By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
San Francisco attorney Jagdip Sekhon botched seven immigration cases between 1996 and 2001. In four political asylum hearings, court records state, he neglected to submit the required written briefs, resulting in deportation orders against his clients. For his misdeeds, the state Supreme Court handed Sekhon a one-year suspension in 2004 with the entire term stayed, enabling him to keep working as long as he heeded the bar's ethics code.
Around the same time, the court suspended Oakland attorney Deborah Duggan for 13 months for fumbling 20 cases. In three of them, after collecting retainers from clients, she never filed their lawsuits. A few months ago, the court extended Duggan's suspension to three years, but only after she failed to reimburse ex-clients or attend legal ethics classes, as required by her probation.
Sekhon and Duggan did not respond to interview requests. But their respective cases raise questions about why attorney malfeasance that might appear to warrant long suspensions or outright disbarment at least in the view of victimized clients, if not most non-lawyers instead draws milder sanctions.
Legal observers fault an inbred discipline system.
"That's what happens when attorneys are policing other attorneys," says Suzanne Blonder, senior counsel for HALT, a nonprofit legal reform advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "You end up with a system that forgets about clients."
California ranks as one of only six states in which non-lawyers play no role in the discipline process from the adjudication side. In most states, bar panels that review discipline decisions have at least one public member to give voice to client concerns. In California, the duty falls to judges. "If a jury of laypeople can decide a death penalty case or a multimillion-dollar civil case," Blonder says, "they're certainly able to decide about whether attorney misconduct occurred."
Last year, in its nationwide survey of lawyer discipline, HALT rated California's system fifth worst. (Utah claimed the bottom spot; Connecticut ranked first.) The study knocked the state bar for the sluggish pace of its prosecutions and for imposing inadequate penalties.
Headquartered in San Francisco, the State Bar of California, in its role as the state Supreme Court's administrative arm, acts as the sieve for complaints against lawyers. Allegations flow through the Office of the Chief Trial Counsel, where complaint analysts assess whether a grievance merits deeper investigation, a review generally completed within 60 days.
A complaint advances if facts suggest an attorney breached the bar's Rules of Professional Conduct or the state's Business and Professions Code. An agency investigator then probes whether violations occurred, an inquiry that tends to run six to 12 months, depending on a case's complexity. Those findings pass to a bar prosecutor, who decides whether to bring charges in State Bar Court, the adjunct of the state Supreme Court that deals with attorney discipline cases.
A case sits on the Bar Court's docket for an average of six months, and if it later goes to the court's review panel, another two to three months may pass before the Supreme Court receives it. (The Supreme Court adopts the Bar Court's decision as the final judgment, with rare exceptions.)
In 2006, out of 14,230 complaints filed with the bar, more than 11,000 were closed after the initial evaluation, primarily owing to what analysts judged as a lack of validity or evidence. Bar officials say the lion's share of grievances chief among them, clients grousing that their lawyer lost a case fall shy of ethics and business code violations.
The 3,200 cases forwarded to investigators included some left over from late 2005; nearly two-thirds wound up dismissed. Another 400 ended upon an attorney's death, or a lawyer's resignation or disbarment in a preexisting discipline matter. Almost 300 cases culminated with warning letters and written agreements in lieu of discipline.
By year's end, prosecutors had brought charges against 505 lawyers, most often alleging dereliction of cases or mishandling of client funds. That's less than 4 percent of the total number of complaints filed with the bar last year.
"There's no question that the bar's discipline system is just skimming the surface of bad lawyer conduct," says San Francisco attorney Richard Zitrin, an expert on legal ethics. "Too many lawyers get away with bad behavior." Zitrin has written his share of letters on behalf of attorneys facing penalties, attesting to their good character. Nonetheless, he says, "Lawyers who get disciplined by the state bar deserve the discipline and deserve harsher consequences."
The State Bar Court decided 417 disciplinary cases in 2006, disbarring 71 lawyers and suspending 250. Judges slapped 96 lawyers with public or private reprovals essentially, written admonishments. In addition, 84 lawyers resigned with charges pending.
The Bar Court weighs mitigating factors before imposing sanctions, ranging from an attorney's discipline record and mental health to how much time has passed since the misconduct. Such considerations can produce rulings that read like misprints.
During a monthlong stretch in 1999, attorney Julie Wolff dumped 39 cases referred to her through an indigent litigant program in Sacramento County, deserting 300 clients. Yet in 2004, a Bar Court judge let her off with a public reproval, citing Wolff's clean discipline history and the four-year gap between her file purge and the Bar's investigation. Last December, the Bar Court's appellate review panel applied a degree of corrective logic, hitting Wolff with an 18-month suspension.