Tuesday, December 26, 2006
State Bar Court Panel Says Sacramento Lawyer Deserves Suspension for Unilaterally Withdrawing From Cases
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
A juvenile dependency attorney who unilaterally resigned from over 300 indigent cases despite being ordered to continue representation should be suspended from practice, the State Bar Court has concluded.
In an opinion filed Thursday, the Review Department said Sacramento attorney Julie L. Wolff made an “arbitrary and unilateral decision to ignore the court’s order and simply discard her 319 clients without any reasonable assurance that their rights would be protected.”
Wolff’s ethical violations, the panel held, included failure to obey a court order, improper withdrawal from employment, and failure to inform her clients of significant developments.
By August 1999, Wolff was the attorney of record for 319 indigent clients who had been assigned to her through the Indigent Defense Program of Sacramento County.
Sacramento’s juvenile court a month earlier had ceased referring attorneys to the Indigent Defense Program, replacing it with a new referral process whereby all indigent clients would be sent to a single law firm contracted by the court.
Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Kenneth G. Peterson had explained at a public meeting—which Wolff attended—that the contracted law firm would be required to accept any cases from which the court relieved other counsel, although lawyers already representing indigent clients would not be forced to resign from their cases.
On Aug. 24, Wolff submitted a document titled “In re: All My Cases,” by which she intended to resign from all of her appointed cases affective Sept. 16. The documents did not identify the cases by name or case number.
Peterson refused to file the document, notifying Wolff that it was not a proper motion to withdraw from representation. Although Wolff never re-submitted a competent motion to withdraw from the indigent cases, never told her clients she intended to withdraw, and was never relieved as attorney of record, she stopped attending her clients’ hearings.
Over a one month period, the lawyer failed to appear in a total of 39 matters in contravention of court orders. On one occasion, Wolff failed to appear for a calendared matter and instead sent the bench officer a written note saying she would not longer be appearing on any matters to which she had been appointed by the Indigent Defense Program. When the court then called her office and informed her to appear, she did not.
Peterson on Sept. 20 initiated contempt proceedings, which were ultimately settled Feb. 2003 in a sanction order in the amount of $1,500. The order stated that Wolff failed to appear on behalf of numerous clients, failed to make a reasonable effort to assure they were provided alternate legal representation at hearings, and willfully disobeyed court orders without good cause.
The State Bar initiated disciplinary proceedings on Oct. 2004. Following a one-day trial at which Peterson and Wolff both testified, State Bar Court Hearing Judge Joann M. Remke found the lawyer’s conduct “inexcusable” and recommended that she be publicly reproved.
Remke gave strong mitigative weight to the fact that Wolff had no prior record of discipline since being admitted to the State Bar in 1989, and that the State Bar waited nearly five years to file disciplinary charges against the lawyer.
While largely affirming Remke’s ruling, the reviewing panel concluded her decision to impose public reproval fell short of the discipline warranted by Wolff’s misconduct.
It instead recommended she be suspended from practice for three years, with execution of the suspension being stayed, and that she be placed on probation for three years on the condition she be actually suspended from practice during the first 18 months of probation and until she presents satisfactory proof of rehabilitation to the State Bar.
Writing for the panel, Judge Judith A. Epstein said Wolff’s actions “substantively impacted the underpinnings of the indigent dependency hearings, which rely on appointed counsel to protect unjust outcomes and ensure that decisions are not antagonistic to the best interests of the child or to the parents’ constitutional rights.
The judges declined to recommend disbarment, since the lawyer’s conduct did not constitute a “pattern,” but did note that she “demonstrated lack of insight into the nature of her misconduct” that suggested it could likely recur.
State Bar Court Review Judge Madge S. Watai and Retired Presiding Judge Ronald Stovitz, serving by assignment, concurred in the ruling.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company