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Attorney Privilege 

The state bar is supposed to punish dishonest attorneys. Instead, it too often coddles them

Wednesday, Jul 18 2007
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Robert Hawley, the agency's deputy executive director, asserts that California's policy cleaves the middle ground between the public's right to know and shielding lawyers from gratuitous character attacks. "An attorney's reputation is sort of their stock in trade," he says. "Their reputation shouldn't be dinged unless the complaints are found to have validity."

HALT's Blonder agrees — to a point. She might fully endorse California's approach if the bar brought charges and imposed sanctions more quickly. But given the delays, she says, "You're leaving people vulnerable. You're not shedding enough sunlight on the process."

The bar requires a lawyer, if suspended for 90 days or longer, to notify clients, opposing counsel, and the courts, but unsuspecting clients can still remain in the dark. Two years ago, South San Francisco attorney Justin Dahlz received an 18-month suspension for pocketing more than $20,000 in settlement funds intended for five clients. The sanction marked his fourth since 1996.

The suspension took effect in January 2005. Yet the 70-year-old Dahlz continued working, filing motions in at least two cases. He stopped only when Victoria Townsend, the opposing counsel in one case, learned of his suspension and informed his client and the judge. Early last year, facing charges of practicing while on suspension, Dahlz resigned from the bar. He couldn't be reached by SF Weekly for comment.

To Townsend, however, his actions typify a dysfunctional discipline system. "You're putting the responsibility on the person accused of egregious conduct to then tell everyone about it," she says. "That's insane."


Lissa Jacobson suspected Robert Cram of abducting a pair of feral cats that lived in the backyard of her Sherwood Forest home. The two neighbors had recently tangled in court after Cram trimmed four trees along their shared property line, with Jacobson obtaining a small settlement from him. As revenge, she alleged, he trapped and disappeared Persia and Mittens, the strays she had watched over for years.

Jacobson wanted to sue — if an attorney would take the case. A succession of lawyers turned her down. Christine Garcia, however, sensed a cause célèbre in the offing.

A member of the city's animal control and welfare commission, Garcia advertises her "vegan-owned" Presidio practice as "The Animal Law Office." She filed Jacobson's suit in Superior Court in 2002 without interviewing anyone besides her client, court records show. Her sprawling, 14-count complaint alleged that Cram inflicted emotional distress, violated the Food and Agriculture Code, and committed "trespass to chattel." She asked for damages of $876,000, or about 35 times what Jacobson says she planned to seek.

Court documents also show that Garcia mailed letters to Cram's neighbors accusing him of "malicious actions"; her Web site referred to the suit as a "wrongful death case."

Cram had legally trapped feral cats on his property and delivered them to the Society of Prevention for Cruelty to Animals so that they could be fixed and released back into the neighborhood. An SPCA worker affirmed that claim in a defense deposition. (Cram declined to comment to SF Weekly.)

In November 2003, the suit was tossed at trial, and Garcia and Jacobson were ordered to pay $77,000 to cover Cram's attorney's fees. The judge blasted Garcia for exploiting a meritless case "to vent her political and philosophical beliefs regarding animal rights," and for preying on Jacobson's "one-sided vendetta" against Cram.

Garcia took the unusual step of adding her name as a plaintiff when she appealed the case in 2004. The move set up a complicated three-way standoff among her, Jacobson, and Cram that led to the appeal's demise. Jacobson, who had hired a new attorney, was forced to cover the $77,000.

Cram's lawyer and Jacobson complained to the State Bar, and last October, the Supreme Court ordered Garcia to serve a four-month suspension, ruling that she "failed to perform legal services competently." The court also found she had added her name to the appeal knowing Jacobson might be stuck paying the entire sanction award as a result.

And yet, to listen to the 32-year-old attorney, she's the victim. "I've been treated so unfairly. I don't really think I deserve what I've been put through," Garcia told SF Weekly before declining to comment further.

San Francisco attorney Jonathan Arons, who represented Garcia before the bar, said even less about her case. But as a member of the small fraternity of lawyers who defend their brethren in discipline cases, he contends the bar has of late taken a tougher approach. He traces the trend to a state Supreme Court ruling in 2005 in the case of a Pacific Palisades lawyer.

The court disbarred Ron Silverton in 1975 following his conviction on fraud and conspiracy charges in an insurance scam. Unlike other states, California lacks a permanent disbarment statute; attorneys who lose their license can apply for reinstatement after five years. Silverton gained re-entry to the bar in 1992, but new allegations of misconduct surfaced in 2003, with clients alleging that he had charged exorbitant fees and siphoned settlement money. In disbarring him a second time, the Supreme Court chastised the bar for straying too far from sanctioning guidelines.

Arons accuses bar prosecutors of reacting to the ruling in the extreme, pushing for the harshest sanctions possible without regard for an individual's circumstance. "The resolution needs to fit the offense," he says. "It shouldn't be cookie-cutter justice."

Likewise, Walnut Creek lawyer Jerome Fishkin charges that bar prosecutors "have become lazy. They just check a box and ask for the maximum [penalty]."

A former bar prosecutor who moved into private practice 15 years ago, Fishkin offers the example of an attorney disciplined for neglecting a client's case. When the Bar Court imposed a 30-day suspension, prosecutors appealed, demanding the time be doubled. The court obliged, but Fishkin questions the rationale. "They probably spent an extra $100,000 to get 30 more days," he says. "What's the point? Who's really served by that?"

About The Author

Martin Kuz

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