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A good law misappropriated

BRUCE M. BRUSAVICH
Brusavich

By BRUCE M. BRUSAVICH

According to Webster's Dictionary, misappropriate is "to use wrongly." We are now in the midst of two misappropriations of California's Business and Professions Code §17200, known as the Unfair Competition Law or UCL.

First, a few law firms based in southern California are misusing the law to allegedly extort small businesses to turn over settlement money, without any oversight to ensure public benefit. State agencies and state representatives are dealing with these few despicable lawyers: the State Bar of California has filed an unprecedented petition to enroll them to inactive status, State Attorney General Bill Lockyer has filed a UCL lawsuit against them, and the Los Angeles court hearing the consolidated cases is seriously considering major sanctions.

Second, but more dangerous to the future of the UCL, is the attempted misappropriation of the situation by the tobacco, insurer, HMO and pharmaceutical front group, known as the Civil Justice Association of California (CJAC).

CJAC, whose board of governors includes representatives of Phillip Morris, State Farm Insurance, Kaiser and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, is attempting to misuse the acts of these few lawyers to pass its long-stalled anti-consumer legislative agenda.

For the past seven years, CJAC has sponsored proposals to gut the UCL. These proposals have all been successfully defeated because of opposition from every major consumer, labor, senior and minority representative group in California. CJAC is now using these small business UCL cases in an attempt to reinvigorate its stalled legislative agenda. That's unfair and should be recognized for what it is: an opportunistic corporate grab for large business liability protection.

So what is going on and what is the appropriate response? Some very irresponsible lawyers, mostly three firms, have filed multiple UCL lawsuits against minority-owned nail salons, restaurants and auto repair shops. After finding violations on government web sites, the suits were filed with little or no investigation into the facts. The Trevor Law Group suits were filed on behalf of a for-profit entity with no public interest history or track record of consumer advocacy.

According to the State Bar's complaint against the Trevor Law Group, these lawyers committed repeated acts of moral turpitude, dishonesty and corruption, committed repeated acts of malicious prosecution, committed mail and wire fraud, unlawfully obtained and concealed settlement funds, made false statements and engaged in illegal fee splitting.

These are serious charges that demand serious action. We believe that the combined actions of the attorney general, the State Bar and the courts will largely address these abuses. Consumer Attorneys have widely distributed a "Know Your Legal Rights" to the targeted businesses and we have several members providing pro bono representation. In addition, our organization stands ready to look at any needed necessary legislative change.

However, Consumer Attorneys remains fully committed and stands side by side with consumer groups, labor and others to ensure that the integrity of the UCL remains intact. Simply put, the UCL is California's preeminent consumer protection statute and neither the actions of a few abusive lawyers nor the opportunism of CJAC's corporate lobby should be able to take that protection away from Californians.

The UCL is one of the most powerful weapons consumers have to fight corporate greed and overreaching. It was first enacted in the 1930s to stop businesses from using unfair practices to gain an advantage over their competitors. But, as the California Supreme Court has pointed out, the goal of the act is much broader than merely ensuring that business competition is fair - it is actually intended to protect consumers by addressing the general societal harm that results when business enterprises act illegally or unethically.

Californians need strong consumer protection laws. They also need to be protected against the illegal use of the legal system by lawyers like the Trevor Law Group. That's why the State Bar, the attorney general, the courts and the legislature have taken or are evaluating thoughtful action. What Californians don't need is another attempt by CJAC's big business lobby to use these activities to insulate themselves from accountability.

  • Bruce M. Brusavich is president of the Consumer Attorneys of California.
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