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Suspension urged for lawyer who abandoned 300 cases

A Sacramento attorney who abandoned more than 300 indigent dependency cases and failed to make 39 court appearances in a one-month period should be suspended for 18 months, a State Bar Court review panel has decided. If the recommendation is accepted by the Supreme Court, JULIE L. WOLFF [#142531], 51, also will be placed on probation for three years and will be required to prove her rehabilitation, take the MPRE, comply with rule 955 of the California Rules of Court and attend ethics school.

The ruling came after both Wolff and State Bar prosecutors appealed a hearing judge’s recommendation that she be publicly reproved.

“This case represents an instance where, during a one-month period, an attorney lost her ethical footing,” wrote Judge Judith Epstein for the three-member review panel. Although the judges found the misconduct lasted only a short time, it affected numerous clients, disrupted court proceedings, forced continuances and caused some clients to appear in court without counsel.

Wolff’s problems occurred in 1999, when the presiding judge of the Sacramento juvenile court reorganized the Indigent Defense Program (IDP), through which Wolff represented parents and sometimes children in dependency matters. When a contract to handle all IDP matters was awarded to another law firm, Wolff was the attorney of record for more than 300 clients.

She submitted a document to the court entitled, “In re: All My Cases,” which she said was intended to serve as her resignation for 319 pending dependency matters. She did not notify her clients that she was withdrawing and would not appear at their upcoming hearings.

The judge ordered the document returned to Wolff because he said it was not a proper motion to withdraw, did not request a hearing date and did not indicate that any client had been served. The document also did not identify the cases by name or case number so the judge had no way to determine which matters were affected by her actions.

Nonetheless, Wolff stopped making appearances for all IDP cases for which she was attorney of record and returned her files to the program administrator, believing the cases would be reassigned.

The judge disagreed, saying only the court had the authority to relieve an attorney of record.

When she failed to make 39 appearances, Wolff’s “absence did not go unnoticed by the court,” Epstein wrote, “as her failure to make scheduled appearances disrupted court proceedings, caused continuances and resulted in some indigents appearing in court unrepresented.”

Wolff was sanctioned $1,500.

The court found that Wolff failed to obey a court order, withdrew from employment without the court’s permission and without taking steps to protect her clients’ interests and she failed to inform her clients of significant developments in their cases.

The review panel rejected Wolff’s arguments that the bar filed disciplinary charges too late and that the hearing judge should not have relied on the sanctions order in finding culpability.

Although it considered her 10 years of practice without discipline as mitigation, the panel also considered “the sheer number of clients and proceedings affected by (Wolff’s) misconduct,” saying it caused significant harm to the administration of justice.

The judges also found that Wolff continues to deny culpability, presenting “a tangled web of excuses” and trying to blame the dependency judge “for the procedural gridlock” she caused.

Wolff also landed in hot water last April when an appellate court found she went “over the top” in submitting a brief more than three times longer than permitted in which she referred to her client’s developmentally disabled child as “more akin to broccoli.”

“This is an appeal run amok,” wrote the judge, who sent a copy of his ruling to the State Bar.

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