|RONALD E. LAIS [#66511], 57, of Anaheim Hills was
suspended for two years, stayed, placed on three years of probation with an actual 90-day
suspension and until he makes restitution, and was ordered to take the MPRE within one
year and comply with rule 955. If the actual suspension exceeds two years, he must prove
his rehabilitation. The order took effect Aug. 13, 1999.
The State Bar Court's review
department increased the level of discipline recommended by a hearing judge after finding
that Lais committed 12 ethical violations in five client matters. It increased the length
of actual suspension and added some probation conditions.
In the first matter, Lais was asked by a friend to handle a legal malpractice case for
another individual. Lais' friend paid $10,000 for the client's representation. Shortly
after receiving the money, the client met with Lais' associate, but did not sign a
retainer agreement because he was concerned about the purported non-refundability of the
When Lais learned of the client's reluctance, he advised that his office would advance
the costs. The client agreed. Four days later, however, the client wrote a letter to Lais
complaining that he was unhappy about dealing with an associate rather than Lais, and he
asked for a refund of the $10,000 and the return of the file.
Neither Lais nor the associate learned about the letter until after they filed the
malpractice complaint two days later.
Lais wrote a letter informing the client that the suit had been filed, describing the
$10,000 as "basically a non-refundable deposit toward attorney fees," and
indicated that any refund would belong to the client's friend who had paid the money.
A few weeks later, Lais' office mailed interrogatories to the client, who did not
respond. The client later asserted he had not authorized Lais' firm to litigate the case
and again asked for a return of the $10,000, warning that he would complain to the State
Lais' associate asked the client to cooperate in order to avoid sanctions and prejudice
to his case, and sent a substitution of attorney form which the client did not sign.
Eight months later, Lais sent a bill to the client and offered to return about $4,800
if the client would withdraw his State Bar complaint.
Although the court found that Lais should have communicated more clearly with his
client, it rejected bar prosecutors' argument that Lais appeared for the client without
authority. It found that he should have refunded more than $8,400 and that he did not
cooperate with the bar's investigation of his conduct.
In another malpractice case, Lais' office did not notify his client that a
cross-complaint was filed against her. Two motions to withdraw as her counsel were
rejected, but Lais did not prepare for or appear at trial and a default judgment was
entered against his client.
He failed to keep his client informed about developments in her case, provide competent
legal services or return her file, and he withdrew from representation without protecting
the client's interests.
In another matter, a couple hired Lais and paid him $2,900 to handle a guardianship
matter involving their grandson. Several days later, they said they had changed their
minds and asked for a refund.
Lais did not respond to a letter or several phone calls, so the couple complained to
the State Bar. He then negotiated an agreement under which he would substitute out of the
case and refund the fee if they would withdraw their bar complaint.
Lais was advised by the bar that any attempt to induce withdrawal of a complaint
involved moral turpitude.
The review department found that he disregarded the warning and committed an act of
moral turpitude, and he failed to respond to clients' status inquiries or refund advanced
Lais also induced another client to withdraw a disciplinary complaint in a fourth
matter, and he improperly deposited client funds in a general account rather than a client
In mitigation, Lais had no record of discipline for 15 years, presented witnesses who
attested to his good character, and performed substantial volunteer work.
MELVIN CAESAR BELLI [#111309], 42, of Mexicali, Mexico, was suspended
for four years, stayed, placed on four years of probation with an actual one-year
suspension and until he makes restitution and pays litigation costs, and was ordered to
take the MPRE and comply with rule 955. If the actual suspension exceeds two years, he
must prove his rehabilitation. The order took effect Aug. 20, 1999.
Belli stipulated that he misappropriated and mishandled funds entrusted to him on
behalf of his sister, Melia, and that by making unauthorized distributions to himself, he
breached his fiduciary duty to his sister. The misappropriation amounted to moral
The son of Melvin Belli, the well-known and often controversial San Francisco attorney
who died in 1996, Caesar Belli worked in his father's law firm.
He was a beneficiary with Melia of an oral trust created in 1978 that included
ownership interest in properties in Sonora and the San Francisco buildings known as the
"Belli Buildings" where the law practice was located. Each child was given 50
percent ownership, and Caesar Belli was appointed trustee for Melia until she reached the
age of 18.
The trust terminated in 1991, when Melia turned 18.
The State Bar contended that during the preceding 10 years, when Belli administered the
trust, he diverted more than $200,000 from it for his own use.
In 1992, his sister sued him, seeking damages and an accounting. The case was tried in
1994, with the court concluding that Belli breached his fiduciary duty to his sister by
making excessive distributions to himself and by making personal and unrelated
expenditures with trust funds.
It ordered Belli to pay his sister $204,508, including $167,339.20 as reimbursement for
his expenditures and distributions to himself, and more than $37,000 as reimbursement for
an insurance premium on her father that she paid on behalf of the trust. The court later
reduced the reimbursement from the insurance premium to $18,584.52, and ordered a final
judgment against Belli of $117,588.48 plus costs of the suit.
He made partial payment to Melia of $51,000 in April 1995 but made no further payments.
In mitigation, Belli mistakenly believed it was acceptable to disburse more funds to
himself than to his sister because he needed funds for living expenses to support his
family. At the time, his father was providing living expenses and additional cash to
Belli suffered financial problems when the Loma Prieta earthquake rendered the Belli
buildings unusable, he had marital difficulties and serious problems with his father, and
the law firm broke up acrimoniously. Caesar needed about $100,000 for his own legal fees,
interfering with his ability to repay Melia.
He has no record of discipline since his admission to the bar in 1983, and has devoted
time and resources to improving the legal profession.
DAVID R. CADWELL [#30054], 65, of Los Angeles was suspended for five
years, stayed, placed on five years of probation with a three-year actual suspension and
until he makes restitution and proves his rehabilitation, and was ordered to take the MPRE
and comply with rule 955. The order took effect Aug. 20, 1999.
Cadwell stipulated to misconduct in six consolidated cases.
In two matters, Cadwell allowed the balance in his client trust account to fall below
the required amount and three times misappropriated client funds as a result of grossly
reckless mismanagement of the trust account and lax maintenance of its records. He also
failed to pay out client funds promptly, perform legal services competently, advise
clients of significant developments in their case, or promptly return client files and
In a personal injury matter in which he was retained by two clients, Cadwell filed a
complaint but after it was sent to arbitration, he did little to pursue the matter. It was
dismissed after the court concluded that the case did not go to trial within five years.
Cadwell did not notify a client of the dismissal.
A claim for wrongful death and medical malpractice also went awry. The case was abated
early when the court ordered that all indispensable parties be located; Cadwell stipulated
that he should have acted diligently either to locate all parties, dismiss the case or
withdraw as counsel.
He dismissed one defendant without discussing the issue with his client, and he
subsequently missed court hearings. The case was dismissed. Cadwell's actions did not give
his clients the opportunity to seek other counsel. He decided unilaterally that the matter
could not be prosecuted and allowed it to be dismissed. He did not return his client's
files when she requested them.
In another case, he delayed paying a client settlement funds and as a result she hired
a new lawyer and incurred additional expenses of $3,000, which Cadwell agreed to pay.
He issued settlement funds to another client but did not reimburse an advanced fee of
$3,000, as he had agreed to do in a written fee agreement. That client filed a small
claims action against Cadwell, but he did not appear at the hearing. Judgment was entered
in the client's favor.
Cadwell was disciplined in 1975, following a conviction for grand theft which resulted
from his unilateral taking of trust funds to pay his legal fees. In a related civil
action, it was determined that Cadwell owed his client $34,000 and the client owed Cadwell
$29,000 in legal fees. He also practiced law while suspended.
In mitigation, he made restitution of the trust funds prior to the filing of
disciplinary charges. He also experienced significant upheaval in his life at the time of
his misconduct which contributed to his actions. He had to move suddenly because his
landlord was experiencing financial problems, and his wife, who helped in his office and
cared for the couple's children, had to make numerous trips to Japan because her parents'
home was destroyed in an earthquake.
A temporary bookkeeper did not properly reconcile his trust account, he and his staff
used a computer system which required more skill and time than they could apply to it and
a great many errors and discrepancies resulted. As a result, he withdrew more funds from
his client trust account than he was entitled to, thereby misappropriating client funds.
Some of his actions resulted from misunderstandings.
Cadwell also presented a record of professional accomplishments, including acting as
lead counsel in a landmark housing discrimination case and receiving the NAACP Outstanding
Legal Services award.
GARY JAMES DUNLAP [#40151], 58, of Lompoc was suspended for six
months, stayed, placed on two years of probation, and was ordered to take the MPRE within
one year. The order took effect Aug. 22, 1999.
Dunlap represents two men, Terry and Michael, who are disabled, incapable of looking
after their financial affairs, and who would be homeless without Dunlap's help. He
deposits their social security checks and disburses funds to them throughout each month.
Because both men usually are broke before the end of the month, Dunlap finds odd jobs for
them to supplement their incomes.
Dunlap's problems began when he reduced his law practice and made frequent trips out of
state. He deposited Terry and Michael's funds in his client trust account, and Terry wrote
a large number of bad checks against the account.
It was Dunlap's practice to write out checks for Terry's food, rent and medication, and
give them to Terry with instructions to not cash the checks until he was sure his money
was deposited. When Terry failed to follow the instructions, he presented the checks
prematurely. Occasionally, Dunlap made deposits late.
After he learned the checks were returned, Dunlap tried to rectify the problem by
depositing $500 in the trust account to cover overdrafts and bank charges. The overdrafts
continued, however, with the bank adding special handling charges which increased over
time from $1 to $18 to $25 per check. A total of 17 overdrafts were written.
Dunlap did not reconcile his account and eventually was advised by his accountant to
clear the account by withdrawing the money. Efforts to have an outside agency oversee
Terry's finances were short-lived.
At this time, Dunlap has rectified the problems and keeps better track of Terry and
Nonetheless, the State Bar Court found that even after repeated notice by the bar and
the bank that checks were being returned, Dunlap continued to draw checks on his client
trust account without sufficient funds. His actions constituted moral turpitude.
In mitigation, Dunlap cooperated with the bar's investigation, the checks were honored
when presented a second time, and neither Terry nor Michael was harmed. The bar court
commended Dunlap for helping the two men without personal monetary gain. "He gave
them dignity by giving them some sense of independence," wrote bar court Judge Madge
MON BILL HOM [#57338], 51, of Los Angeles was suspended for two years,
stayed, placed on probation for two years with an actual 80-day suspension and until he
proves his rehabilitation, and was ordered to take the MPRE within one year. The order
took effect Aug. 22, 1999.
Hom stipulated to 10 counts of failing to maintain client funds in trust. He repeatedly
issued checks drawn on his client trust account to disburse funds which were not yet
deposited into the account, committing acts of moral turpitude.
In each case, Hom failed to maintain funds received on behalf of the client, and
disbursed settlement funds he had received on behalf of other clients. His client trust
account also fell to a negative balance.
As a result of a 1995 IRS levy on Hom's trust account, and concerned about a future
levy, he began writing checks to disburse client funds prior to depositing settlement
drafts. He was required to reimburse client funds taken by the IRS with his own funds. He
believed he was acting in his clients' best interest by writing them checks and then
depositing their funds; he believed he could protect their funds from future IRS levies.
He now utilizes a management company and deposits settlement drafts before disbursing
Shortly before the misconduct, Hom's father died and he experienced marital
difficulties. Both problems affected his attention to detail.
DAIN ROY BIRKLEY [#69884], 53, of Modesto was suspended for six
months, stayed, placed on one year of probation and was ordered to take the MPRE within
one year. The order took effect Aug. 22, 1999.
Birkley was paid $3,000 in advance fees to represent a defendant company in a federal
lawsuit which was dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction.
He then was retained by the company, on a contingency basis, to handle a bad faith
insurance matter against the plaintiff in the federal case. He failed to file a civil
complaint or take any other significant legal action. He stopped communicating with his
client and did not respond to requests for an accounting and a refund of the advanced fee
in the federal matter.
In a default proceeding, the State Bar Court found that Birkley failed to perform legal
services competently, communicate with clients, provide an accounting or cooperate with
the bar's investigation, and he withdrew from employment without protecting his client's
interests. Although he was charged with failing to return an unearned fee, the court said
there was no evidence that fees connected with the federal court matter were unearned and
dismissed the charge.
In mitigation, Birkley has no record of discipline in more than 20 years of practice.
MARY E. COCHRAN [#162269], 60, of Inglewood was suspended for one
year, stayed, placed on three years of probation with an actual 120-day suspension and
until she makes restitution, and was ordered to take the MPRE within one year and comply
with rule 955. If the actual suspension exceeds two years, she must prove her
rehabilitation. The order took effect Aug. 26, 1999.
Cochran stipulated to misconduct in six consolidated matters, including failure to
properly administer her client trust account, maintain client funds in trust, return
unearned fees and costs, competently perform legal services, or cooperate with the bar's
investigation. She also practiced law while suspended for nonpayment of bar dues and
collected a fee in a probate matter without court approval.
Two of the charges against Cochran involved separate client trust accounts. Three
checks were written against insufficient funds in one account and 23 bad checks were drawn
on the other. Both accounts were closed by the banks.
In a probate matter, she informed a client she no longer wished to handle the case,
sent a substitution of attorney form and promised to refund $500 of the $1,000 fee he had
paid in advance. She never made the refund.
In a second probate case, Cochran demanded and collected an advance fee of $4,000
without the required court approval.
A client in a civil trial paid Cochran $5,000 for anticipated costs. Cochran tried the
case while suspended from practice and did not notify her client of her status. Following
a jury verdict against the client, the client requested a return of the unused funds at
least 10 times. Finally Cochran promised to refund $2,907, but never did.
In a federal case, Cochran represented two clients who paid $5,000, signed a
substitution of attorney form and gave her a copy of a motion filed by the other parties
which required a response within a month. About a week later, Cochran assured the clients
she would file a response. Subsequently, however, she told the clients she decided to
dismiss the moving defendants from the action and therefore would not file a response.
When the clients objected, Cochran said she would seek a continuance.
An hour before the response was due, the court contacted the clients to remind them of
the deadline and of a scheduled hearing. Cochran did not file the substitution of
attorney, respond to the motion in question or seek a continuance. When the client met her
outside the courtroom, Cochran said she did not want to go into the courtroom and then
left the courthouse. The case was remanded to state court.
Although Cochran wrote a check for $4,900 as a refund to the clients, the check bounced
and she never made the refund.
In mitigation, Cochran has no record of discipline since her 1992 admission to the bar.
She also was suffering personal difficulties at the time of the misconduct.
JACK R. WILLIS [#43789], 59, of Los Angeles was suspended for one
year, stayed, placed on two years of probation with an actual 60-day suspension, and was
ordered to take the MPRE within a year. The order took effect Aug. 27, 1999.
Willis represented a client in a personal injury action after she discharged her
original law firm. When the case settled for $30,000, the insurer issued a check to
Willis, the client and the original lawyers.
Willis wrote to the insurance company, arguing that there was no properly asserted lien
for attorneys fees and stating incorrectly that the other law firm had entered into a
bankruptcy. He did not provide a copy of the letter to the other firm.
The insurance company issued a new check to Willis and the client.
Although Willis claimed his statement about the bankruptcy was a simple, good faith
mistake, the State Bar Court found that his statement was deliberate and made for the
purpose of depriving the law firm of its share of the settlement.
Willis was disciplined in 1992 for misconduct involving his handling of four client
In mitigation, he has a record of pro bono work and presented testimony attesting to
his good character. The court rejected Willis' claims that stress caused by three
automobile accidents and a serious illness contributed to his misconduct.
ALAN WESLEY CURTIS [#56827], 56, of Newport Beach was suspended for
two years, stayed, placed on two years of probation with an actual 60-day suspension, and
was ordered to make restitution and pay sanctions, take the MPRE within one year and
comply with rule 955. If the actual suspension exceeds two years, he must prove his
rehabilitation. The order took effect Sept. 22, 1999.
Curtis was charged with misconduct in four consolidated cases; one was later dismissed.
The State Bar court found that in the first matter, Curtis violated the conditions of a
1994 probation by failing to file timely quarterly and financial reports or to make
restitution to two parties.
Curtis was sanctioned in a second matter for filing an appeal "wholly without
merit," but he did not pay the sanctions or report them to the State Bar until after
an investigation began.
In the third matter, Curtis was designated as an escrow holder in his clients' purchase
of a lease of property located near the Santa Ana River Canyon. One of the clients gave
him $310,000 in cash, which Curtis placed in a safety deposit box.
The bar court found that Curtis violated the Rules of Professional Conduct by failing
to deposit the money in a client trust account.
Curtis was disciplined in 1994 for failing to maintain complete records of client funds
received, provide his clients with written fee agreements, promptly return unearned fees,
render an accounting, and respond to clients' status inquiries, and for communicating with
a party represented by counsel.
In mitigation, he experienced severe personal problems which led to depression during
some of the period of misconduct. He has performed extensive pro bono work, taken steps to
avoid further misconduct, and presented evidence attesting to his good character.