Thursday, September 2, 2004
S.C. May Increase Proposed Discipline in Case Against Bar Critic
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court yesterday granted review on its own motion of a State Bar Court recommendation that a Pacific Palisades attorney who has criticized the discipline system be suspended from practice.
In an order signed by all seven justices, the court—which held its weekly conference in San Francisco—said it was considering greater discipline than the three years’ probation, with conditions to include 60 days of actual suspension, recommended by the Review Department in the case of Ronald R. Silverton.
Silverton has run three times for the State Bar Board of Governors on a platform of abolishing the disciplinary system. While praising the State Bar as a whole, the 73-year-old attorney, who also ran for judge four years ago, has called its disciplinary arm “a little Gestapo.”
He was disbarred in 1975 following an insurance fraud conviction, but reinstated on his fourth try in 1992. In the case acted on yesterday, the Review Department said that he charged unconscionable fees or acquired interests adverse to his clients by entering into agreements with two personal injury clients with respect to compromising their medical bills.
The agreements said that if Silverton could negotiate reductions in the bills, he could keep the full amount of the savings in addition to his contingency fee of one-third or 40 percent of the recovery.
The State Bar has filed additional charges, alleging similar conduct involving different clients. Those allegations are slated for trial Nov. 30.
Silverton told the MetNews that the State Bar offered to dismiss the new charges if he would drop his petition for review of the Review Department decision. He rejected the offer, he said, because he “did absolutely nothing wrong” and expected the Supreme Court to vindicate him.
Yesterday’s order, he said, was “a terrible thing” and suggests that the high court did not understand the issue. Silverton has claimed that the charges were baseless and were brought in retaliation for his campaigns to abolish the entire disciplinary system, relegate clients who have complaints about lawyers to civil proceedings in court, and reduce State Bar dues to $100.
Clients Didn’t Testify
Silverton noted that his clients did not testify against him, and pointed out that he won the case once, when the original hearing judge, Eugene Brott—who is no longer on the court—said that the attorney did not violate ethics rules. But the Review Department, in a May 2001 ruling, held that if, as alleged, Silverton failed to tell the clients that it is customary for attorneys to compromise medical liens without additional fee, the fee could be considered unconscionable.
The case was sent back to the Hearing Department and assigned to Judge Patrice McElroy. McElroy concluded, and the Review Department agreed, that the amount of the fee was excessive in proportion to the value of the services performed, and the time and labor expended by Silverton.
The attorney “did not fully disclose all the terms of the transactions to [the clients] in writing,” Judge Madge Watai explained for the Review Department, adding that the clients did not have the benefit of independent counsel. The panel found in mitigation that the clients were not actually harmed.
In other conference action, the justices agreed to review the May 6 Sixth District Court of Appeal decision in Siebel v. Mittlesteadt, 118 Cal.App.4th 406. The Sixth District panel overturned a summary judgment that had been granted to Northern California attorneys Carol L. Mittlesteadt and E. Rick Buell II in a malicious prosecution action brought by Thomas Siebel, chief executive officer of Siebel Systems, Inc.
Siebel sued the attorneys based on their representation of a former Siebel Systems employee, contending, among other things, that the sex discrimination/wrongful termination suit was baseless and frivolous because the corporation, not Siebel, was the plaintiff’s employer.
One of the arguments made by the attorneys in support of summary judgment was that they could not defend the suit because they would have to disclose privileged information. That issue was an evidentiary matter and not an appropriate subject for summary judgment, the Court of Appeal held.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company