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Lawyer reported to bar by judges faces disbarment

The State Bar Court has recommended the disbarment of a Lassen County attorney whose ineptitude in handling client matters prompted two local judges to report his misconduct to the State Bar. The court already had lifted the license of RICHARD RALPH MURPHY [#28734], 74, in September 2002, after finding that he posed a danger to the public. Murphy has moved to Indiana, where he is practicing.

In recommending Murphy's disbarment, Judge Pat McElroy found that he significantly harmed his clients and the public, yet took no responsibility for his actions, instead blaming "virtually all of his problems upon the individual reaction of two local judges.

"He appears to take no responsibility for taking criminal cases where he does not possess the minimum expected degree of learning and competence in that field of law," McElroy wrote.

The bar charged Murphy with 34 counts of misconduct and McElroy found him culpable on 26 of the charges.

Murphy is fighting the disbarment recommendation and has sought review by the Supreme Court.

In two matters, the trial court in Lassen County set aside Murphy's client's convictions because of ineffective assistance of counsel. In at least seven instances, he failed to appear in court on a timely basis (he said some matters "slipped through the cracks," and once said he was late because he had fallen asleep in his chair while waiting to come to court), and eight times, he was found in contempt of court.

While representing a client charged with multiple felony and misdemeanor charges, Murphy's only preparation for the trial was a 15-minute meeting at Denny's Restaurant at 10 p.m. the night before the trial began. He did not prepare the client or contact any character witnesses, and did not explain the preliminary hearing or trial process to the client.

During the trial, he was unaware of relevant landmark cases and the prevailing criminal law, and he introduced his client's inadmissible prior conviction into evidence and then did nothing to limit the prosecution's use of that conviction. The client was convicted and hired a new lawyer, who won a motion for a new trial based on Murphy's incompetence.

When the client sued Murphy in small claims court for a refund of his fee, Murphy cross-complained for slander and intentional interference with a business advantage, seeking $75,000 in damages. McElroy found that he maintained an illegal and unjust action because his complaint was based on his client's privileged testimony.

The second finding of incompetent representation resulted from another criminal trial in which the trial court found that among other things, Murphy never listened to audio recordings provided by his client, and then lost the recordings, he took less than a minute to explain to his client the prosecutor's offer of diversion, and he failed to interview many of his own witnesses or adequately cross-examine prosecution witnesses. During the trial, he expressed his belief that the Miranda ruling has no application in Lassen County.

McElroy also found that Murphy pursued a civil claim for his client that was not warranted.

Murphy filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart and its employees, charging malicious prosecution when his clients were arrested after an altercation in a store. However, both clients testified that they had no reason to believe the employees knowingly gave false information to the police.

Murphy refused every effort by Wal-Mart to have him dismiss the suit on the grounds that there was no basis in law for their inclusion in the action. Wal-Mart won a summary judgment and Murphy was sanctioned more than $10,000. Judge McElroy found that he filed and pursued an action that had no legal basis.

The judge found Murphy also committed serious misconduct in relation to a client he represented in criminal proceedings in Arizona. The client paid him a flat fee of $25,000 for that case. Murphy subsequently asked the client to loan him $25,000, promising to repay the client 10 percent of his share of proceeds from a lawsuit he expected to settle.

Murphy claimed the money was additional compensation for his representation in the criminal case, but the bar court found that the money was a loan.

The client also claimed Murphy represented him until January 2001, but Murphy said the representation ended in 1996; the judge again ruled against Murphy.

After the client was released from prison, he began a vending machine business that Murphy was interested in. Murphy began to send money to the client to purchase candy vending machines on Murphy's behalf. Although there was no written agreement, Murphy gave his client $127,000 over two and a half years.

A dispute then arose, with Murphy demanding an accounting of funds. Murphy filed a complaint with the Securities Division of the Arizona Corporations Commission. The client complained that at one point, a friend and former client of Murphy threatened to have him prosecuted, a claim Murphy denied.

Murphy spoke with his client's probation officer, disclosing confidential information he had obtained during his representation of the man. He also called an assistant U.S. Attorney and told him the client was stealing from him.

McElroy found that Murphy entered into a business relationship with a client without disclosing its terms in writing or advising the client to seek independent advice, entered into an improper loan transaction with a client, that he violated client confidentiality, and that he threatened his client with criminal action in order to obtain an advantage in their business dispute, an act of moral turpitude.

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