California Bar Journal
OFFICIAL PUBLICATION OF THE STATE BAR OF CALIFORNIA - MAY 1999
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California Bar Journal

The State Bar of California


REGULARS

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Front Page - May 1999
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News
Lending compassion to a difficult situation
Legal specialist exam set Aug. 29
Board to meet June 25-26
Domestic violence group seeking volunteers
Northern California legal services board to fill five vacancies
Court statistics report now available on CD
For Y2K advice, link through bar's web site
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Trials Digest
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Opinion
Hear the cries this time
A single letter, a big increase
Train time at the ABA
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From the President - Door to justice must be open
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Letters to the Editor
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Legal Tech - Litigation library great for attorneys out of office
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New Products & Services
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MCLE Self-Study
The Disabled Practitioner
Self-Assessment Test
MCLE Calendar of Events
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Discipline
Ethics Byte - What to do when a client goes missing
Attorney charged with exposing clients to deportation
Attorney Discipline
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Public Comment

DISCIPLINE

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Attorney charged with exposing clients to deportation
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A Los Angeles immigration lawyer who allegedly abandoned clients facing deportation will be tried this month in State Bar Court for numerous charges of misconduct. JAMES R. VALINOTI [#164075] faces nine counts of failing to perform legal services competently for nine different clients. He also faces seven counts of improperly withdrawing from cases without protecting his clients' interests and four counts of failure to communicate with clients, as well as charges of failure to return client files and advanced fees, collecting unconscionable fees, and moral turpitude.

The trial is scheduled to begin May 17.

Valinoti has no record of discipline since his 1993 admission to the bar and currently is active.

In virtually every matter, Valinoti, 35, allegedly either did not make scheduled appearances before the Immigration and Naturalization Service or was unprepared when he did appear, leaving his clients vulnerable to deportation. Four of the clients were ordered deported, although they eventually were able to reverse those orders.

According to the bar's complaint, in one matter in which Valinoti charged a client a flat rate of $2,900, he made two court appearances, both lasting only a few minutes, and was unprepared for both.

Prior to the first hearing in November 1995, which Valinoti missed, the client gave him $500 as an advanced fee. He required her to pay more money before the next hearing, so she gave him another $270.

Valinoti arrived an hour late for a January 1996 hearing, was unprepared, and could not provide some documents the court had previously requested, the bar charges. At the conclusion of the hearing, Valinoti demanded and was given another $400 by the client.

At the next hearing in March 1996, the bar alleges, Valinoti was again unprepared, again was admonished by the court, and another hearing date was set for September. The day of the March hearing, the client paid him another $1,000.

In August, Valinoti demanded that the client give him another $1,650 before he would perform any further services, the bar alleges. She paid him $350 at that time.

Valinoti failed to appear at the September hearing, and the client was advised by the court to hire a new lawyer.

The complaint alleges that between January and March, Valinoti did not meet with his client despite her repeated attempts to contact him. There also was no communication between March and August, and Valinoti did not show up for at least five appointments arranged by his office. Between August and September, he missed three more appointments.

The bar also charges that Valinoti did not return his client's files or unearned fees, and that, in fact, he charged an unconscionable fee, given the amount of work he did for her.

The client, the complaint alleges, "was a recent immigrant from Mexico, was unfamiliar with the laws and legal procedures of this country, and did not speak nor understand English well. (Valinoti) was more sophisticated than his client."

Further, it says, Valinoti "did not obtain any results for (the client); at the end of (his) employment, (the client) was in a worse situation and status as she had been before she hired him."

In a 1994 matter, Valinoti represented an elderly Syrian woman who was facing deportation. She did not speak, read, write or understand English, and understood nothing of the legal system.

Valinoti appeared at two hearings in May and June, but the bar charges that he failed to appear at a November hearing where the client waited outside the courtroom. As a result, she was ordered deported.

The complaint alleges that Valinoti had no contact with the client after June, and did not return her phone calls after she received the deportation order.

In other cases, the bar says, he did not file required documents, did not tell clients about scheduled hearings, and in one instance misrepresented the truth to the court. Valinoti denies the charges.