The plaintiffs hired the defendant law firm to advise him in a financial transaction. The fee agreement contained an arbitration clause. Defendant law firm had an associate who was licensed in New York but not California work on the matter, contributing 382 hours to the total of 928 billed by the firm. The relationship went south and plaintiffs filed this action against the law firm and the unlicensed-in-California associate for professional negligence and breach of fiduciary duty. Defendants moved to compel arbitration. Before arbitration, plaintiffs discovered the licensing status of the associate and moved to remand the matter to the trial court, arguing that the unlicensed status of the associate meant the entire fee agreement, including the arbitration was clause was void due the fraud. The arbitrator denied the motion, finding the arbitration clause severable. The decision after arbitration found the firm and the associate liable but concluded that the plaintiffs suffered no damages. The award ordered disgorgement of $138,075 in fees paid for the unlicensed associate’s services and $94,933 for the plaintiff’s fees incurred in the arbitration in connection with litigating that issue. The trial court confirmed the arbitration and the inevitable appeal followed.
On appeal plaintiffs again argued that entire fee agreement was tainted with fraud due the associate’s lack of California licensing and the law firm’s ethical misconduct in having the unlicensed associate work on the case. Citing one of the most significant California Supreme Court cases of the recent past, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP v. J-M Manufacturing Co., Inc. (2018) 6 Cal.5th 59, 72, they contended the ethical misconduct meant the arbitration award must be voided and the matter remanded to the trial court because “the arbitration has been undertaken to enforce a contract that is ‘illegal and against the public policy of the state.” (Sheppard, supra, 6 Cal.5th at p. 73.)
Defendants based their argument on another heavyweight pronouncement from the California Supreme Court, this one from the last century, Birbrower, Montalbano, Condon & Frank v. Superior Court (1998) 17 Cal.4th 119. Birbrower held that an unlicensed attorney’s illegal practice of law pursuant to the retainer agreement does not render the entire retainer agreement illegal.
In this Clash of the Ethics Titans, the Court of Appeal found Birbrower persuasive and Sheppard distinguishable. They upheld the trial court’s confirmation of the arbitration award. Along the way, they chastised plaintiff’s counsel for not even discussing Birbrower until page 79 of their reply brief and remanded counsel that Rule of Professional Conduct 3.3(a)(2) requires counsel to disclose authority known to be adverse to their position (see Rule 3.3: Another Shot Across the Bow.)
The Court of Appeal demurred on directly addressing the ethics issues involved in the firm’s assignment of an unlicensed associate to provide legal services to a California client in California, despite plaintiffs’ invocation of yet another heavyweight California Supreme Court case In Re Rose (2000) 22 Cal.4th 430. “We are reviewing a lower court’s order confirming an arbitration award, not conducting attorney discipline proceedings. And our jurisdiction has been invoked by appeal, not through any original petition. In re Rose has no application here.” So the question of whether lawyers of the defendant law firm might have violated former Rule of Professional Conduct 1-300(A) (current Rule 5.5(a)(2)) will have to be answered in another forum, if it is to be answered at all.
While it doesn’t exactly fit the mould, Brawerman reconfirms a truth about legal ethics captured in the pithy quote cited above from a former president of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL). In the civil arena, legal ethics are largely invoked in arguments about money, usually to justify non-payment of money. Here they were invoked in an unsuccessful effort to get another shot at proving up a claim of damages in front of a jury, a jury presumable less lawyer friendly than the arbitrator. It seems unlikely that this case will wind up in the pantheon of Supreme Court Titans, so the plaintiffs will likely have to be content with the disgorgement of fees.
The Court of Appeal upheld sanctions imposed on counsel by the trial court for violations of local trial court rules. Division 2 found sanctioned counsel’s argument lacking in a many areas, and bordering on frivolous, stating that they were publishing the opinion “to make clear that, in the future, an appellate argument such as this that is so lacking in even potentially persuasive value will indeed carry the possibility of sanctions as a frivolous appeal.” Among the leading infirmities was counsel’s failure on appeal to discuss the leading authority contrary to her position that the trial court lacked the authority to awared sanctions, the Bragg case. The Court reminded us that Rule 3.3(a)(2) provides that a lawyer shall not “fail to disclose to the tribunal* legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known* to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not disclosed by opposing counsel, or knowingly misquote to a tribunal the language of a book, statute, decision or other authority.” It also reminded us that it reminded us about Rule 3.3 once before in Davis v. TWC Dealer Group, Inc. (2019) 41 Cal.App.5th 662, 678.
The Court of Appeal neither sanctioned counsel or referred her to the State Bar. But it told us in certain terms that it could do those things and just might if it was faced with similar failures to comply with Rule 3.3(a)(2) in the future. The circumstances of this case, the relatively light sanction and the fact that bad faith was not found on counsel’s part militated against those measures in this case. The first part of Rule 3.3(a)(2) is a new Rule in California, adapted from the ABA Model Rules and adopted in 2018. There are no discipline cases applying it that can be found but the possibility of discipline in an appropriate case cannot be rules out.
At least one Court of Appeal has fired two warning shots concerning Rule 3.3. When and if they will direct their fire directly on the target remains to be seen.
Lopez v. Lopez, Second App. Dist., Div. 4, case no. B315959, filed 7/20/22.
The Second Appellate District has reversed a trial court ruling disqualifying a lawyer from representing his wife in litigation where the lawyer was likely to be called as a witness. This case provides one of those ‘teaching moments’ on a topic that is the subject of some confusion among lawyers, and, apparently, some judges: the differences between the California Rules of Professional Conduct and the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct.
Some of the confusion may be the result of the way professional responsibility has been taught by law schools. I will offer myself up as an example. I went to an ABA-accredited law school in Los Angeles, longer ago than I care to remember. So long ago that we actually studied the 1969 ABA Code of Professional Responsibility, with its confusing hodgepodge of Canons, “ECs” (ethical considerations) and “DRs” (disciplinary rules.) We also learned a little of the then recently adopted ABA Model Rules. But our instruction never acknowledged, let only elucidated, the then-existing 1975 California Rules of Professional Conduct, the actual discipline rules that would be binding on the majority of us who would go on to practice in California. The California rules were not tested on the version of the Multi-state Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) that I took and passed in 1986. I did not even realize that California had its one distinctly different set of disciplinary rules until March 27, 1989, the day I began work at the State Bar of California.
Legal ethics education has improved since those days. My impression is that even law schools that aspire to be “national” make some effort to acquaint students with the California rules. I know from my own teaching experience is that it is difficult to teach two very different sets of professional responsibility rules. The adoption of California’s own version of the Model Rules in 2018 has made it easier, although California’s rules have many differences with the Model Rules, including our version of the lawyer witness rule, Rule 3.7, which tripped up the trial judge in the Lopez case. Unlike the Model Rule 3.7, our Rule allows the lawyer to serve as a witness with the informed consent of the client, as did former California Rule 5-220 (the 1975 California rules did not address this issue.) But that exception is not absolute; Comment 3 states that a judge may still disqualify a lawyer who will be a witness if necessary to protect the trier of fact from being misled or the opposing party from being prejudiced.
This is a useful reminder that disqualification is a judicial remedy that is broader than the rules of professional conduct and may be invoked in the exercise of a trial judge’s discretion to prevent unfairness. And, in the trial judge’s defense, it is clear that they are situations where the ABA Model Rules can be utilized as guidance on California questions, even after the adoption of our new rules in 2018. Pre-2018 case law held that “the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct may be considered as a collateral source, particularly in areas where there is no direct authority in California and there is no conflict with the public policy of California.” State Comp. Ins. Fund v. WPS, Inc. (1999) 70 Cal. App. 4th 644, 656. California Rule 1.0 states that the Rules of Professional Conduct “are intended to regulate professional conduct of lawyers through discipline”; Comment 4 to that Rule states that “ethics opinions and rules and standards promulgated by other jurisdictions and bar associations may also be considered” in addressing ethical issues not related to discipline.
So maybe that trial judge wasn’t so dumb after all. Confusion about the proper role of the California Rules of Professional Conduct still exists as well as geographical reach. Are they just discipline rules, black-letter law like criminal statutes or do they serve a prophylactic role in guiding lawyer conduct. Of course, the answer is both, despite the long-standing California shibboleth about them being only discipline rules. This confusion was what the wacky 1969 ABA Code of Professional Responsibility was trying to address through its three-part structure of Canons, ECs and DRs. Maybe the 1969 Code wasn’t so dumb either.
Bowen v. Lin, Second App. Dist., Div. 6, case no. B312831, filed 6/6/22, certified for publication 6/23/22.
Fiduciary duty is not a level playing field. The essence of a fiduciary relationship is putting the interests of the other party ahead of your own. One of the incidents of the fiduciary relationship between lawyer and client is the client’s absolute right to discharge the lawyer, for a good reason, for a bad reason, or for no reason at all. This is sometimes difficult for lawyer’s to grasp, as the Bowen case shows.
“Victor and Calvin [Victor’s son] practiced medicine out of an Oxnard office owned by Victor and Yvonne [Victor’s wife.] The office sustained $25,000 in damages when a pipe in an adjacent office started leaking. The Lins hired Bowen as their attorney to demand that the owner of the adjacent office, Cynthia Lau, pay to rectify the water damage. After Lau rejected the settlement demands, Bowen recommended that the Lins sue. Victor and Yvonne agreed, but Calvin did not. Bowen nevertheless named him as a plaintiff in the lawsuit (the Lau case). He estimated that prosecuting the case would cost between $25,000 and $50,000. Over the next three years, the Lins paid Bowen nearly $68,000. Frustrated with ever-mounting costs, Victor told Bowen to cease all nonessential work on the Lau case while Gail [Victor’s daughter], a licensed attorney, tried to reach a settlement with Lau’s estate. Bowen replied that he would not cease work and would not grant Gail permission to settle the case as long as he was counsel of record. Gail then formally substituted in and settled the case.”
“Bowen sued Victor and Yvonne for breach of contract and quantum meruit, seeking to recover the unpaid balance of his fees. Victor and Yvonne cross-complained, alleging that Bowen breached his fiduciary duties, committed malpractice, and failed to execute a written fee agreement. Calvin joined the lawsuit as a cross-complainant.”
“Bowen then filed his own cross-complaint. His first cause of action asserted that Calvin breached his oral contract with Bowen when he stopped cooperating in the Lau case and fired Bowen as his attorney. The second, third, and fourth causes—for intentional interference with contractual relations, intentional interference with prospective economic relations, and negligent interference with prospective economic relations—asserted that Calvin and Gail encouraged their parents to stop cooperating with Bowen, fire him as their attorney, withhold payments due, and work with Gail to achieve a settlement. Bowen’s fifth cause asserted that Victor, Yvonne, and Calvin committed fraud when they induced him to provide legal services in the Lau case—all while providing minimal payments— knowing they would have Gail settle the case on the eve of trial. The sixth cause asserted that all four members of the Lin family conspired to defraud Bowen by encouraging him to work on the Lau case while knowing they would settle it themselves after substituting him out.”
The Lins filed a SLAPP motion against Bowen’s cross-complaint. The trial court granted with respect to Gail, concluding that she engaged in protected activity and the litigation privilege (Civil Code section 47) meant that Bowen could not prevail on his cross-complaint against her. The trial court denied the motion with respect to Victor, Calvin and Yvonne, finding their communications “probably” did not come within the protection of the litigation privilege. It did not rule on whether Bowen was likely to prevail on his claims. Appeal, like flowers after a spring rain, naturally blossomed.
On appeal, Division 6 found that Victor, Calvin and Yvonne actions were “squarely protected” by the anti-SLAPP statute (Civil Code section 425.16(e)(1):“statement[s] or writing[s] made before a . . . judicial proceeding” and “written or oral statement[s] or writing[s] made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a . . . judicial body.”) “The “filing, funding, and prosecution of a civil action” are protected acts. (Rusheen v. Cohen (2006) 37 Cal.4th 1048, 1056.). Moreover, as noted above, a “client has the absolute right to change [their] attorney at any stage”, citing the venerable case of Gage v. Atwater (1902) 136 Cal. 170, 172, as well as the more recent case Taheri Law Group v. Evans (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 482, 491. “The trial court thus erred when it concluded that Bowen’s breach of contract cause of action did not arise from protected activity.
The Court of Appeal reached the same conclusion with respect to the interference causes of action, citing the very recent case of Pech v. Doniger (2022) 75 Cal.App.5th 443, 462, for the proposition that advising clients to terminate an attorney’s services is protected activity. The fraud claims were also found subject to the SLAPP motion because they were based on the same protected communications activity specifically cited by the SLAPP statute.
Bowen tried to counterattack by noting that the Lins had cross-complained against him for malpractice but to no avail. The appellate court found that a malpractice claims does not chill petitioning activity but rather, the threat of a malpractice claim “encourages the attorney to petition competently and zealously.”
Bowen’s appeal of the trial court’s granting of Gail’s part of the SLAPP motion failed for the same reasons. He attempted to distinguish Taheri by noting that the decision predated current Rule of Professional Conduct 4.2, but that rule is essentially the same as its predecessor, former Rule 2-100(a), which Taheri relied on. The rule was irrelevant in any case; Gail did not represent any party when she communicated with the Lins while they were represented by Bown, and the Rule only applies when the lawyer making the communication represents a party.
The Court of Appeal upheld the granting of the SLAPP motion as to Gail and remanded the matter back to the trial court to decide the issue of whether Bowen might prevail in his causes of action against Victor, Yvonne and Calvin.
While careful not to express an opinion, in discussing the trial court’s determination of that issue on Gail’s part of the SLAPP motion, the high court said this: “the litigation privilege bars liability for “any communication (1) made in judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings; (2) by litigants or other participants authorized by law; (3) to achieve the objects of the litigation; and (4) that ha[s] some connection or logical relation to the action.” (Silberg v. Anderson (1990) 50 Cal.3d 205, 212.) It is “relevant to the second step in the anti-SLAPP analysis in that it may present a substantive defense [the nonmoving party] must overcome to demonstrate a probability of prevailing.” [Flatley v. Mauro (2006) 39 Cal.4th 299, 323.] Whether the privilege shields Gail’s actions is a question of law subject to our independent review. (Kashian v. Harriman (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 892, 913.) “Any doubt about whether the privilege applies is resolved in favor of applying it.”
So, Mr. Bowen would appear to have his work cut out for him. The important lesson for the rest of us is that clients and their causes of actions are not property and when push comes to shove, the interests of the clients always come first.
Hassett v. Olson, Third App. Dist., case no.C092212, filed 4/20/22, modified and certified for publication 4/13/22. Stephen Baily, while a Superior Court judge in El Dorado County, presided over litigating and issued orders relating to the enforceability of one Cody Bass’s options to purchase two South Lake Tahoe properties. Baily left the bench. He was then employed as co-counsel the trustees of the one of the properties, Dastur, in litigation brought by Hassett, who claimed ownership of the properties. Baily sent a letter to the assigned Judge of the El Dorado Superior Court in his capacity as counsel for Dastur citing his former status as a judge and their social relationship and suggesting the entire El Dorado Superior Court recuse itself. She did and the case was transferred to a Sacramento County judge. Hassett brought a motion to disqualify Baily, citing Rule of Professional Conduct 1.12, which says:
a lawyer shall not represent anyone in connection with a matter in which the lawyer participated personally and substantially as a judge or other adjudicative officer, judicial staff attorney or law clerk to such a person* or as an arbitrator, mediator, or other third-party neutral, unless all parties to the proceeding give informed written consent.
In support of his motion, Hassett attached Baily’s letter. The trial court granted the motion, based on the inherent power of the court (codified in Code of Civil Procedure section 128, subdivision (a)(5)) to control proceedings in the furtherance of justice. The court cited an “appearance of impropriety”, as well as a violation of Rule 1.12. The definition of “matter” in Rule 1.12 was broad enough to include Hassett’s action, even though he was not a party to the prior actions where Baily was directly involved, and Baily was found to have substantially participated in the matter. Finally, Baily’s law firm was also disqualified as there was no showing it was screened from participation as required by Rule 1.12.
The Court of Appeal affirmed. Hassett had standing, despite the fact that he was not a party to the prior actions. It was not necessary to show that Baily possessed confidential information under Rule 1.12. Matter and case are not synonymous, as shown by comment 1 to Rule 1.12. Moreover, California Rule 1.7(e) provides a broad definition that is similar to ABA Model Rule 1.11, which governs the same principles for government lawyers discussed in ABA Model Rule 1.12, the basis for the California rule.
For purposes of this rule, “matter” includes any judicial or other proceeding, application, request for a ruling or other determination, contract, transaction, claim, controversy, investigation, charge, accusation, arrest, or other deliberation, decision, or action that is focused on the interests of specific persons,* or a discrete and identifiable class of persons
The Court of Appeal concluded that no abuse of discretion by the trial court had been shown.
Cases interpreting the new Rules of Professional Conduct are still rare and this well-reasoned opinion is a worthy addition to prior California cases that reached similar conclusions without the benefit of Rule 1.12
The California Supreme Court has denied the Office of Chief Trial Counsel’s petition for review in In the Matter of Respondent BB, as case discussed in a previous post Going To The Mountain, posted 2/20/22. BB involved a San Francisco public defender found of two counts of disrespect to the courts and one count for failure to obey a court order. The hearing judge determined an admonition was appropriate under the “unique circumstances” established at trial along with five circumstances in mitigation and only one in aggravation; OCTC had sought a 30 day actual suspension. The Review Department, and now the Supreme Court, upheld that disposition.
We are told that California Rules of Professional Conduct are rules for discipline. And yet there are many Rules of Professional Conduct that are never, as far as can be determined, formed the basis for any discipline. In fact, these Rules largely serve an advisory role, giving lawyers notice of what the expected norms of professional conduct are. This distinction is more explicitly spelled out in the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct in the Preamble section 14: “The Rules are thus partly obligatory and disciplinary and partly constitutive and descriptive in that they define a lawyer’s professional role.” But ultimately, it is the possibility of professional discipline that gives the Rule force.
A lawyer shall not:… (2) fail to disclose to the tribunal* legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known* to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not disclosed by opposing counsel, or knowingly* misquote to a tribunal* the language of a book, statute, decision or other authority
Rule 3.3(a)(2) was adopted in November 2018, part of the extensive revision of the California Rules of Professional Conduct to conform more closely to the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct and adopts the text of Model Rule 3.3(a)(2), along with a second clause derived from former California Rule of Professional Conduct 5-200(c). Given the recent adoption of the Rule, it is not surprising that it has not been the object of any discipline enforcement. The model Rule, though, has been cited in the unpublished decision in Martin v. Stenger, a 2014 decision from the First Appellate Dist., Div. 2, (2014 WL 2211719).
Although California has not adopted the Model Rules, courts and [attorneys] find the rules … helpful and persuasive in situations where the [California rules] are unclear or inadequate.’ (1 Witkin, Cal. Procedure, supra, Attorneys, [§ 407, p. 521.] ) We are one of those courts. (See generally Fortune et al., Modern Litigation and Professional Responsibility Handbook (2001) § 8.5.1, pp. 329–330 [‘The obligation to disclose adverse legal authority is an aspect of the lawyer’s role as “officer of the court.” … lawyers should reveal cases and statutes of the controlling jurisdiction that the court needs to be aware of in order to intelligently rule on the matter. It is good ethics and good tactics to identify the adverse authorities, even though not directly adverse, and then argue why they are distinguishable or unsound. The court will appreciate the candor of the lawyer and will be more inclined to follow the lawyer’s argument’].)” We do not imply that either counsel acted knowingly or intended to mislead when they failed to cite Yang. We nevertheless remind counsel of their obligation.
Martin v. Stenger, unpublished slip opinion at pages 2-3
Williams involves a failure by counsel to cite what the Court of Appeal deemed controlling authority in the appeal, specifically case law finding the subject order not appealable. The decision reveals the frustration the Court of Appeal found with the lawyer’s response to the Court’s direction to submit a letter brief on the issue of whether Rule 3.3(a)(2) had been violated, frustration which led the Court of Appeal to make this a published decision with a stern warning:
An attorney who prosecutes an appeal while failing to cite known authority that this court has no jurisdiction to entertain it violates the attorney’s duty of candor (where the authority is not otherwise brought to the attention of the court by another party to the appeal). Any such future violation, in the view of this court, may warrant disciplinary review by the State Bar or other corrective action.
People v. Williams, slip opinion at page 14-15
In adopting much of the ABA Model Rules, California has taken many of their “constitutive and descriptive” precepts and made them enforceable through the disciplinary process. Of course, the California Rules of Professional Conduct, although emphasizing their provenance as discipline rules since their original adoption in 1928, have always contained a lot of similar material, especially after the California Rules were re-written in response to the ABA Code of Professional Responsibility in 1975. But the Big Stick is always present, and the current mood of the discipline enforcers in the Office of Chief Trial Counsel means the discipline can never be ruled out. California lawyers who have not read the latest revision of the Rules of Professional Conduct practice are at some risk. Just ask the Second District Court of Appeal.
The State Bar’s Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct (COPRAC) has written a proposed ethics opinion on remote practice that is now out for public comment, formal opinion interim number 20-0004. The scope of the issues addressed by the opinion is broadly framed: “What are a California lawyer’s ethical duties when working remotely?” The opinion digest responds broadly:
Remote practice does not alter a lawyer’s ethical duties under the California
Rules of Professional Conduct and the State Bar Act. Managerial lawyers must
implement reasonable measures, policies, and practices to ensure continued
compliance with these rules in a remote working environment, with a particular
focus on the duties of confidentiality, technology competence, communication,
Proposed formal opinion 2020-0004
The impetus for the opinion, like other opinions regarding remote practice, over the last two years (ABA formal opinion 495, New Jersey opinion 59/742, District of Columbia opinion 24-20) is the widespread adoption of remote work during the pandemic. The transition to remote work is hardly new; it has been going on ever since advanced information technology made geography irrelevant around 1995. California was one of the first states to address the phenomenon in the seminal Birbrower case in 1998, albeit in dicta that was not really related to the facts of the case:
Our definition does not necessarily depend on or require the unlicensed lawyer’s physical presence in the state. Physical presence here is one factor we may consider in deciding whether the unlicensed lawyer has violated section 6125, but it is by no means exclusive. For example, one may practice law in the state in violation of section 6125 although not physically present here by advising a California client on California law in connection with a California legal dispute by telephone, fax, computer, or other modern technological means. Conversely, although we decline to provide a comprehensive list of what activities constitute sufficient contact with the state, we do reject the notion that a person automatically practices law “in California” whenever that person practices California law anywhere, or “virtually” enters the state by telephone, fax, e-mail, or satellite. (See e.g., Baron v. City of Los Angeles (1970) 2 Cal.3d 535, 543, 86 Cal.Rptr. 673, 469 P.2d 353 (Baron ) [“practice law” does not encompass all professional activities].) Indeed, we disapprove Ring, supra, 70 P.2d 281, 26 Cal.App.2d Supp. 768, and its progeny to the extent the cases are inconsistent with our discussion. We must decide each case on its individual facts.
Birbrower, Montalbano, Condon & Frank v. Superior Ct. (1998) 17 Cal. 4th 119, 128–29
Since the case had to do with New York lawyers who were physically, not virtually, present in California, the rationale behind this dicta is difficult to discern on the surface. Some, including amicus counsel for the petitioner New York law firm, thought the case presented an opportunity to undermine the outdated patchwork of individual jurisdictions jealously protecting their turf, a position opposed by the amicus for the client trying to get out of paying their bill, the State Bar of California, who advocated for a traditional California protectionist approach ( I was present at the oral argument.) The Birbrower dicta, accurate as it was, probably created more confusion than insight.
The existing trend toward remote work accelerated, by necessity, during the pandemic, and even the State Bar of California was part of the trend. Once work becomes remote, it can become truly remote by moving beyond a state boundary line. Remote work raises a number of issues not directly connected with the multi-jurisdictional practice (MJP) problem. The problem is that licensure is still handled by that patchwork of jurisdictions long after this approach stopped making sense.
These non-MJP problems are well addressed by 2020-0004. But 2020-0004 says only this about the MJP problem:
California licensed lawyers practicing California law remotely in another state where they are not licensed should consult the multijurisdictional practice and unauthorized practice of law rules and authorities of the state where they are physically present.35 The ABA and some other state bar and local ethics committees have issued opinions regarding unauthorized practice of law considerations for attorneys remotely practicing the law of the jurisdictions in which they are licensed while physically present in a jurisdiction in which they are not admitted.
Proposed formal opinion 2020-0004, at page 7.
The Committee does helpfully attach a long footnote citing the many opinions from other jurisdictions that address remote practice, including MJP. But for lawyers licensed in other jurisdictions who are practicing remotely while in California, the Committee offers no guidance.
This is a big question. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lawyers, admitted in other jurisdictions who are physically present in California and “virtually” practicing in their licensed jurisdictions to adopt the Birbrower language. The only guidance those lawyers have now is the limited guidance provided by California Rule of Professional Conduct 5.5(b): “A lawyer who is not admitted to practice law in California shall not: (1) except as authorized by these rules or other law, establish or maintain a resident office or other systematic or continuous presence in California for the practice of law; or (2) hold out to the public or otherwise represent that the lawyer is admitted to practice law in California.” Emphasis added.
What exactly does this language mean? Is practicing New York law for your New York clients from your home office in California a “systemic or continuous presence”? Can that lawyer use his residence address in California or establish a post office box in California for use in their “virtual practice” without “holding themselves out” as entitled to practice in California? Does this type of “virtual practice” violate their licensing jurisdiction’s version of ABA Model Rule 5.5(a)?: “A lawyer shall not practice law in a jurisdiction in violation of the regulation of the legal profession in that jurisdiction, or assist another in doing so.”
These are questions that need to be answered. But COPRAC is unable to. By direction of the Board of Governors (now Board of Trustees) in 1992, COPRAC cannot opine on questions involving the unauthorized practice of law. But if not COPRAC then who? Text or comments to Rule 5.5 could be added to clarify the meaning but in the normal course, those comments would be vetted through COPRAC. Would consideration of such clarifying language violate the Board’s directive? The Legislature could direct the State Bar to draft an amend Rule 5.5 or adopt a new Rule of Professional Conduct to submit to the California Supreme Court for adoption or a statute clarifying what constitutes the unauthorized practice of law. Given California’s protectionist proclivity, such Legislative activity seems very unlikely. There seems to be no procedural mechanism to directly request the Supreme Court to adopt new Rules of Professional Conduct.
So it appears that there is no way to get this question answered until some sweeping reform of multi-jurisdictional practice occurs to conform to reality. In the meantime, non-California licensed lawyers virtually practicing in California will continue a sort of shadow existence.
Some narrow issues were raised in the recent decision from the Fourth District of Court of Appeal, Division One, titled Shenefield v. Shenefield (case no. D078643, filed 2/24/22) and a bigger one as well.
The case involved a litigant in a marital dissolution matter who attached the confidential, court-ordered psychological evaluation undertaken during his spouse’s previous marital dissolution to a pleading filed by his lawyer. The spouse sought sanctions for violations of Family Code sections 3111, subdivision (d) and 3025.5, for unwarranted disclosure of the confidential custody evaluation. Following trial, the Court issued sanctions against the litigant in the amount of $10,000 and the litigant’s lawyer in the amount of $15,000. The trial court found that the litigant’s attorney was a ‘seasoned’ attorney who should have been aware of the Family Code statutes. She was reckless in filing the confidential and that she intended for the Court to rely on the confidential information from the prior, unrelated case. The lawyer challenged the sanction, arguing, among other things, that she was not a ‘party’ within the meaning of section 3111(d)(2). The Court of Appeal upheld the sanction, finding that California Rules of Court, rule 1.6(15), defines a “[p]arty” as “a person appearing in an action,” and it also notes that “party” “includes the party attorney of record.” The Court of Appeal also found no merit in the lawyer’s other arguments, that she was not afforded due process and that the opposing spouse had a duty to provide her the ‘safe harbor’ provided by Code of Civil Procedure section 128.7(c)(1) before moving for the sanction.
Good to know. But the bigger issue is highlighted in the part of the opinion that discusses an important piece of evidence at trial, a recording of a meeting between the litigants, Mark and Jennifer, and husband’s counsel. Jennifer did not have counsel.
On September 13, 2017, Mark pled guilty to violating Penal Code section 243, subdivision (e)(1), misdemeanor battery on a spouse. The Court issued a criminal protective order against Mark. The order contained the same terms as the restraining order, prohibiting Mark from contacting Jennifer or their child other than peacefully for visitation, and it authorized Jennifer to record any violations. Kovtun was Mark’s attorney of record in the criminal case. On September 28, 2017, Jennifer attended a meeting at Kovtun’s office with Mark and Kovtun. Jennifer recorded the meeting. During the course of the meeting, Kovtun told Jennifer she was a liar and a bad and unfit mother who was harmful to their child. When Jennifer said if Kovtun were not there, Mark would probably be beating her, Kovtun responded, “You know what? I would be.” Kovtun called Jennifer “nuts,” said Jennifer was “out of [her] mind,” commented that living with Jennifer was like dealing with a lunatic, and called Jennifer crazy. Mark berated Jennifer, telling her that he was going to take their child away and get full custody, directing Jennifer to stop crying, and admonishing her that if she loved him, Jennifer would sign a custody agreement that would give Mark 50 percent custody. Kovtun repeatedly supported Mark’s statements, commenting, “Yeah.” As a consequence of the September 28, 2017 meeting, Mark pled guilty to violating a court order (Pen. Code, § 166, subd. (c)(1)) in October 2018.
Shenefield, slip opinion filed 2/25/22 at page 23.
The trial court found that the recording did not violate Penal Code section 632 because it was authorized by the September 23, 2017, protective order. It relied on the recording to conclude that the lawyer was a seasoned family law lawyer and that she acted recklessly in allowing the confidential information from the prior custody evaluation to be filed. The Court of Appeal upheld those determinations.
Family law has always been difficult. Trends in society, the ongoing destruction of personal norms of appropriate behavior, the erosion of social trust, and the increased competition between lawyers for clients have made it more difficult. The lawyer-as-hired-gun meme still has currency, and it is often emphasized by lawyers themselves in their advertising, based on the idea that clients want aggressive lawyers. Many of my clients who are family law lawyers tell me that family law practice is uglier now than they ever seen it.
The ethical rules point in a different direction. Preamble 5 to the ABA Model Rules states that a “lawyer should use the law’s procedures only for legitimate purposes and not to harass or intimidate others.” California Rule of Professional Conduct 1.2.1 forbids a lawyer from counseling or assisting “a client to engage, or assist a client in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal, fraudulent, or a violation of any law, rule, or ruling of a tribunal.” Business and Professions Code section 6068(f) says that it is the duty of an attorney to “advance no fact prejudicial to the honor or reputation of a party or witness unless required by the justice of the cause with which he or she is charged.” Subsection (g) says that a lawyer has a duty to “not to encourage either the commencement or the continuance of an action or proceeding from any corrupt motive of passion or interest.” California Rule of Professional Conduct 4.3 specifically addresses communication with unrepresented parties and states that a lawyer may not take advantage of an unrepresented party to stating or implying that he lawyer is disinterested and may not give an unrepresented party legal advice, where their interests conflict with the client, except the advice to obtain counsel. While not a binding rule, the State Bar of California Civility Guidelines state that “in family law proceedings an attorney should seek to reduce emotional tension and trauma and encourage the parties and attorneys to interact in a cooperative atmosphere, and keep the best interest of the children in mind. For example, a. An attorney should discourage and should not abet vindictive conduct. b. An attorney should treat all participants with courtesy and respect in order to minimize the emotional intensity of a family dispute.” Guideline 19.
No, all is not fair in love, war or the practice of law. They all have ethical rules that must be followed if we are to live in a world not governed by brute force.
The Fourth District Court of Appeals, Division 3, has a new opinion, Falcon Brands v. Mousavi & Lee L.L.P. (case no. G059477, filed 1/27/22), that adds to our knowledge of one of the more opaque issues in legal ethics: when does a lawyer’s demands to settle become extortion?
The leading case in California is the almost legendary decision Flately v. Mauro (2006) 39 Cal.4th 299. Michael Flately was an Irish entertainer, famed as the “Lord of the Dance” for his shows featuring Irish traditional dance. D. Dean Mauro was an Illinois attorney who represented a woman who alleged that Flately raped her in a Las Vegas Hotel. Among other things, Mauro sent Flatley a letter demanding a settlement of $100 million dollars and threatening to do a number of things as described by the Supreme Court:
“The first paragraph of the third page of Mauro’s letter refers Flatley to a “settlement of $100,000,000.00” awarded as punitive damages in an unidentified case. The second full paragraph then states that an investigation into Flatley’s assets for purposes of determining an appropriate award of punitive damages will require “an in-depth investigation” and that any information would then “BECOME A MATTER OF PUBLIC RECORD, AS IT MUST BE FILED WITH THE COURT, as it will be part of the bases of several of our expert’s [sic ] testimony.” The third paragraph states in its entirety: ”Any and all information, including Immigration, Social Security Issuances and Use, and I.R.S. and various State Tax Levies and information will be exposed. We are positive the media worldwide will enjoy what they find.” After a paragraph describing the potential testimony of two other experts, John Lombardi and David K. Hirshey, apparently with respect to the failure of the Las Vegas hotel in which the alleged rape occurred to “provide requisite safeguards for our client,” the fifth paragraph again warns that “all pertinent information and documentation, if in violation of any U.S. Federal, Immigration, I.R.S., S.S. Admin., U.S. State, Local, Commonwealth U.K., or International Laws, shall immediately [be] turned over to any and all appropriate authorities.” The final paragraph warns that once the lawsuit is filed additional causes of action “shall arise” including “Defamatory comments, Civil Conspiracy, Reckless Supervision” which are “just the beginning” and that “ample evidence” exists “to prove each and every element for all these additional causes of action. Again, these actions allow for Punitive Damages.”
At the top of the final page of the letter is the caption: ”FIRST & FINAL TIME-LIMIT SETTLEMENT DEMAND.” Beneath it, a paragraph warns that there shall be “no continuances nor any delays. If we do not hear from you, then we shall know you are not interested in amicably resolving this claim, and we shall immediately file suit.” At the bottom of the page, beneath Mauro’s signature, a final paragraph warns Flatley that, along with the filing of suit, press releases will be disseminated to various media sources, including but not limited to “Fox News Chicago, Fox News Indiana, Fox News Wisconsin, and the U.S. National Fox News Network; W.G.N. National U.S. Television; All Local Las Vegas Television, radio stations, and newspapers; The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Southern Economist, The News Sun, The Beacon News, The Daily Herald, The New York Times, The Washington Post; ALL National U.S. Television Networks of N.B.C., A.B.C. and C.B.S.; as well as INTERNET POSTINGS WORLDWIDE, including the BRITISH BROADCASTING COMPANY, and the Germany National News Network Stations.”
Flatley did not pay but did file an action against Mauro for civil extortion, intentional infliction of emotional distress and wrongful interference with economic advantage. Mauro fought back with an anti-SLAPP motion that was denied by the trial court, a decision upheld by the Court of Appeal on the grounds that Mauro’s letter was criminal extortion as a matter of law, not protected speech entitled to the anti-SLAPP remedy. Undeterred (as you might expect), Mauro appealed to the California Supreme Court, which quite easily came to the same conclusion as the Court of Appeal (as you also might expect.)
In the course of its long walk down an easy road, the High Court noted the peculiar aspect of the crime of extortion:
”Extortion has been characterized as a paradoxical crime in that it criminalizes the making of threats that, in and of themselves, may not be illegal. ”[I]n many blackmail cases the threat is to do something in itself perfectly legal, but that threat nevertheless becomes illegal when coupled with a demand for money.” (Philippine Export & Foreign Loan Guarantee Corp. v. Chuidian (1990) 218 Cal. App.3d 1058, 1079 [citation omitted].) The extortion statutes “all adopted at the same time and relating to the same subject matter, clearly indicate that the legislature in denouncing the wrongful use of fear as a means of obtaining property from another had in mind threats to do the acts specified in section 519, the making of which for the purpose stated is declared to be a wrongful use of fear-induced thereby.” (People v. Beggs (1918) 178 Cal. 79, 83, 172 P. 152.) ”It is the means employed [to obtain the property of another] which the law denounces, and though the purpose may be to collect a just indebtedness arising from and created by the criminal act for which the threat is to prosecute the wrongdoer, it is nevertheless within the statutory inhibition. The law does not contemplate the use of criminal process as a means of collecting a debt.” (Id. at p. 84, 172 P. 152; People v. Tufunga (1999) 21 Cal.4th 935, 955, 987 P.2d 168 [In Beggs “we explained that because of the strong public policy militating against self-help by force or fear, courts will not recognize a good faith defense to the satisfaction of a debt when accomplished by the use of force or fear”]; Lindenbaum v. State Bar (1945) 26 Cal.2d 565, 573, 160 P.2d 9 [For purposes of extortion “[i]t is immaterial that the money which petitioner sought to obtain through threats may have been justly due him”]; Gomez v. Garcia (9th Cir.1996) 81 F.3d 95, 97 [“The law of California was established in 1918 that belief that the victim owes a debt is not a defense to the crime of extortion”].).”
Flatley is an entertaining read because of the celebrity angle and Mauro’s way over-the-top demand letter. It is also a scholarly opinion with value in discussing the anti-SLAPP law and the litigation privilege. But mostly because Mauro’s actions were so outrageous, it isn’t as useful as a measuring stick in examining the conduct of other lawyers making demands not so far out in the outrage-o-sphere. Other decisions cited in the text, such as the Philippine Export case, are also limited. The Court of Appeal in that case noted that “Those types of threats pose the most difficult problems in the law of blackmail and the contract law of duress, because they are threats to take actions which are legal under many circumstances. For instance, a person, generally speaking, has a perfect right to prosecute a lawsuit in good faith, or to provide information to newspapers. Language can be found in many decisions that it is not an illegal threat for a person to do” ‘what he has a legal right to do.'” Philippine Export at 1079.
Falcon Brands helps to understand where the line is and tees the issue up nicely in its opening line: “Lawyers argue for a living. Some do more than argue. They lace their settlement demands with threats. When does such activity cross the line and become professional misconduct? That is the fundamental question presented in this case.” Again, the vehicle for considering the problem is anti-SLAPP, Falcon Brands appealing the striking of the causes of action in its cross-complaint under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16. The opinion is helpful because the lawyer engaged in an escalating series of demands that ultimately crossed the line.
The case began when Falcon terminated an employee who hired the lawyer, Mousavi, to prosecute his wrongful termination claims. In her initial email, Mousavi asked for records from Falcon.
About a month later, with no response, she emailed Falcon again and stated that she would be contacting another business that was in the process of acquiring Falcon Harvest) and that Harvest would also be named as defendants in the wrongful termination action. The letter then segued into a discussion of Falcon’s alleged illegal conduct in violation of Bureau of Cannabis Control (B.B.C.) regulations, including an allegation of bribing a deputy district attorney. No link was drawn between the B.B.C. violations and the termination of the employee. Mousavi closed the email by stating that she would notify the buyer of her client’s claims if there was no response.
Now there was a response by Falcon’s counsel and a warning that contacting the buyer would be regarded as an “a tortious to interfere with Falcon’s contract and prospective economic advantage,” and pointed out that while “Harvest may or may not in the future acquire Falcon,” it was not yet an owner of Falcon and thus would not be a proper party to any claim. Falcon’s counsel later submitted a declaration averring that Mousavi told him a telephone conversation that she would inform Harvest of Falcon’s illegal conduct if her client’s claims were not settled.
A few days letter Mousavi emailed Falcon’s counsel and stated, “I have put the attorneys for Harvest Health & Recreation Inc. (‘Harvest’) on notice about Mr. Honard’s claim for wages, without disclosing other issues mentioned in my letter of October 8, 2019. However, Harvest has requested that I forward the demand letters I have sent you. I am planning to email those letters on Tuesday. Please call me if you have any questions. Thanks.” (Italics added.) After Falcon’s counsel replied and accused Mousavi of trying to extort a settlement, Mousavi replied with one last email: “I have been providing you with [an] opportunity to resolve this matter, but all I get from you are threats and evasiveness. I waited patiently to no avail. As stated, I will proceed accordingly. If you want to resolve this matter, now is the time.”
The trial court concluded Flatley was distinguishable because Mousavi’s “threat was to inform only one entity that would be directly affected by the threatened lawsuit when the merger [was] completed. Unlike the situation in Flatley, the threat to contact Harvest was not ‘entirely unrelated’ [to] the Cross-defendants’ claims. Accordingly, it has not been indisputably proven that Cross-Defendants’ sent the prelitigation letters with the intent to extort money by fear. Thus, extortion cannot be found as a matter of law.” As noted by the Court of Appeal, “there is nothing in Mousavi’s emails to suggest she planned to pursue settlement negotiations directly with Harvest. Instead, she repeatedly stated her plan was to serve the lawsuit, naming both Falcon and Harvest, if her settlement demands were not satisfied.”
The trial court examined the escalating nature of the demands.
“Applying these rules to the current facts, we believe Mousavi’s initial communication with Falcon on September 6, 2019, as described above, was innocent. Her next email sent on October 8, 2019, is a closer call when considered by itself. That email contained at least an implicit threat, as Mousavi specified the crimes Falcon had allegedly committed, though she never directly linked her settlement demands to them. Instead, she explained how she had calculated her client’s damages without directly referencing the alleged criminal misconduct. A skeptical observer might reasonably wonder why Mousavi referenced the “B.B.C. Violations” at all within that demand. Indeed, we share that curiosity. We nonetheless conclude the October 8 correspondence standing alone may not have crossed the line into misconduct.
But the October 8 email must be considered in context along with the October 11, 2019 email. In that email, Mousavi informed Falcon’s counsel she had already “put the attorneys for Harvest Health & Recreation Inc. (‘Harvest’) on notice about Mr. Honard’s claim for wages, without disclosing other issues mentioned in my letter of October 8, 2019.” There can be no doubt that bribing a deputy district attorney (as alleged in the October 8 e-email) involves criminal misconduct. Mousavi then added, “Harvest has requested that I forward the demand letters I have sent you. I am planning to email those letters on Tuesday.” The implication is clear: settle the case now, or Harvest will become aware of Falcon’s alleged criminal misconduct next week.”
The Falcon decision says that citing damaging information unrelated to the claim alone is not enough to cross the line. But the line is definitely crossed when there is an explicit or implicit threat to disclose the damaging unrelated information unless money is paid.
Years ago, a colleague at an APRL conference put it this way: “You can’t play poker with someone else’s chips.” The Falcon case helps clarify exactly when those chips are at play.