MAGAZINE
California Lawyer

PROBATION

Christopher P. Dobbins, State Bar #258002, San Leandro (April 29, 2014). Dobbins, 42, and Stalcup, 42, were placed on one year of probation for failing to obey a court order and failing to report judicial sanctions.

In 2011 Dobbins and Stalcup were criminal defense attorneys who represented a defendant in a molestation case. Prior to the trial, the court granted a motion Dobbins and Stalcup filed to exclude witnesses from the courtroom. As part of the court’s order, the attorneys were instructed to admonish their witnesses not to discuss their testimony with other witnesses. One day prior to introducing testimony by three defense witnesses, Dobbins and Stalcup met with the witnesses at their law office and discussed a time line about who lived with the defendant at various times. After the prosecutor questioned the witnesses about the meeting at the law office, the judge found Dobbins and Stalcup to be in direct violation of her order. Thereafter, the judge held a sanctions hearing and, in June 2011, found that Dobbins and Stalcup willfully failed to comply with her order. She sanctioned each of them $1,500.

Later that month the Sixth District Court of Appeal denied Dobbins and Stalcup a writ of prohibition and stay of the order filed by, and in September 2011 the California Supreme Court denied their petition for review. Dobbins and Stalcup did not confirm the sanction order with the State Bar until after a State Bar investigator contacted them.

In aggravation, Dobbins and Stalcup showed a lack of insight and were indifferent to their wrongdoing. Further, they contended that the judge ordered sanctions only because she was upset that they won the criminal case. In mitigation, both Dobbins and Stalcup were involved in pro bono and community service activities. Also, Dobbins and Stalcup held the honest but mistaken belief that they did not need to report the sanctions to the State Bar until after their appeal was final. The order took effect May 29, 2014

Brent R. Phillips, State Bar #235753, Tustin (April 29, 2014). Phillips, 48, was placed on two years of probation for practicing law in states where he was not licensed, and collecting advance fees for loan-modification services in violation of Civil Code § 2944.7(a)(1).

Phillips was licensed to practice law in California, Arizona, and Maryland. However, in 2011 he entered into a written agreement with a Pennsylvania resident to perform loan-modification services on the client’s behalf and received $1,945 in fees. In 2013 the client terminated his services. Phillips later refunded the advance fees.

Also in 2011 Phillips entered into a written agreement with a New Jersey couple to perform loan-modification services on their behalf. He received $3,995 in fees. The couple terminated his services after he failed to obtain a modification of their loan. Phillips refunded the advance fees after the couple filed a complaint with the State Bar.

In aggravation, Phillips engaged in multiple acts of wrongdoing. In mitigation, Phillips had no record of prior discipline since being admitted to the State Bar in 2005. Moreover, he cooperated with the investigation and proceedings, provided his clients full refunds, and admitted his culpability. The order took effect May 29, 2014

Theodore D. Stalcup, State Bar #250135, San Leandro (April 29, 2014). Dobbins, 42, and Stalcup, 42, were placed on one year of probation for failing to obey a court order and failing to report judicial sanctions.

In 2011 Dobbins and Stalcup were criminal defense attorneys who represented a defendant in a molestation case. Prior to the trial, the court granted a motion Dobbins and Stalcup filed to exclude witnesses from the courtroom. As part of the court’s order, the attorneys were instructed to admonish their witnesses not to discuss their testimony with other witnesses. One day prior to introducing testimony by three defense witnesses, Dobbins and Stalcup met with the witnesses at their law office and discussed a time line about who lived with the defendant at various times. After the prosecutor questioned the witnesses about the meeting at the law office, the judge found Dobbins and Stalcup to be in direct violation of her order. Thereafter, the judge held a sanctions hearing and, in June 2011, found that Dobbins and Stalcup willfully failed to comply with her order. She sanctioned each of them $1,500.

Later that month the Sixth District Court of Appeal denied Dobbins and Stalcup a writ of prohibition and stay of the order filed by, and in September 2011 the California Supreme Court denied their petition for review. Dobbins and Stalcup did not confirm the sanction order with the State Bar until after a State Bar investigator contacted them.

In aggravation, Dobbins and Stalcup showed a lack of insight and were indifferent to their wrongdoing. Further, they contended that the judge ordered sanctions only because she was upset that they won the criminal case. In mitigation, both Dobbins and Stalcup were involved in pro bono and community service activities. Also, Dobbins and Stalcup held the honest but mistaken belief that they did not need to report the sanctions to the State Bar until after their appeal was final. The order took effect May 29, 2014

Barry L. Van Sickle, State Bar #98645, Mankato, MN (May 13, 2014). VanSickle, 63, was placed on two years of probation for failing to competently perform legal services, and failing to promptly refund advance fees that were not earned.

In aggravation, VanSickle committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that harmed his clients. In mitigation, he had no record of prior discipline since being admitted to the State Bar in 1981, and he cooperated by entering into a stipulation. The order took effect June 12, 2014

Michael M. Yellin, State Bar #255050, Los Angeles (April 23, 2014). Yellin, 42, was placed on one year of probation for failing to competently perform legal services, failing to refund unearned fees, failing to provide appropriate accounts, failing to promptly respond to reasonable status inquiries, practicing law in states where he was not licensed, and collecting advance fees for loan-modification services in violation of Civil Code § 2944.7(a)(1).

In 2009 Yellin contracted with A Fresh Start to process loan modifications for clients. Yellin advertised his services in Ohio and Mississippi, though he was not licensed to practice law in either state, and he maintained a website advertising his availability to perform loan-modification services in those states. In February of that year Yellin collected legal fees from a client in Ohio, and a month later he collected legal fees from another client in Mississippi, both for obtaining home loan modifications. Yellin failed to obtain the loan-modifications, failed to provide an accounting, and failed to refund the legal fees.

In aggravation, Yellin had a record of prior discipline. Moreover, his wrongdoing significantly harmed several clients, and it demonstrated a pattern of misconduct. In mitigation, Yellin cooperated with the State Bar by entering into a stipulation. The order took effect May 23, 2014

Actions From Previous Issues

Mitchell L. Abdallah, State Bar #231804, Sacramento (January 15, 2014). Abdallah, 54, was placed on two years of probation for failing to report a judicial sanction, violating a court order, and failing to promptly release his client’s papers upon termination of employment.

In 2010 Abdallah was sanctioned $5,758 by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and prohibited from filing documents with an electronic signature for one year. After Abdallah filed another bankruptcy application with the electronic signature, the bankruptcy court issued a $2,000 sanction against him and prohibited Abdallah from using the electronic signature designation for two years. Although Abdallah paid the sanctions, he never reported them to the State Bar.

In a second matter, in March 2011 Abdallah was retained to pursue a claim against Chase Bank. The following September, Abdallah filed a civil complaint on behalf of his client. Shortly thereafter, the client asked Abdallah to dismiss the case, and she made several requests for him to return her file. Abdallah kept the file for more than six months before releasing it to her.

In aggravation, Abdallah committed multiple acts of wrongdoing. In mitigation, he had no record of prior discipline since being admitted to the State Bar in 2004. Also, Abdallah exhibited remorse for his wrongdoing and cooperated by entering into a stipulation. The order took effect February 14, 2014

This action originally appeared in our June 2014 issue.

Michael P. Caruso, State Bar #248821, San Diego (February 27, 2014). Caruso, 43, was placed on two years of probation for failing to competently perform legal services, failing to promptly refund unearned fees, failing to promptly disburse client funds, and failing to deposit client funds into a trust account.

In aggravation, Caruso committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that harmed his clients. In mitigation, during the period of his misconduct Caruso suffered from a serious medical condition that affected his ability to run his law firm. The order took effect March 29, 2014

This action originally appeared in our August 2014 issue.

Joseph L. DeClue, State Bar #163954, Newport Beach (March 26, 2014). Joseph Lynn DEClue, State Bar # 163954, Newport Beach (March 26). DeClue, 61, was placed on two years of probation for collecting advance fees in home-loan modification matters in violation of Civil Code § 2944.7 and for failing to competently perform legal services.

In January 2013 a husband and wife seeking loan-modification services signed a retainer agreement provided by a nonattorney member of DeClue’s staff. DeClue charged an initial retainer fee of $3,000 as advance fees. Later that month DeClue submitted a qualified written request to the clients’ lender. The clients failed to qualify for necessary financing and were told by the nonattorney they needed to pay DeClue an additional $2,500. The clients then terminated DeClue’s services.

On January 29, 2013, unbeknownst to DeClue, his staff member personally demanded payment at the clients’ house. The staff member told the clients that DeClue would sue them if they did not pay the additional $2,500. DeClue later filed a complaint against the clients in small claims court for the attorneys fees, and he obtained a judgment in his favor. However, the clients appealed the judgment and had it overturned.

There was also one other matter involving similar misconduct warranting discipline.

In aggravation, DeClue committed multiple acts of wrongdoing that significantly harmed his clients. In mitigation, DeClue had no record of prior discipline since being admitted to the State Bar in 1993. Also, he cooperated by entering into a stipulation. The order took effect April 25, 2014

This action originally appeared in our September 2014 issue.

Michael K. Groves, State Bar #110645, Rancho Mirage (October 29, 2013). Michael King Groves, State Bar # 110645, Rancho Mirage (October 29). Groves, 61, was placed on one year of probation for accepting advance fees in loan-modification matters, a violation of Civil Code § 2944.7(a).

In aggravation, Groves had a record of prior discipline. In mitigation, Groves cooperated with the State Bar by entering into a stipulation. The order took effect November 28, 2013

This action originally appeared in our April 2014 issue.

Terrence J. Hardin, State Bar #105767, Pasadena (February 6, 2014). Hardin, 66, was placed on three years of probation for misconduct warranting discipline.

In December 2012 a Los Angeles police officer observed Hardin driving a car in the opposite direction of traffic. Hardin’s car had hit another vehicle, and he left the scene of the accident. The officer followed Hardin, who did not notice the flashing lights or the siren of the police car and did not stop his car until about 600 feet from the site of the accident. When the officer approached Hardin’s car, he noticed a strong odor of alcohol. Hardin refused to take a breath test, and the officer placed him under arrest. When Hardin’s car was inspected, an open bottle of vodka was discovered. Hardin was uncooperative at his arrest and claimed he did not remember getting into an accident. Later, he was ordered to appear in court, but he failed to do so. He eventually surrendered directly to the Los Angeles County Jail Inmate Reception Center.

In February 2013 Hardin pleaded nolo contendere to violating Vehicle Code § 23152(a) (driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs) and § 14601.5(a) (driving while the privilege is suspended or revoked pursuant to Vehicle Code §§ 13353, 13353.1, and 13353.2).

In aggravation, Hardin committed multiple acts of wrongdoing. In mitigation, he had no record of prior discipline since being admitted to the State Bar in 1982, and he cooperated by entering into a stipulation. The order took effect March 8, 2014

This action originally appeared in our June 2014 issue.

Donald Mah, State Bar #158045, Fairfield (December 31, 2013). Mah, 55, was placed on two years of probation for failing to competently perform legal services, failing to promptly release a client’s file upon termination of employment, failing to refund unearned fees, and failing to cooperate in a State Bar investigation.

In aggravation, Mah had a record of prior discipline. Also, he engaged in multiple acts of wrongdoing. The order took effect January 30, 2014

This action originally appeared in our May 2014 issue.

Raymond R. Miller, State Bar #144398, Castro Valley (March 26, 2014). Miller, 62, was placed on two years of probation for repeatedly issuing insufficiently funded checks drawn on his client trust account (CTA) and commingling funds, an act of moral turpitude.

In May 2012 Miller deposited $700 of his personal funds into his CTA for the purpose of paying client costs. Although he believed that he was required to pay advance costs from his CTA, this belief was mistaken and not a defense to commingling. Between May and June 2012 Miller paid three personal expenses totaling $530 from his CTA.

In aggravation, Miller had a record of prior discipline. In addition, the State Bar Court determined that Mil­ler’s admission that he maintained personal funds in the CTA as a hedge against mathematical errors showed uncharged misconduct. In mitigation, Miller’s misconduct did not harm any of his clients. The order took effect April 25, 2014

This action originally appeared in our September 2014 issue.

Lawrence M. Oleksiewicz, State Bar #165752, Beverly Hills (March 26, 2014). Oleksiewicz, 54, was placed on two years of probation for collecting an illegal fee.

In July 2007 the Sun Valley Group Inc., personal representative of a deceased’s estate, hired Oleksiewicz to open an ancillary probate proceeding and to dispose of properties on the estate’s behalf. He sent Sun Valley a bill for $9,000, which he calculated using a statutory formula set forth in the California Probate Code; Sun Valley sent Oleksiewicz a check for that amount. However, the probate court never gave Oleksiewicz approval to receive compensation for his services as an attorney. Sun Valley later terminated Oleksiewicz’s employment and requested return of the $9,000. He agreed to return the fee, but claimed he lacked sufficient funds to do so at the time. After a State Bar complaint was filed against him, Oleksiewicz later returned the fee.

In mitigation, Oleksiewicz had no record of prior discipline since being admitted to the State Bar in 1993, and he cooperated by entering into a stipulation. The order took effect April 25, 2014

This action originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.

Javier B. Ramirez, State Bar #58075, Norwalk (February 24, 2014). Ramirez, 71, was placed on two years of probation for failing to maintain client funds in trust and committing an act involving moral turpitude, dishonesty, or corruption.

In 2007 Ramirez employed his daughter as an assistant at his solo practice, and he delegated most banking responsibilities to her. In January 2012 Ramirez suffered a heart attack and was restricted from work. He returned to work two months later and became embroiled in a series of homicide trials representing criminal defendants. Due to his heavy workload he became increasingly dependent on his daughter, and he eventually neglected his client trust account (CTA). Ramirez failed to review account statements or to perform monthly reconciliations.

During the same period, Ramirez’s daughter began withdrawing money from his accounts for her own personal use. By May 2012 she had overdrawn the firm’s operating accounts, and by July 2012 she had withdrawn at least $10,012 from the CTA. As a result, two checks that Ramirez had previously issued from the CTA were returned for insufficient funds, resulting in overdraft charges. Between August and October 2012 Ramirez’s daughter withdrew an additional $7,806 from the CTA.

Ramirez did not discover his daughter’s actions until June 2013, when the State Bar began its investigation. He immediately reimbursed the CTA, using his personal funds.

In mitigation, Ramirez had no record of prior discipline since being admitted to the State Bar in 1973. Also, he cooperated by entering into a stipulation, and he took remedial measures to correct the problems surrounding his misconduct. The order took effect March 26, 2014

This action originally appeared in our July 2014 issue.

Frederick W. Smith, Jr., State Bar #104913, Oakdale (February 6, 2014). Smith, 60, was placed on two years of probation for entering into an unfair transaction with a client, and for seeking an agreement that his professional misconduct would not be reported to the State Bar.

From 2002 to 2010 Smith was employed by an elderly client for estate planning and asset management. In 2004 Smith asked the client to loan him $250,000 to invest in a company owned by Smith and his son. Smith was loaned the money on terms that were not fair and reasonable. Also, Smith never informed the client in writing that she was entitled to seek the advice of an independent lawyer before entering into the loan, he did not give her an opportunity to seek that advice, and he did not obtain her written consent to the terms of the loan. When the client died in December 2010, Smith had not repaid the principal, although he had made interest payments.

In 2011 the client’s beneficiaries filed a civil action against Smith to recover funds associated with the loan. Smith sent the plaintiffs’ legal counsel a proposed settlement agreement and release containing a requirement that plaintiffs not file a complaint with the State Bar.

In aggravation, Smith caused the beneficiaries of his client’s estate financial harm by forcing them to file suit against him. In mitigation, Smith had no record of prior discipline since being admitted to the State Bar in 1982, and he cooperated by entering into a stipulation. The order took effect March 8, 2014

This action originally appeared in our June 2014 issue.