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Fee beef escalates and lands lawyer on suspension

A Santa Monica lawyer whose misconduct included making misrepresentations to a bank officer in order to open a client trust account and cash a check to which he was not a payee was suspended for two years and ordered to make restitution. In a default proceeding, the State Bar Court found that MATTHEW B. WEBER [#202719], 34, committed 18 acts of misconduct in six matters and also ordered him to take the MPRE and comply with rule 955 (now rule 9.20) of the California Rules of Court. The order took effect April 4, 2007.

In addition to committing three acts of moral turpitude, Weber abandoned clients, commingled entrusted funds, disobeyed court orders, did not report sanctions, improperly split fees and didn't cooperate with the bar's investigation.

In one matter, he represented a client who had a fee dispute with his lawyer. As part of a settlement agreement, the client was awarded $112,500. When the lawyer asserted a lien for more than $82,000, the court ordered the defendant to deliver a check, jointly payable to the client and the first attorney, to the attorney. The attorney gave the check to Weber with the understanding that it would be returned to him after the client endorsed it.

According to bar court Judge Joann Remke, Weber knew the other attorney had filed a lien and had to endorse the check, and he knew the disputed funds had to remain in trust until the dispute was resolved. He prepared an agreement, signed by the client, that the former lawyer would endorse the check, deposit it in his trust account, pay the client the undisputed amount and maintain the balance (more than $82,000) in the account until the dispute was resolved. The former lawyer never signed the agreement and never got the check back.

Weber told his client he'd done some research that indicated the former lawyer's lien was invalid. His conclusion was incorrect.

The client endorsed the check the same day Weber opened a client trust account and misrepresented to a bank supervisor that the other lawyer was no longer counsel for his client and could not endorse the check. The bank allowed Weber to sign the check and deposit it.

Weber later paid the client $100,000 from the settlement funds and agreed to retain $12,500 as advance fees for other matters.

When the former lawyer learned the check had been negotiated, he demanded that the bank pay him the disputed funds. Although Weber had allowed the balance to drop below the required amount, the bank seized the $76,000 left in the account. It paid the first lawyer the full amount of his lien, ultimately paying out $18,500 more than it collected.

The bar court found that Weber committed acts of moral turpitude by not maintaining disputed funds in trust, making misrepresentations to the bank and misappropriating client funds. He also commingled funds in the account and used it to pay personal expenses.

In an unlawful detainer proceeding, Weber and another lawyer entered into a fee-splitting arrangement without his clients' consent. He agreed to pay the other lawyer between 66 percent and 90 percent of the fees he collected in the case for the work the other lawyer did. Weber represented the clients in their unsuccessful trial and agreed to represent them in an action against their lender for improperly foreclosing on their property. He did no further work for them, did not keep them up to date on their case, account for their funds, or return their calls or their file. He abandoned his law office without notifying the clients.

Remke found that Weber failed to communicate, return client property or account for funds, and he improperly withdrew from representation and improperly divided a fee with another lawyer without client consent.

In a criminal matter in which Weber represented the defendant, he failed to appear at a hearing, and was sanctioned but did not pay the sanction. He didn't appear at two other hearings and was removed as counsel, improperly withdrawing from representation.

In the final matter, Weber represented the plaintiff in a civil case, but did not appear at a settlement conference. He did appear at the resulting hearing on an order to show cause, where he and his client were ordered to pay $1,000 in sanctions for failing to comply with discovery obligations. They did not do so and Weber did not report the sanctions to the bar.

After reaching a settlement, Weber did not appear at two status hearings and was again sanctioned.

The bar court found that he violated a court order.

In recommending Weber's suspension, Remke said his misconduct significantly harmed his clients "who had to repeatedly try to contact him or their matters were delayed, and courts had to continue matters."

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