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Caution!

More than 155,100 attorneys are eligible to practice law in California. Many attorneys share the same names.

All discipline reports should be read carefully for names, ages, addresses and bar numbers. Attorneys must report address changes within 30 days.


Disbarments

ERIC HOFFMAN [#142506], 49, of Oakland was disbarred March 26, 1997, and ordered to comply with rule 955 of the California Rules of Court. Hoffman's disbarment stemmed from his failure to comply with rule 955, a requirement of a January 1997 disciplinary order. At that time, Hoffman was actually suspended for 75 days and until he made restitution to certain clients.

In its disbarment recommendation, the bar court noted that Hoffmann did not participate in disciplinary proceedings prior to entry of default and he "demonstrated an unwillingness to comply with his professional obligations."

PETER ADRIAN ACUNA [#90636], 50, of San Marino was disbarred March 28, 1997, and ordered to comply with rule 955.

Acuna had requested review of two separate disciplinary proceedings which resulted in recommendations that he be actually suspended for 18 months in one matter and disbarred in another.

Both matters were consolidated by the State Bar Court for purposes of review. At the conclusion, the bar court review department recommended that Acuna be disbarred.

Former State Bar Court Hearing Judge Jennifer Gee had found that Acuna wilfully misinformed a client about the receipt of a settlement check, misappropriated more than $9,000 from four clients, engaged in the unauthorized practice of law while on suspension, represented conflicting interests in one case and violated other ethical requirements.

"It is particularly disturbing that [Acuna's] prior discipline was a six-month actual suspension for acts of moral turpitude or dishonesty in mishandling client trust funds," said the review department.

Much of Acuna's objection to the disciplinary recommendation was based on constitutional challenges to the jurisdiction of the State Bar Court, procedural arguments concerning alleged errors in rulings by the hearing judge and challenges to specific findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Among other things, he also contended that the hearing judge was biased against him and that the State Bar prosecuted him in bad faith.

However, it was determined that Acuna's claims lacked merit and that the record supported most of the hearing judge's findings and conclusions.

In one of the cases under discussion, Acuna was hired by a client in 1989 to represent her in a personal injury matter. In 1991, he received a $20,000 settlement check for his client. After medical liens and his attorneys fees were paid, the client was entitled to about $5,500 in funds.

However, the balance of Acuna's client trust account dropped below that amount several times the next year. The client did not receive any funds after signing the settlement papers and when she inquired about the delay, Acuna falsely told her the check had not yet arrived.

In 1992, he finally sent her several checks which he characterized as advances on her settlement.

When the final accounting of her funds arrived, the client objected to the 40 percent contingency fee, but was told by Acuna that she had agreed to that figure if the matter went to trial. However, the client was never informed of a trial nor asked to make an appearance.

The bar's review judge found no "clear and convincing" evidence of a trial, although the record established that Acuna settled after filing suit and was entitled to the agreed 40 percent fee.

It was agreed that Acuna proved two mitigating circumstances: He provided free legal seminars to the Chinese community and voluntarily repaid misappropriated funds to his clients before disciplinary proceedings began.

However, he failed to provide extraordinary demonstration of good character with his witnesses, most of whom were unaware of the details of his misconduct. No mitigating weight was given to Acuna's contention of extreme personal and financial problems because he did not prove they caused his misconduct. The Supreme Court denied Acuna's petition for writ of review.

GARRETT K. BUELL [#122989], 42, of Salinas was disbarred April 13, 1997, and ordered to comply with rule 955. In this default decision, Buell was disbarred following his failure to comply with rule 955, as required by a January 1996 disciplinary order.

At that time, Buell was actually suspended for two years for professional misconduct. The hearing judge noted that no evidence of mitigation was presented, Buell demonstrated an unwillingness to comply with his professional obligations and he did not participate in disciplinary proceedings prior to the entry of default.

JOSEPH P. VANDENBERG [#29072], 65, of Sacramento was disbarred April 20, 1997, and ordered to comply with rule 955. Vandenberg was previously ordered to comply with rule 955 in April 1996, but he neglected to do so. At that time he was actually suspended for two years and ordered to make restitution to certain clients. He did not participate in disciplinary proceedings prior to entry of default. In making the disbarment recommendation, the hearing department of the State Bar Court found Vandenberg's failure to comply with rule 955 "extremely serious misconduct."

RICHARD FRANCIS NOLAN [#126090], 41, of Cathedral City was disbarred April 20, 1997, and ordered to comply with rule 955.

In this 69-page disbarment decision, following a default hearing Nolan was found culpable of multiple instances of misconduct.

The bar court found evidence of wrongdoing involving 18 separate client matters and five non-client matters over a two-year period.

In addition, Nolan was convicted in Riverside Municipal Court of a misdemeanor violation of Penal Code §273.6, violation of a court order.

He also failed to cooperate in 15 State Bar disciplinary investigations. The court concluded that Nolan's actions established a "pattern" of misconduct, a characterization reserved for "only the most serious instances of repeated misconduct over a prolonged period of time."

Nolan's misconduct was found to have significantly harmed his clients when he failed to perform legal services in 13 separate matters and refund unearned fees in 10 matters. "Numerous clients and medical service providers were required to bring civil actions or fee arbitrations against [Nolan] for unearned fees, misappropriated funds and unpaid medical liens," wrote the bar court judge.

He also made misrepresentations to courts in two of his cases. In addition, Nolan has failed to pay any of the seven judgments entered against him and failed to refund unearned fees, demonstrating indifference toward the consequences of his misconduct.

Nolan had no prior record of discipline, but because his misconduct began only five years after his admission to the bar in 1986, no weight was accorded to it in mitigation.

The bar court judge wrote, "It is abundantly clear that [Nolan] will continue to cause harm to the clients, the courts and the legal profession unless he is disbarred from practice."

JOHN S. BANKHEAD [#141466], 40, of Charlotte, N.C., was disbarred April 25, 1997, and ordered to comply with rule 955.

Bankhead's disbarment proceedings were initiated in California after he was disbarred by the North Carolina State Bar in 1995.

Bankhead's misconduct in North Carolina stemmed from his misappropriation of funds donated to purchase a wheelchair for a three-year-old boy.

Bankhead was hired by a client for representation in several traffic violation matters in the early 1990s. During this time, Bankhead volunteered to help the client and his wife raise funds to purchase a wheelchair for their young son. He collected nearly $900, but deposited the funds in two joint personal checking accounts he held with his roommate.

At one point, the balance of both accounts fell below the amount of the funds entrusted to Bankhead.

The client's family eventually received $4,300 from a charitable organization, specifically to be used toward the purchase of a $5,000 wheelchair. The difference was to be made up from the donations collected by Bankhead.

However, Bankhead did not initially respond to inquiries about the account and refused to provide his client's wife with an accounting of the funds. He eventually made a payment of $100 to the seller of the wheelchair.

The client's family contacted another attorney to retrieve the donations held by Bankhead, who falsely claimed he had only collected about $700 and that some funds were needed to offset secretarial, paperwork and paralegal expenses.

The North Carolina State Bar found that Bankhead had commingled entrusted funds and committed acts involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

The hearing department of the California State Bar Court agreed and said that although his voluntary collection of funds on behalf of the clients was not directly related to the practice of law, it was clear that the clients had trusted him based on their past relationship with him as their legal representative.

"Although the amount of money misappropriated by [Bankhead] is not extremely large, the vulnerability of his victims and his blatant violation and betrayal of their trust make [Bankhead's] misconduct particularly reprehensible," wrote the bar court hearing judge.

L. BURKE LEWIS [#114021], 50, of Vancouver, British Columbia, was disbarred April 25, 1997, and ordered to comply with rule 955. Lewis failed to comply with rule 955, a requirement of a 1995 discipline order.

At that time, Lewis was disciplined for misconduct in four matters. He received a five-year stayed suspension and five years probation on the condition that he was actually suspended for two years and until he made restitution and provided proof of his fitness to practice law.

Considered as aggravating circumstances were Lewis' failure to participate in the disbarment proceedings and his indifference to the consequences of his misconduct.

Lewis' failure to comply with rule 955 "undermines the basic function that rule 955 serves, i.e., ensuring that all concerned parties learn about an attorney's suspension from the practice of law," wrote the bar court hearing judge.

RICHARD STEVEN SCOTT [#113601], 53, of Riverside was disbarred April 30, 1997, and ordered to comply with rule 955.

Scott's disbarment followed a default hearing involving multiple acts of wrongdoing in six separate client matters. In addition, he failed to cooperate with the bar's investigation of four of those matters.

In this decision, the bar court hearing judge found that Scott's misconduct was followed by bad faith, dishonesty and concealment. In one matter, he attempted to conceal the superior court's dismissal of a client's case for lack of prosecution by sending the client a new contingency fee agreement and misrepresenting to her that the action was still pending.

In another matter, Scott misrepresented to a client that the superior court had not given a reason for dismissal of his case, when in fact, it was the result of his failure to appear at two hearings.

As a result of his misconduct, at least three of Scott's clients lost their causes of action and another client had a significant delay in finalizing a settlement.

In another case, he delayed returning a client's files and about $72,000 in entrusted funds for seven months. Scott also closed his office without informing one client and stopped communicating with other clients.

The hearing judge said he was particularly troubled by the length of time in which the misconduct occurred (about two years) and by Scott's lack of participation in the disciplinary proceedings.


Suspensions/Probation

MICHAEL ALEXANDER BAKER [#65108], 48, of Northridge was suspended for two years, stayed, placed on two years of probation with an actual two-year suspension and until he proves rehabilitation, and was ordered to pass the MPRE within one year. The actual suspension began retroactively Nov. 29, 1994, and the interim suspension which began Feb. 21, 1995, ended March 3, 1997, the effective date of this order.

Baker pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud in a plea agreement reached with federal prosecutors in the Eastern District in 1994. He was sentenced to four months in a federal correctional facility and eight months at a community treatment center. He also was ordered to make $117,500 in restitution to the California Department of Conservation, Division of Recycling.

Baker committed fraud by redeeming recycled aluminum cans which already had been redeemed.

For several months in 1990, he was an officer in a scrap metal business which purchased used aluminum cans, eligible to be redeemed, from Mexico. When the supply dried up, he purchased bales of already redeemed cans from a Los Angeles scrap dealer. He then sold the cans to an employee of his business' Mexico operation. The cans were returned to Los Angeles and sold to recycling centers.

An investigation revealed that Baker's operation sold about 290,000 pounds of cans to three recycling centers. The estimated loss to the Department of Conservation was $117,500.

Although the actual offense involved illegal redemptions, Baker pleaded guilty to mail fraud, which would have occurred when the state of California used the U.S. mails to deliver documents to one of the recyclers with whom Baker did business. It was stipulated that the facts surrounding the crime involved moral turpitude.

In mitigation, Baker's misconduct did not involve the practice of law, he cooperated with both federal investigators and the bar, he submitted evidence of his good character and he has demonstrated rehabilitation. He had not been disciplined in 15 years of practice.

The probation of CLIFTON DONALDSON BLEVINS [#47481], 55, of San Diego was revoked and he was suspended for two years, stayed, placed on three years of probation with an actual 90-day suspension, and was ordered to comply with rule 955 of the California Rules of Court. The order took effect March 21, 1997.

Blevins originally was disciplined in 1995 for four instances of failing to keep funds in his client trust account which were owed to his clients' physicians. The hearing judge, noting that Blevins' problems were caused by "technical ineptness rather than moral or ethical inadequacies," placed him on probation with conditions including quarterly reports by an accountant regarding Blevins' possession of client funds.

The State Bar moved to revoke Blevins' probation in November 1995 when it charged that the reports he submitted were not prepared by certified public accountants or otherwise did not comply with probationary requirements regarding reporting of trust funds. Blevins demanded a hearing and presented evidence that the person he hired to monitor his trust account was a CPA.

The bar court declined to revoke probation, finding that Blevins acted in good faith in attempting to comply with his probation.

Blevins then filed his January 1996 quarterly report more than two months late and did not file the April report.

Those violations led to the current discipline. Blevins "was certainly on notice [in November 1995] that he must conform with the State Bar's expectations," the court wrote. "Regardless, he failed thereafter to comply with the requirements that he file quarterly reports and provide reports by a certified public accountant or a public accountant attesting to his proper resolution of trust funds."

RICHARD ELLIOT LEHRFELD [#50988], 54, of Sacramento was suspended for four years, stayed, placed on probation for five years with an actual 30-month suspension and until he proves his rehabilitation, and was ordered to take the MPRE within one year. Credit toward the period of actual suspension will be given for the interim suspension which began Aug. 31, 1994, as a result of his conviction matter. The order took effect March 26, 1997.

The discipline stemmed from a consolidated conviction referral and an original matter. Lehrfeld was convicted in May 1994 of possession of marijuana, a misdemeanor, and possession of marijuana for sale, a felony. He also stipulated to improper sexual conduct with a client he represented in a child custody dispute.

Lehrfeld suffered a stroke in 1991 and, as a result, his vision was impaired and he had chronic, severe headaches which impaired his ability to practice law. He began to self-medicate with marijuana, which eased his symptoms.

He was arrested after he had a dispute with his girlfriend over some secretarial work she did for him. She went to the police and accused Lehrfeld of rape. When the police declined to investigate her allegation, she told them about Lehrfeld's marijuana use and agreed to set up a drug buy from an undercover agent. Lehrfeld was arrested when he agreed to purchase four ounces of marijuana for $850 and give two ounces to his ex-girlfriend and her brother.

In mitigation, Lehrfeld participated in a drug rehabilitation program for six months and has complied with the terms of his criminal probation. He has no record of discipline since his 1972 admission to the bar and he cooperated with the investigation.

ROBERT JAY BARTH [#75776], 53, of Beverly Hills was suspended for one year, stayed, placed on two years of probation, and was ordered to take the professional responsibility examination. The order took effect March 26, 1997.

Barth was charged with five counts of misconduct in two matters.

In the first, he failed to perform legal services competently and did not respond to his clients' reasonable status inquiries. He represented the defendants in a federal case, but did not answer the complaint on behalf of one client or appear at a hearing. As a result, a default judgment was entered against Barth's client. He never told the client about the default.

Barth assisted new counsel to help set aside the default and made restitution of $25,000 to the client.

The second matter involved a personal injury case which was dismissed as a result of Barth's failure to pursue it. That client hired a new lawyer, but it was too late to set aside the dismissal. Barth's offer of restitution was not pursued.

Barth offered significant mitigating testimony. He went through a period of intense family turmoil, beginning in 1985, because his daughter had been sexually molested for several years by a relative. She then was arrested, suffered drug problems and ran away repeatedly. Barth and his wife divorced.

Barth himself suffered extreme depression, but after two years of therapy, he has reduced his caseload and stress and is functioning efficiently.

Barth has four prior records of discipline, all during the same time period. Two cases involved abandoning clients and two were probation violations stemming from those cases. He also practiced law while suspended.

Two separate discipline orders were issued against FRED WYNNE OWEN [#24864], 69, of Bakersfield. In one matter, as of March 26, 1997, he was suspended for two years, stayed, and placed on two years of probation with an actual 60-day suspension and until he completes nine hours of law office management courses.

In a second matter, he was suspended for two years, stayed, placed on three years of probation with an actual six-month suspension, and was ordered to comply with rule 955. The order took effect April 20, 1997.

Owen initially was given a 30-day stayed suspension and placed on two years of probation in 1994 after stipulating to failure to perform legal services competently, communicate with a client and cooperate with the bar's investigation. When he did not comply with the terms of his probation or respond to a notice of disciplinary charges, he was placed on involuntary inactive status in March 1996.

Owen then filed a motion to set aside the order and claimed he had not received the disciplinary notice or any other correspondence regarding his probation. The court found that Owen's assertions were not credible. It also rejected his claims that he submitted a law office management plan and completed the required MCLE hours.

Although the court gave some weight to the fact that Owen had only one instance of discipline during more than 40 years of practice and that he made some effort to comply with his probation requirements, it also expressed concern about his "lack of candor."

It concluded that "a period of actual suspension is required in order to impress upon [Owen] both his duty to promptly and fully comply with the terms of his disciplinary probation and his duty of honesty and candor to this court."

In the second discipline matter, a personal injury case was dismissed because Owen did not comply with discovery requests, file a required pleading or appear at hearings.

The case was dismissed Oct. 1, 1990, without the client's knowledge. Nonethe-less, Owen notified his client the following December that her deposition was scheduled for the next month. When she appeared for a deposition, Owen told her the case "was in the bag," and did not tell her it had been dismissed.

Over the next two years, his client tried unsuccessfully to call Owen more than 100 times. When she finally hired a new lawyer in June 1993, Owen continued to assert that he did not know the case had been dismissed.

He finally delivered his client's file to the new attorney in July 1994. His client ultimately won a malpractice judgment against Owen for approximately $7,000 to $8,000, which has not been paid.

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