be binding on lawyers.    A lawyer shall not accept a referral from, or otherwise participate in, a lawyer referral service unless it complies with such Minimum Standards for Lawyer Referral Services.

(f) A  lawyer  shall  not  practice  with  or  in  the  form  of  a  nonprofit  legal  aid,  mutual benefit or advocacy group if the nonprofit organization allows any third person to interfere with the lawyer’s independent professional judgment, or with the lawyer-client  relationship,  or  allows  or  aids  any  person  to  practice  law  in  violation  of these rules or the State Bar Act

Rule 5.4 has been described as a rule necessary to preserve lawyer control over the provision of legal services because nonlawyers, not being fiduciaries, might not provide those services consistent with the best interest of the clients but in the best interest of the entity providing those services. Put another way, in the ever-present tension between law practice as profession and law practice as business, non-attorney ownership or control will tilt things too much to the business side.

With that in mind, ATILS proposes two alternative ways to change Rule 5.4.

Alternative 1 would continue to impose a general prohibition against forming a partnership with, or sharing a legal fee with, a nonlawyer. “The Alternative 1 amendments would: (1) expand the existing exception for fee sharing with a nonlawyer that allows a lawyer to pay a court-awarded legal fee to a nonprofit organization that employed, retained, recommended, or facilitated employment of the lawyer in the matter; and (2) add a new exception that a lawyer may be a part of  a  firm in which a nonlawyer holds a financial interest, provided that the lawyer or law firm complies with certain requirements including among other requirements, that: the firm’s sole purpose is providing legal services to clients; the nonlawyers provide services that assist the lawyer or law firm in providing legal services to clients; and the nonlawyers have no power to direct or control the professional judgment of a lawyer.”

Alternative 2 reflects a more radical revision. “Alternative 2…would largely eliminate the longstanding general prohibition and substitute a permissive rule broadly permitting fee sharing with a nonlawyer provided that the lawyer or law firm complies with requirements intended to ensure that a client provides informed written consent to the lawyer’s fee sharing arrangement with a nonlawyer.”

The bedrock of these proposed changes is the idea that the current regulation scheme is preventing the efficient delivery of legal services and access to justice. “To the extent these rules promote consumer protection, they do so only for the minority of citizens who can afford legal services. Modifying the ethics rules to facilitate greater collaboration across law and other disciplines will (1) drive down costs; (2) improve access; (3) increase predictability and transparency of legal services; (4) aid the growth of new businesses; and (5) elevate the reputation of the legal profession.” Henderson Legal Market Landscape Report, at page 7.

These changes, along with the others recommended by ATILS, would erode the monopoly over the provision of legal services currently held by lawyers.  Of course, any change in the Rules of Professional Conduct must be approved by the California Supreme Court (Bus. & Prof. Code § 6077).  There will be winners and losers if these ideas are enacted, and some of those losers are going to be lawyers.

The independence of the legal profession has almost become a religious principle to some lawyers.  Yet, the marketplace changes described by Prof. Henderson are very real.  Rule 5.4, and its equivalent in other states, is being violated every day by hundreds, if not thousands, of legal services providers.

Avvo Legal Services prompted a backlash that resulted in a number of legal ethics opinions (including San Diego County Bar Association formal ethics opinion 2019-2).  The new owner of Avvo Legal Services pulled the plug on the business, but a similar model exists for many others.  And there are many other legal services providers where non-lawyer participation and control is hidden.

Will California allow legalize non-lawyer ownership of legal services providers?  We don’t know, but stranger things have happened.

 

Price of Domestic Violence Goes Up in State Bar Court

A large part of the work of the California discipline system is dealing with attorneys who are convicted of crimes. This part hasn’t always gotten a lot of attention, something that may have changed with the highly publicized retroactive fingerprinting of attorneys by the State Bar of California. Perhaps that is because it doesn’t deal with the application of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which are the focus of many of the people in the ethics world. Committing crimes is so self-evidently wrong that it may seem uninteresting. Of course, it is extremely interesting to those directly involved. And should be to others because the criminal conviction cases can raise issues relevant to the wider society outside the confines of law practice.

A recent unpublished decision of the Review Department of the State Bar deals with one of the issues: domestic violence.  In the Matter of Khaliq involves an attorney who was convicted of violating Penal Code section 273.5 after a plea.  That section makes wilful infliction of corporeal injury on a spouse, co-cohabitant or other defined persons that results in a traumatic condition a “wobbler” crime, one that can be charged either as a felony or misdemeanor.

One of the most interesting things about Khaliq is that the hearing judge’s  recommendation was disbarment, based on her findings that the surrounding circumstances involved moral turpitude. Discipline Standard 2.15(b) states that “[d]isbarment is the presumed sanction for final conviction of a felony in which the facts and circumstances surrounding the offense involve moral turpitude, unless the most compelling mitigating circumstance clearly predominate, in which case actual suspension of at least two years is appropriate.”  Discipline Standard  reThe Standards, despite their name, being merely guidelines, don’t control the result; the Supreme Court has said that appropriate discipline in a given case depends on “on a balanced consideration of the unique factors in each case.” In the Matter of Van Sickle (Review Dept. 2006) 4 Cal. State Bar Ct. Rptr . 980, 2006, WL 2465633.  That means that comparable discipline case law must be looked at as well.

The problem is that there is very little comparable discipline case law that comes anywhere close to imposing disbarment for an act of domestic violence.

The harshest reported discipline imposed has been In the Matter of Otto (1989) 48 Cal.3d 970 where State Bar recommendation of six months actual suspension was adopted by the Supreme Court in a one-page opinion.  Otto had been found guilty of two felonies, violations of section 273.5 and Penal Code section 245, both reduced to misdemeanors.  The State Bar found no moral turpitude, but we don’t know why, as the Otto decision contains no facts.   Neither side appealed, and the Court was reviewing the case under its plenary power to review all discipline matters.

 

Another case of the same relative vintage, In Re Hickey (1990) 50 Cal.3d 571 involved a nolo contendere plea to a concealed weapon charge and an improper withdrawal in a client matter.  Included in the surrounding facts and circumstances were, in the Supreme Court’s words, “evidence that the attorney had repeatedly engaged in acts of physical violence toward his wife and others and that his conduct arose from repeated abuse of alcohol, discipline was warranted….from which he had recovered, and was related to marital difficulties that had been resolved.”  Although Hickey was charged with misdemeanor violations of Penal Code sections 245, subdivision (a)(1) (assault with a deadly weapon) and 273.5 (spouse abuse) “the criminal proceedings against petitioner were suspended pursuant to Penal Code section 1000.6, for the purpose of granting diversion, and petitioner was referred to the Anger Awareness Program.”  Hickey, at 576. The recommended discipline, including 30 days of actual suspension, was adopted and imposed.

Looking Hickey with contemporary eyes, the level of discipline seems astonishingly low, especially given the evidence of chronic violence toward his wife, notwithstanding that it was connected with an alcohol abuse problem that was ostensibly mitigated.  The Review Department in Khaliq noted:

We also acknowledge that prior discipline in domestic violence cases often has not reflected the changes in society and the current recognition of the seriousness of domestic violence. Many earlier cases resolved such matters with low levels of discipline, including minimal or no suspension. We agree with the hearing judge that it is important to reevaluate the appropriate discipline by considering current societal values and changing mores.

Khaliq, slip opinion at 17.

Yet, disbarment was a bridge too far for the Review Department majority.  It noted that only two California discipline cases have imposed disbarment for acts of domestic violence, both involving homicide.  It noted that Khaliq’s felony conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor at the time of sentencing;  Standard 2.16(c) says that disbarment or actual suspension is the presumed sanction for final conviction of a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude.  It agreed with the hearing judge that moral turpitude was involved in the surrounding circumstances,  including a “prank” where respondent sent text messages to his former girlfriend purportedly from a potential employer, and a lie told about a domestic violence incident that occurred 12 years earlier in undergraduate school.  As part of its balanced consideration of all relevant factors, it gave less weight to aggravating factors and more weight to mitigating factors, including character witness testimony from Khaliq’s family.  The court looked at discipline decisions from other states, filling in the gaps in California case law.  It ultimately recommended two years of actual suspension with probation and the requirement that the respondent prove his rehabilitation, fitness to practice and current learning and ability in the law in a petition under Standard 1.2.(c)(1) before resuming active status.  Judge Purcell, dissenting, would have imposed three years of actual suspension.   Not disbarment but not a cake walk, especially given the Office of Chief Trial Counsel’s zeal in opposing Standard 1.2(c)(i) petitions.

Khaliq is not citable as precedent, but in the small world of State Bar Court jurisprudence where everybody, including hearing judges, read Review Department decisions with great interest, it will have an impact.  Lawyers who commit criminal acts of domestic violence will find tougher sledding in State Bar Court.

 

 

 

A Judicial Cri De Coeur On Civility

The tone of most judicial opinions runs a little cold. Decisions crafted with logic and authority that read as if they might have been written by Mr. Spock or some futuristic AI. A recent decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeal moves against the trend, blending its logic and authority with a passionate viewpoint that laments the lost civility of the profession. At the same time, the decision cites law that hints at potential ways to enforce civility rules that heretofore have had only the force of a bully pulpit.

The setup in Lasalle v. Vogel, case no. G055381, filed June 11, 2019 (Justice Bedsworth, writing for the Court, with Justices Moore and Ikola concurring) is a legal malpractice action filed by a client ascribing the dismissal of her action for failure to provide discovery to her lawyer’s failure to communicate. The defendant lawyer was served with the summons and complaint. Thirty-six days later, after no response was filed in the court, the plaintiff’s lawyer sent the defendant lawyer a letter and an email, informing the defendant lawyer that her default would be entered if no response was filed the very next day, a Friday. No response was filed. On Monday a request for entry of default was filed at 4:05 pm and emailed to the defendant. She responded at 5:22 pm, with a request for an extension of time to respond.

By then, it was too late. The defendant lawyer filed a motion for relief from the default. It was opposed, with an opposition that took the opportunity to slime the defendant lawyer with a request for judicial notice (granted) of her discipline in two unrelated matters. Based on the default, a $1 million judgment was entered about a year later.

While the Court expressed sympathy for court and plaintiff and bemoaned the dilatory tactics “we have all encountered [but] we cannot see this as such a situation, and cannot countenance the way this default was taken, so we reverse the judgment.” (Slip opinion at page 4.)

In the pages that follow, the Court cites a long history of judicial opinions bemoaning the decline of civility in litigation practice and states that the Court could have cited many others from other jurisdictions “were we writing a compendium rather than an opinion”. They summarize our current state of affairs from quoting it’s own opinion and call to action in Kim v. Westmoore Partners, Inc. (2011) 201 Cal.App.4th267, 293:

Our profession is rife with cynicism, awash in incivility. Lawyers and judges of our generation spend a great deal of time lamenting the loss of a golden age when lawyers treated each other with respect and courtesy.  It’s time to stop talking about the problem and act on it.  For decades, our profession has given lip service to civility. All we have gotten from it is tired lips.  We have reluctantly concluded lips cannot do the job; teeth are required.  In this case, those teeth will take the form of sanctions. We sanctioned counsel $10,000.

And, aside from the court’s power to sanction, what sort of teeth might exist?

The Court notes that “it’s gotten so bad the California State Bar amended the oath new attorneys take to add a civility requirement.  Since 2014, new attorneys have been required to vow to treat opposing counsel with dignity, courtesy, and integrity. That was not done here. Dignity, courtesy, and integrity were conspicuously lacking.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Because this is a civil action, not a discipline decision, there is no citation to Business and Professions Code section 6103:

A willful disobedience or violation of an order of the court requiring him to do or forbear an act connected with or in the course of his profession, which he ought in good faith to do or forbear, and any violation of the oath taken by him, or of his duties as such attorney, constitute causes for disbarment or suspension.

Emphasis added.

The Court also cites Code of Civil Procedure section 583.130:

So to the extent it was possible for a party seeking a default with unseemly haste to commit an ethical breach without creating a legal issue, that distinction was erased by section 583.130. The ethical obligation to warn opposing counsel of an intent to take a default is now reinforced by a statutory policy that all parties “cooperate in bringing the action to trial or other disposition.”  (§583.130.)  Quiet speed and unreasonable deadlines do not qualify as “cooperation” and cannot be accepted by the courts.

Business and Professions Code section 6068(a) provides that “it is the duty of an attorney to do all of the following: (a) To support the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this state.” The State Bar Court has found that “the Supreme Court interprets section 6068(a) as a conduit by which attorneys may be charged and disciplined for violations of other specific laws which are not otherwise made disciplinable under the State Bar Act.” In the Matter of Lilley (Review Dept. 1991) 1 Cal. State Bar Ct. Rptr. 476, 1991 WL 70703.

California law once provided that it was the duty of an attorney to avoid “offensive personality”, former Business and Professions Code section 6068(f). That section was found to be unconstitutionally vague by the Ninth Circuit (United States v. Wunsch, 84 F.3d 1110, 1120 (9th Cir. 1996).) That section had been used to discipline attorneys for extreme violations of the civility rules. Since Wunsch, the conventional wisdom has been that civility codes were well-intentioned but unenforceable through the discipline process.

Lasalle suggests that there are two possible paths to enforce some civility codes: as violations of section 6103 (as oath violations for attorneys admitted after 2014) or section 6068(a) violations based on failure to comply with section 583.130.

It is also worth noting new California Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(d) states that professional misconduct includes engaging “in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.” We have no case law yet interpreting just how broad this rule’s reach might be.

Is discipline for lack of civility consistent with the public protection mission of the State Bar? The Lasalle Court would probably say yes: “We cannot accept [lawyer incivility] because it is contrary to legislative policy and because it is destructive of the legal system and the people who work within it. Allowing it to flourish has been counterproductive and corrosive” citing increased litigation [Slip opinion at page 10.]

Is discipline for lack of civility consistent with the public protection priorities of the State Bar? That is a question no one can yet answer.

Doris Day and the Man Who Was Too Mean to Die

The death of beloved entertainer Doris Day at the age of 97 naturally evokes in a California ethics lawyer memories of another who was not at all beloved.  Jerome Rosenthal.  The “man who was too mean to die”, as described by one of the discipline prosecutors who spent 20 years disbarring Rosenthal.

Jerome Rosenthal was the lawyer for Ms. Day’s husband, Marty Melcher. Melcher and Rosenthal essentially stole most of the money that Doris Day made during her acting career, only discovered after Melcher died in 1968.  Ms. Day and her son Terry Melcher filed their State Bar complaint against Rosenthal in December 1968.  Following a nearly twenty year delay, much of it caused by Rosenthal’s delaying tactics, the California Supreme Court ultimately disbarred him in 1987 (Rosenthal v. State Bar (1987) 43 Cal.3d 612.) In the meantime, Ms. Day obtained a judgment against Rosenthal, a judgment that Rosenthal was able to tie up in the Court of Appeal for ten years (Day v. Rosenthal (1985) 170 Cal. App. 3d 1125.)

But Rosenthal wasn’t finished.  He filed an unsuccessful action against the State Bar and the employees who prosecuted him (Rosenthal v. Vogt, et al. (1991), 229 Cal. App. 3d 69.)  He filed unsuccessful action in Federal Court against the California Supreme Court and State Bar officers Rosenthal v. Justices of the Supreme Court of California, 910 F.2d 561, 563 (9th Cir. 1990.)

The words of the trial court in Day v. Rosenthal summarizes the essence of disaster than was visited on Doris Day:

“The tragic drama in this case started to unfold back in the late “40’s or early ’50’s when Jerome B. Rosenthal began to represent Doris Day and Martin Melcher. It involves…. an attorney so intent on doing business with his clients, with their money … that he lost sight of ethical and legal principles. “The case from beginning to end oozes with attorney-client conflicts of interest, clouding and shading every transaction and depriving Doris Day and Martin Melcher of the independent legal advice to which they were entitled. It involves kick-backs, favored treatment of one client over others; it involves amateurish attempts to deal in the hotel and oil business that would be humorous but for the tragic consequences. It involves the extraction of fees from Doris Day and Martin Melcher and fees from other clients or entities for the same work performed. It involves an undertaking to provide financial and investment advice and a complete and utter failure to provide it. It involves a tortured effort by Rosenthal to maintain for years in the future the indentured position in which he had held Doris Day since 1956, even after she had ceased to permit him to act as her attorney. It involves a percentage retainer agreement that in the context of the facts of this case is void and against public policy because of the violation of the rules of professional conduct….

“The evidence so reeks of negligence, a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct and all that is basic in the traditional relationship of attorney and client as to require that the court, as best it can, undo the transaction that occurred so as to attempt to put Doris Day and her late husband’s estate back to a position as if they had not become enmeshed in the machinations of Rosenthal’s twisted sense of professional responsibility.”

Day v. Rosenthal, at 1134–35.

The Court of Appeals decision documents the many, many instances where that twisted sense of professional responsibility expressed itself, beginning with a 1956 contingency fee agreement purporting to award Rosenthal 10% of everything the Melchers made. “They created the foundation for Rosenthal’s abuses, overreaching and double-dealing. They made Rosenthal the Melchers’ accountant, investment advisor, record keeper and attorney. He became a quadruple threat, in complete control of the Melchers’ financial affairs, free of any checks or balances…. The agreements were short and deceptively simple. They did not spell out any of the ways in which Rosenthal would gain and the Melchers could lose. Yet, as the trial court found, Rosenthal never adequately informed the Melchers of the terms, conditions and implications of their respective 1956 retainer agreements.” (Day v. Rosenthal, at 1144.)

Only one good thing can be said to have come from the Man Who Was Too Mean to Die. The lengthy and tortured history of the discipline case against him highlighted the limitations of the volunteer system of discipline adjudication.  It helped point California in the direction the full time professional State Bar Court, recommended by Prof. Robert Fellmeth as part of the discipline reforms of late 1980’s and ultimately implemented in September 1989.

Aside from this small point, Jerome Rosenthal’s career stands as a monument to the darkest that the legal profession has yet produced.  Doris Day deserved better but she came back and fought and tried to make the world a better place in her work for animal welfare, a bright light in contrast to all that blackness.

Too Clever By Half

Another interesting State Bar Court decision, this one unpublished.  In the Matter of Bhardwaj.  Aside from another reminder that lawyers can be disciplined for conduct occurring outside the practice of law when they represent themselves, there is an interesting discussion of one of the things the respondent was sanctioned for an elaborate system of abbreviations meant to circumvent the word limitations in the Court of Appeals.  The Office of Chief Trial Counsel argued that it’s violated the lawyer’s duty to uphold the law (Bus. & Prof. Code section 6068(a)) and was an act of moral turpitude (Bus. & Prof. Code section 6106.) Neither, said the Review Department, citing to their own published decision In the Matter of Lilley (Review Dept. 1991) 1 Cal. State Bar Ct. Rptr. 476, because court rules are not equivalent to statutes, and the au courant definition of moral turpitude from the Supreme Court, In re Lesansky (2001) 25 Cal.4th 11.  Rather, respondent was rather “too clever by half”. This was clever enough, however, to constitute an aggravating factor.

No example of what this abbreviation system looked like in practice or was so dense as to amount to a secret code.