Los Angeles Professional Misconduct Defense Lawyer

Los Angeles Professional Misconduct Defense LawyerThe law is a jealous mistress. The practice of law will take all of the time you will give it. As all practicing lawyers know, there are never enough hours in the day, and there are many phone calls, text messages, and emails to answer.

So, imagine that during your busy and sometimes hectic day, you receive an email with an attached letter of inquiry from the State Bar of California telling you about a complaint that has been lodged against you. Or, maybe you receive a Notice of Hearing from the State Bar Court that disciplinary action has been filed against you because of a DUI from years ago that you thought was well behind you.

Regardless of how long you’ve been practicing law, the Letter of Inquiry or Notice of Hearing will add stress to your life. The practice of law just became even more challenging. A Los Angeles professional misconduct defense lawyer at The Rodriguez Law Group can help.

How The Rodriguez Law Group Can Help If You’re Facing Professional Misconduct Allegations in Los Angeles, CA

How The Rodriguez Law Group Can Help If You’re Facing Professional Misconduct Allegations in Los Angeles, CAYou need to do two things if you find yourself the subject of the State Bar’s scrutiny. The first is not to panic. The second is to secure competent legal advice and representation from The Rodriguez Law Group.

Yes, you are a lawyer; yes, you are an advocate; but in this case, you are the one who needs help. That can be a challenge for anyone who is used to being the one others seek out in their time of trouble. We all remember the old axiom about lawyers who represent themselves. You are surely familiar with it. It is particularly true that lawyers need experienced representation when faced with the possibility of State Bar discipline.

The State Bar discipline system is not a well-understood area of law, and the procedures and rules are not the same as either the criminal or civil justice system. Lawyers have rights, and you will need a knowledgeable advocate to ensure that yours are looked after.

Representation by an advocate who is familiar with the State Bar discipline system is essential to lowering your stress level and helping you stay focused on your practice – and especially on your clients’ needs. A Los Angeles professional misconduct defense attorney at The Rodriguez Law Group is well situated to provide you with that advocacy.

What follows is a brief explanation of the State Bar discipline system. It is essential that you contact The Rodriguez Law Group at (213) 995-6767 as soon as you receive any communication from the State Bar that could result in discipline. The sooner you do so, the sooner we can start helping you navigate this sometimes complex and always challenging process. Do not walk into this process alone.

What Is the California State Bar?

The State Bar of California is California’s attorney licensing agency, responsible for managing the admission of lawyers to the practice of law, investigating complaints of attorney misconduct, and prosecuting discipline cases before the State Bar Court. The State Bar reports directly to the Supreme Court of California.

How Does the State Bar Discipline System Work in California?

Through the Office of the Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC), the State Bar can prosecute an attorney for violating sections of the State Bar Act that carry discipline, violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct, or criminal convictions.

The State Bar of California investigates complaints of professional misconduct. Where OCTC determines that an attorney’s actions involve disciplinable misconduct, OCTC prepares formal charges called a Notice of Disciplinary Charges.

State Bar Court

The State Bar Court is the forum where discipline cases are initially heard. It has the authority to recommend that the California Supreme Court suspend or disbar attorneys found to have committed acts of professional misconduct, including convictions for serious crimes. The State Bar Court can issue public or private reprovals for lesser offenses without the approval of the State Supreme Court.

The State Bar Court can temporarily remove lawyers from the practice of law when they pose a substantial threat of harm to clients or the public.

Lawyers may seek review of State Bar Court decisions in the California Supreme Court.

The State Bar Court conducts hearings and makes decisions and formal recommendations on disciplinary matters.

The State Bar Court employs full-time judges appointed by the California Supreme Court, legislature, and governor. The court is divided into two departments — a Hearing Department and a Review Department with court locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The California State Bar Complaint Process

Most often, State Bar matters begin as complaints received from clients or other members of the public. The vast majority of complaints come from unhappy clients. Judges, unpaid lien holders, or opposing parties or counsel can also complain against an attorney, which may result in the opening of an investigation. There is no standing requirement for proceeding as a complaining witness in a State Bar investigation.

There is seldom an obligation to report attorneys to the State Bar, even when someone believes misconduct has occurred. Many times, clients who owe legal fees to an attorney file complaints with the State Bar. While mere fee disputes should not result in a State Bar investigation, the fact that a client may be making a complaint for strategic reasons is not a basis for closing a discipline investigation. The State Bar’s primary mission is to protect the public.

State Bar Investigations

The State Bar can open an investigation based on potential misconduct discovered in reading the news or listening to radio or television reports. These investigations are called State Bar Investigations or SBIs.

SBIs can also stem from a “reportable action,” such as when:

  • A bank reports that a trust account check was returned or paid against non-sufficient funds
  • An Errors and Omissions carrier pays out on certain types of claims made against an attorney

SBIs form only a small percentage of the cases investigated and prosecuted by the State Bar.

The State Bar is required to report to the legislature the number of investigations that have not been closed or resolved by the filing of a Notice of Disciplinary Charges or a Disciplinary Stipulation within six months of the date the complaint was received by the State Bar. Those investigations which remain open for over six months (or twelve months for complex investigations) are considered backlog.

What Types of Matters Are Resolved By the California State Bar?

The following matters are resolved by the State Bar:

Original Proceedings

When the State Bar decides to file charges based on a complaint from a client or other member of the public, the filing of a Notice of Disciplinary Charges (“NDC”) initiates original proceedings before the State Bar Court.

Due process requires that OCTC provide notice of the charges to the respondent’s attorney in advance of filing the NDC. The respondent attorney has an opportunity to request an Early Neutral Evaluation to be conducted by a neutral State Bar Court judge before the NDC is filed with the State Bar Court.

The respondent attorney is also entitled to receive the investigation file and the investigation report before charges are filed, but it is important to timely request production of the investigation before charges are filed. In addition, there are strict time frames within which a response to the NDC must be filed.

The Rodriguez Law Group can ensure that these procedures are adhered to and that an appropriate response to the NDC is filed in a timely fashion.

Criminal Convictions

The State Bar may open proceedings in State Bar Court to determine if an attorney’s conviction for a felony or misdemeanor involves moral turpitude or other misconduct warranting discipline.

The case starts as a referral from the Review Department to the Hearing Department of the State Bar Court for a hearing on whether the attorney’s crime involved moral turpitude or other misconduct warranting discipline and the appropriate level of discipline.

In serious cases, the State Bar Court can place an attorney on interim suspension based on an indictment prior to conviction. Under Business and Professions Code Section 6101(a), an attorney’s conviction “of a felony or misdemeanor, involving moral turpitude, constitutes a cause for disbarment or suspension.”

An attorney may even face summary disbarment for a conviction for a felony involving moral turpitude where one of the elements of the crime is the specific intent to deceive, and the felony involves the practice of law.

Where a crime does not involve moral turpitude, the State Bar has inherent power to impose discipline in cases involving other misconduct warranting discipline – such as multiple DUIs or domestic violence – where the court finds that discipline is necessary to “protect the profession and the public.”

As with original proceedings, there are strict time limitations on filing a response to the Notice of Hearing. The Rodriguez Law Group will ensure that an appropriate response is timely filed.

Moral Character Determinations

An applicant who receives an adverse moral character determination can petition the State Bar Court to reverse the decision and find the applicant of good moral character. These proceedings are subject to specialized procedures and strict time deadlines.

You need someone who knows how to navigate the rules to work with you to gain admission to the State Bar. The Rodriguez Law Group will assist you in doing so.

Reinstatements and Mini-Reinstatements

A disbarred attorney or one who has been on actual suspension for two years or more must petition for reinstatement to the practice of law. The attorney has the obligation in a petition for reinstatement or mini-reinstatement to affirmatively establish that they are fit to practice and have the requisite good moral character.

The attorney will have to show rehabilitation. You need an experienced attorney to ensure you are putting together the best showing to regain entry to the practice of law, and The Rodriguez Law Group is uniquely situated to do so.

Reciprocal Discipline Cases

An attorney has a duty to report to the State Bar any discipline imposed by any other State Bar or jurisdiction. These cases proceed in State Bar Court as reciprocal discipline cases.

Under Business and Professions Code section 6049.1, the State Bar Court considers the following at the hearing, based on the certified record from the jurisdiction which imposed the discipline:

  • The degree of discipline to impose
  • Whether, as a matter of law, the member’s culpability determined in the proceeding in the other jurisdiction would not warrant the imposition of discipline in the State of California under the laws or rules binding upon members of the State Bar at the time the member committed misconduct in such other jurisdiction
  • Whether the other jurisdiction’s proceedings lacked fundamental constitutional protection

Even where an attorney does not report the discipline imposed in other states, those jurisdictions report discipline to the State Bar. Failing to report the imposition of discipline is a separately disciplinable offense.

A California Attorney’s Obligation to Self-Report

Attorneys are obligated to self-report a whole host of matters under Business and Professions Code section 6068(o), including the following:

  • The filing of three or more lawsuits within a 12-month period for legal malpractice
  • The filing of three or more lawsuits within a 12-month period for wrongful conduct committed in a professional capacity
  • The entry of judgment in a civil action for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, gross negligence, or misrepresentation in a professional capacity
  • A settlement or arbitration award for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, gross negligence, or misrepresentation in a professional capacity where an attorney is not covered by professional liability insurance
  • Reversal of judgment in a proceeding based on findings of misconduct, gross incompetence, or misrepresentation
  • Sanctions
  • Criminal actions
  • The bringing of an indictment or information charging the attorney with a felony
  • A misdemeanor conviction for a crime committed in the practice of law or in which a client was the victim
  • A misdemeanor conviction for a crime that necessarily involves dishonesty or moral turpitude, or an attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation to commit such a crime
  • A felony conviction
  • Professional discipline
  • Employment of a disbarred, resigned, suspended, or involuntarily inactive attorney

All sanctions must be reported unless they are less than $1,000 or issued for failure to make discovery.

The Requirement to Report Professional Discipline

Discipline imposed by a foreign bar, professional or occupational agency, or licensing board in any state or jurisdiction, including in federal court, must be timely reported to the State Bar.

The State Bar system is sui generis (or unique), but it has aspects of both the criminal and civil court systems.

The Life Of a Disciplinary Complaint

When a complaint is lodged with the State Bar, it is assigned to the Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC). From that moment, the six-month clock starts ticking to complete the investigation and either close or resolve the case by filing a Notice of Disciplinary Charges (NDC) or Disciplinary Stipulation.

Cases are initially screened, and those which could never result in discipline can be closed (for example, a complaint that a “rude” attorney used cuss words during a meeting with a potential client).

However, the majority of complaints are assigned to an investigator and attorney legal advisor as an investigation, where more information is obtained from the complaining witness. The respondent’s attorney can also determine if there is sufficient evidence to show a violation of the State Bar Act or one of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Reportable actions, such as dishonored client trust account checks, are also assigned to an investigator/legal advisor team for further handling. The investigator will usually send a letter to the respondent attorney seeking an explanation for the allegations in the complaint and documentary evidence to support the attorney’s response. The investigator’s letter has a laundry list of requested documents that the attorney must produce.

Attorney Rights and Obligations

An attorney has an ethical obligation under Business and Professions Code section 6068(i) to cooperate with a State Bar investigation involving the attorney. However, the respondent attorney can assert statutory and Constitutional privileges, including the attorney-client privilege and the privilege against self-incrimination.

Under Business and Professions Code section 6085, attorneys have the right to counsel at their own expense during any point in a State Bar investigation. It is wise to hire counsel at the earliest opportunity; otherwise, the chances to resolve a case quickly at the incipient stages can be lost.

An attorney has to cooperate, but too often, a respondent’s attorney may provide too much information or be too defensive in the response, which could open up new areas of inquiry for the State Bar to investigate. Moreover, any misstatements or inaccuracies in response to the State Bar from a respondent attorney can be investigated as misrepresentation to the State Bar (which constitutes moral turpitude).

OCTC has prosecutorial discretion to decide which cases to file. Before filing formal charges (the NDC), the assigned trial counsel is required to send out a notice of intent letter and, upon request, must provide the evidence supporting the planned charges, including the investigation report.

The Proceedings

The respondent attorney can ask for an Early Neutral Evaluation (ENEC) before the NDC is filed so that a neutral State Bar Court judge can consider the evidence and the proposed charges. This is an opportunity for the respondent attorney to provide evidence to support the attorney’s position. They can also offer mitigating evidence which could bear on the level of discipline.

Once an NDC is filed in State Bar Court, the proceeding is similar to a civil case. The rules of evidence are relaxed since the State Bar adopted an evidentiary standard similar to (but not identical to) the APA. There is limited discovery in State Bar proceedings.

The trial is a bench trial and is usually conducted on consecutive days. The trial court has ninety (90) days to issue a decision at the end of the case. The court can invite closing briefs and hold open the submission until the briefing is completed.

The Hearing Judge’s decision can be appealed to the Review Department by the respondent attorney or OCTC within 30 days of the decision. The opinion of the Review Department can be appealed to the Supreme Court, but in practice, only a small number of State Bar cases are ever reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Degrees of Sanctions Available in California State Bar Proceedings

Under the Standards for the Imposition of Attorney Sanctions for Professional Misconduct, Standard 1.3, the State Bar Court can recommend the following range of discipline for professional misconduct:

  1. Disbarment;
  2. Actual suspension;
  3. Stayed suspension;
  4. Reproval, public or private; or
  5. Any interim remedies or other final discipline authorized by Business and Professions Code section 6007(h).

Additionally, under Standard 1.4, the attorney may be subject to conditions attached to the discipline (or “sanctions”) as follows:

  1. Make specific restitution or file a satisfaction of judgment;
  2. Take and pass a professional responsibility examination;
  3. Undergo treatment, at the member’s expense, for medical, psychological, or psychiatric conditions or for problems related to alcohol or substance abuse;
  4. Complete, at the member’s expense, educational or rehabilitative work regarding substantive law, ethics, or law office management;
  5. Complete probation, subject to reporting requirements and supervision by a probation monitor;
  6. Give notice to affected parties, including clients, co-counsel, opposing counsel, courts, or other tribunals;
  7. Comply with any other conditions consistent with the primary purposes of discipline.

Discipline is not intended to be punishment, and should only be sufficient to prevent further misconduct in the future.

Contact The Rodriguez Law Group To Speak With a Los Angeles Professional Misconduct Defense Lawyer

Are you facing professional misconduct allegations in Los Angeles, California? You need an experienced Los Angeles professional misconduct defense attorney who can properly assess any violation – and the relevant aggravating and mitigating circumstances – so that you avoid excessive discipline. Contact The Rodriguez Law Group for assistance.

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Last Updated on December 3, 2022