MICHAEL S. CANTARUTTI
[#158373], 35, of Santa Rosa was suspended for two years, stayed, placed on two
years of probation with a six-month actual suspension, and was ordered to take the MPRE
within one year and comply with rule 955. The order took effect June 18, 1999.
was the third attorney hired by a client to represent her in a lawsuit filed as a result
of injuries she sustained in an automobile accident. The first attorney died before the
complaint could be filed and the second filed suit against the other parties in the
The client specifically asked that her husband, who was driving, his employer and their
insurer not be involved in the litigation.
However, the defendants cross-complained against the husband and his employer, drawing
them into the case.
The second attorney, who was handling the case on a 40 percent contingent fee basis,
had reached a settlement with the husband's insurer after several months of work.
The client then hired Cantarutti, signing a retainer agreement which also provided for
a 40 percent contingent fee. The other attorney filed a lien for her fees and costs.
Cantarutti's first act was to threaten the other attorney with a malpractice action
unless she waived her lien; he based his threat on her purported failure to include the
client's husband in the original suit.
The attorney explained the facts to Cantarutti, as well as laws governing how fees are
divided. He again threatened a malpractice action and made the same settlement demand.
He then disavowed the settlement agreement the former attorney had reached, falsely
claiming that she had no authority to act on her client's behalf. Cantarutti arbitrated
the case and won a $21,000 judgment against the defendants.
Two settlement checks were sent to Cantarutti, but because they included the former
attorney's name, he returned both and subsequently refused to sign either check unless he
was guaranteed the full 40 percent contingency fee. He told his client she was responsible
for paying each attorney 40 percent fees - 80 percent of the settlement.
He also sued the other attorney for malpractice, again offering to settle the matter if
she would waive her lien for fees.
Cantarutti's client repeatedly instructed him to dismiss the suit and the other
attorney warned him that she would sue him for malicious prosecution if he did not dismiss
the action. He eventually dropped the case and was fired by his client, who had not
received any settlement money.
Cantarutti eventually agreed to release some funds to his client, but only if the
disputed 40 percent plus $5,000 was placed in trust. Prior to an arbitration proceeding,
he demanded a payment of $10,000, which was more than the 40 percent fee of $8,400. He
made that demand directly to his ex-client, although she was represented by counsel.
The arbitrator awarded 20 percent of the $8,400 to Cantarutti and 80 percent to the
The State Bar Court ruled that Cantarutti failed to promptly release settlement funds
to his client, charged an unconscionable fee, filed an unjust and meritless legal action
and committed acts of moral turpitude.
In aggravation, the court said he committed an uncharged ethical violation by
communicating directly with his former client when she was represented by counsel.
Further, it said he exaggerated and lied to the court and that his "evasive,
argumentative and untruthful testimony . . . may be misconduct even more serious than that
which was charged."
The court warned Cantarutti that if he fails to make essential changes in his practice,
"it will simply be a matter of time before he loses the right to practice
ROBERT JESS ORDUNA [#98182], 44, of Antioch was suspended for three
years, stayed, and placed on four years of probation with an actual six-month suspension
and until he completes the State Bar's client trust accounting school and proves his
rehabilitation. He also must take the MPRE within one year and comply with rule 955. The
order took effect July 16, 1999.
Orduna filed a bankruptcy petition for a client who paid $3,000 in advanced fees, but
he failed to timely petition the court to be employed as the attorney for his client's
estate, as required by law. Orduna then received an additional $3,400 from his client, but
had not petitioned the court for approval of his receipt of fees, also required by law.
After the client hired another lawyer, Orduna petitioned the court to approve his
employment and fees. He eventually was ordered to refund $3,400 to the client's attorney
to pay a creditor and to refund another $2,000 to the client.
Orduna himself has financial problems and filed for bankruptcy in 1996. He never
refunded any money to the client, but told the State Bar Court he intends to do so.
The court found that he failed to perform legal services competently and refund client
money, and charged an illegal fee.
In a second matter, he wrote a check against insufficient funds in his client trust
account, an act of moral turpitude.
Orduna has a record of prior discipline, stemming from his failure to properly manage
entrusted funds, and he did not cooperate with the bar's investigation.
In mitigation, he has done considerable pro bono work for the Battered Woman's
Alternative program in Contra Costa County.
ISAURO DIAZ [#130475], 39, of Los Angeles was suspended for three
years, stayed, and placed on four years of probation with an actual 18-month suspension
and until he makes restitution. If the actual suspension exceeds two years, he must prove
his rehabilitation. He also was ordered to take the MPRE within one year and comply with
rule 955. The order took effect July 22, 1999.
Diaz stipulated to misconduct in 11 consolidated cases, including eight counts of
failure to perform legal services competently and five counts of failing to promptly
refund advanced client fees. He also did not return clients' documents, keep clients
apprised of developments in their case or cooperate with the bar's investigation, and he
twice showed disrespect for a court by failing to appear at hearings or advise the court
of his inability to appear.
In several cases, Diaz did not respond to interrogatories, file motions, comply with
local rules or otherwise properly prosecute cases. He failed to appear at hearings in
several matters, resulting in the dismissal of one case and the arrest of one client. He
also allowed the statute of limitations to expire in a personal injury case.
Diaz has a prior record of discipline. He was privately reproved in 1993 for failure to
perform legal services competently, return a client's file or refund unearned fees. He was
again privately reproved in 1996 for misconduct in three matters, including failure to
comply with probation in the 1993 discipline and failure to perform legal services or
communicate with clients.
In mitigation, he cooperated with the bar's investigation, suffered financial stress
and family problems and presented references attesting to his good character.
GELLY YUKON VALERO [#120406], 41, of Van Nuys was suspended for four
years, stayed, placed on five years of probation with an actual 22-month suspension, and
was ordered to take the MPRE and comply with rule 955. If the actual suspension exceeds
two years, he must prove his rehabilitation. He also was ordered to pay a small claims
judgment if his appeal is unsuccessful. The order took effect July 22, 1999.
Valero stipulated to misconduct in 16 consolidated cases, including eight counts of
failure to maintain complete records of client funds, five counts of failure to pay out
client funds, and one count each of failing to release client files, perform legal
services competently or keep clients informed about developments in their case.
Valero handled personal injury matters for non-English speaking clients, many of whom
had no medical insurance and relied on receiving medical services on a lien basis.
As his practice grew more demanding, he spent less time on it because of personal
problems, including depression and divorce. In many cases, the demands by the lienholders
were disproportionately high in relation to the settlement amounts. Valero's inattention
to his practice caused the lienholders to resist negotiating the lien claims because of
long delays in receiving payment.
Valero offered extensive mitigation. He worked seven days a week on his expanding
practice, but began to encounter struggles with medical providers who refused to reduce
their bills. He reduced his staff and caseload, but began to suffer depression, for which
he received treatment.
His son suffered medical problems and his wife was mentally unstable, forcing Valero to
care for the couple's three children.
His office was damaged during the Northridge earthquake and later burglarized three
times, including the theft of computers containing his accounting information. In
addition, his bookkeeper, who had paid herself unearned wages, quit and took accounting
files with her.
He experienced disastrous financial problems, including foreclosure and $75,000 in
credit card bills run up by his wife. While moving to a new office, some client files were
destroyed inadvertently and he was unable to verify if doctors were paid.
FRANK R. SARIOL [#140406], 49, of Santa Ana was suspended for four
years, stayed, placed on three years of probation with an actual five-month suspension,
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 July 22, 1999.
Sariol stipulated to misconduct in nine consolidated matters involving the
misappropriation of client funds as a result of his haphazard failure to maintain adequate
In six matters, his negligent handling of the deposit, distribution and maintenance of
client funds resulted in a failure to pay medical liens. He issued checks before deposits
had been made, and a personal injury matter was dismissed as a result of his failure to
pursue the case.
Sariol had enjoyed a booming practice in the early 1990s, but he became overextended
and wound up in debt. He was overworked, his office became disorganized, and he sometimes
did not have enough time to make deposits into his client trust account. He then became
sick and did not recover for two years.
He is now paying off his debts and attempting to re-establish himself.
RICHARD ARNOLD ROCHA [#49728], 58, of Pomona was suspended for one
year, stayed, placed on 30 months of probation with an actual 120-day suspension, and was
ordered to make restitution, take the MPRE within a year, and comply with rule 955. If the
actual suspension exceeds two years, he must prove his rehabilitation. The order took
effect July 22, 1999.
Rocha stipulated that he failed to satisfy medical liens for three clients, maintain
entrusted funds for clients, or perform legal services competently.
In mitigation, he has no record of prior discipline and he cooperated with the bar's