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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 his disbarment.

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 court.

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 appeals."

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.

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