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Immigration lawyer resigns after his practice is seized

A Riverside immigration attorney whose files were seized by the State Bar two months ago resigned from practice Oct. 6, just days after the superior court assumed jurisdiction over his practice. TERRY LEE STIRLING [#208544], 43, of Riverside was the subject of scores of complaints from his clients and other attorneys who accused him of defrauding hundreds of undocumented workers.

The complaints alleged that Stirling promised to obtain legal residency for the workers by filing for labor certification, then accepted their money and did little or no work. Admitted to the bar in October of 2000, Stirling practiced with resigned attorney TIMOTHY PAUL MASON (#192622), 39, first as an employee and later as a partner in his Riverside firm. According to the bar’s petition, Stirling took 500 to 600 of Mason’s files after Mason’s resignation in May. One month later, complaints against Stirling began pouring into the bar’s intake unit. 

After receiving several letters from bar investigators, Stirling called the bar in September to request the necessary paperwork to resign as an attorney for “health reasons.” Investigators met with him the following morning and reported that he was wearing only his pajama bottoms and appeared to be intoxicated. When asked if he was drinking, they said he became irate. He did not sign the resignation forms that morning.

Investigators found a Web site that indicated that despite his resignation with charges pending, Mason continued to practice law with Stirling. They also obtained a declaration from Stirling’s wife detailing alcohol abuse and violent behavior, and a copy of a restraining order issued against him in May 2004. They reported Stirling left two slurred voicemail messages for bar investigators.

Believing that Stirling’s and Mason’s clients could suffer serious harm during the time it would take to formally process the complaints, the bar petitioned the Riverside County Superior Court to assume jurisdiction over their practices and to allow the State Bar to seize all client files. “Having learned about Stirling’s alcohol abuse and alleged criminal behavior, combined with the large number complaints by particularly vulnerable clients, we had no choice but to go directly to superior court,” said bar attorney William Cox.

The bar cited Stirling’s excessive use of alcohol or drugs and Mason’s unauthorized practice as justification for the urgency of its actions. The bar’s pleading noted that it was investigating at least 86 labor and immigration law matters against Stirling for failure to perform, communicate, provide an accounting or release client files. Bar officials seized approximately 2,800 files and are contacting the pair’s clients.

Stirling’s alleged misconduct is not confined to California. The Missouri Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel is investigating Stirling after receiving several complaints about him from a St. Louis solo practitioner. 

Attorney Jane Hogan agreed to review a contract between Stirling and the son of a client and was aghast at what she thought were unconscionable terms. “A contract like that would get you disbarred in Missouri,” she said. She agreed to help and quickly became flooded with new clients who had previously contracted with Stirling. Now, she says, dealing with his clients has “become my life’s work.”

Hogan has filed dozens of applications to the California Client Security Fund on behalf of Stirling’s Missouri clients and says she is preparing more. She said the average victim paid Stirling between $1,700 and $2,700. To date, the CSF has approved $114,515 in payments to his victims and several applications are still pending.

According to Hogan, Mason and Stirling made several trips to Missouri to sign up clients. Typically, she said, the attorneys went to restaurants and told employers that they could obtain legal residency for their undocumented workers by filing for labor certification. In separate meetings with employees, the attorneys collected $500 cash up-front and promised payments of $3,000 over 12 months from those who chose to sign with them. But after contracts were signed and money paid, “no work was done, or what was done was useless,” said Hogan. 

Hogan said Stirling had some 300 clients in St. Louis, and that Stirling and Mason had bragged to her that they had clients in 22 states. 

The two former attorneys may also face criminal prosecution for consumer fraud and the unauthorized practice of law among other charges. Stirling currently faces charges in Riverside County for spousal abuse, making annoying phone calls to his wife and making false crime reports on the 911 emergency line while intoxicated.

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