Immigration lawyer, facing charges in 41 cases, resigns
A San Francisco immigration lawyer who took thousands of dollars from unsuspecting
clients and used a risky legal strategy that exposed them to possible deportation
resigned from the State Bar. WALTER PINEDA [#97293], 55, surrendered his license
Oct. 25, saying he is gravely ill and needs a liver transplant. His resignation
will take effect when accepted by the Supreme Court.
Pineda was accused by the bar of a "despicable and far-reaching pattern of
misconduct" in 41 matters involving at least 50 clients. He had appeared for
trial before the State Bar Court on 14 dates since March. The bar was seeking
According to State Bar prosecutors, Pineda mishandled numerous matters in
which his mostly Mexican clients were trying to gain legal status.
On Pineda's advice, the clients applied for political asylum, a status granted
for religious or political persecution but rarely given to immigrants from
Mexico. When the applications were denied, the INS forwarded the cases to immigration
There, Pineda tried to have his clients avoid deportation by claiming that
returning to their home country would result in "extreme hardship."
In April 1997, a new federal law went into effect that dramatically raised
the bar for demonstrating hardship and increased the time for an immigrant
to have been in the U.S. from seven to 10 years. In addition, an immigrant
had to have a close relative who is a permanent resident or an American citizen.
Although Pineda was well aware of the new law, bar prosecutors argued, he continued
to advise clients to take their chances before the immigration court.
Calling the asylum applications "meritless," the bar said Pineda would routinely "take
client money to file frivolous applications, spend no time actually trying
to develop a viable position for the clients to stay legally in the United
States, lose the applications for asylum and take more money to file frivolous
Once the client's effort to remain in the U.S. was denied, Pineda frequently
urged his clients to appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals and then to
the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The bar accused Pineda of failing to perform legal services competently, supervise
his non-lawyer staff, aiding and abetting the unlawful practice of law and
failing to communicate with clients. He also was accused of committing acts
of moral turpitude by lying to his clients about the status of their cases
and their chances for success.
Prosecutors estimated that clients paid an average of between $7,500 and $10,000
for Pineda's services.
Pineda argued that if he got his clients into immigration court before the
1997 law took effect, it was the "functional equivalent" of starting proceedings
under the old law that required a lesser showing of hardship.
However, experts who testified at his trial called his technique extremely
risky, as did a Ninth Circuit decision in another case.
According to Tammy Albertsen-Murray, deputy trial counsel who prosecuted Pineda,
her office "felt this case was important because Mr. Pineda was doing significant
damage to many people, including at least 50 clients whose cases were at issue
in the State Bar Court. . . Mr. Pineda took thousands of dollars from these
clients and performed services that were not helpful to the clients and were
risky and dangerous to their legal status."
Some of his clients were deported and others hired new lawyers and continue
to fight for legal residency.
It was not until years later that the bar received a flood of complaints about
Pineda and began an investigation. Albertsen-Murray built enough evidence to
fill 60 binders of documents.
Pineda, who was born in San Francisco to Nicaraguan immigrant parents, claimed
to have helped 5,000 families with immigration issues in his 25 years of practice.
He said the complaints against him were filed because immigrants can have their
cases reopened based on ineffective assistance of counsel.