Friday, October 26, 2007
State Bar Court Judge Recommends Disbarment of Richard I. Fine
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A State Bar Court hearing judge has recommended that a prominent Beverly Hills attorney be disbarred for filing a stream of disqualification motions and other papers containing what the judge found to be false and frivolous charges regarding members of the state bench.
Hearing Judge Richard Honn, in an order filed Oct. 12, said Richard I. Fine’s “remarkable academic and professional background” did not justify his “improper and vindictive reactions” to rulings of Commissioner Bruce Mitchell and other judicial officers.
Honn ordered that Fine, a member of the State Bar since 1973, be placed on involuntary inactive status. The State Bar’s Web site says that Fine is ineligible to practice law as of Oct. 17.
“The record clearly establishes that, beginning in November 1999 and continuing until at least August 2006, respondent engaged in what amounts to an almost never-ending attack on anyone (including attorneys and judicial officers) who disagreed with him or otherwise got in his way,” Honn wrote. “After years of employing improper and vindictive litigation tactics, respondent had placed himself in a deep hole. Rather than follow the adage ‘if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging,’ respondent kept digging himself into deeper and deeper problems. Most troubling, respondent fails to appreciate the harm he has imposed on so many people and on the court system.”
Fine, the onetime head of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s antitrust unit and counsel for the plaintiffs in a number of highly publicized class actions and taxpayer suits, said yesterday he expects to be reinstated because “there are no grounds that will show that I did anything wrong.”
He told the MetNews that all of his actions were proper, that Mitchell and other judicial officers acted without jurisdiction, and that it was “illegal” for the State Bar to say that he cannot practice when the state Supreme Court has had no opportunity to review the matter. He said that he intends to file a motion to that effect with the State Bar Court today, and will file a petition for writ of mandate with the state high court if the motion is not granted.
Honn’s order cites Business and Professions Code Sec. 6007(c)(4) as authority for the court’s action. The section reads “[t]he board [of governors] shall order the involuntary inactive enrollment of an attorney upon the filing of a recommendation of disbarment after hearing or default.”
Fine’s telephone was being answered “Law Offices of Richard I. Fine & Associates” yesterday, but the attorney said he had no plans to engage in the practice of law while seeking relief from the State Bar Court’s order.
Fine’s conflict with the bench, Honn recounted, stemmed initially from his involvement in the case of DiFlores v. EHG National Health Services, a class action emanating from the disclosure that a phony doctor had performed about 1,000 medical examinations on behalf of an insurance company.
Fine filed the case on behalf of 19 named plaintiffs, and he and other counsel stipulated that Mitchell could hear the case as a temporary judge. Mitchell later certified a class with respect to liability issues only and designated Mitchell as class counsel.
Eventually, a settlement was reached, and Mitchell gave preliminary approval to an agreement in which the defendants would pay about $7.868 million, of which one-third would go to attorney fees, with as much as $1.9 million going to Fine and the rest to lawyers retained by individual class members.
Following a “fairness” hearing, Mitchell gave final approval of the settlement, ordered an initial distribution of $2,000 to each of the 19 named plaintiffs as an incentive award, and ordered that payment of fees to the attorneys be delayed “until the final amounts can be computed.”
On Fine’s motion, however, Mitchell later ordered a partial distribution to Fine of $450,000, which Fine said was inadequate. In subsequent proceedings, Mitchell granted an additional distribution of less than $170,000, but also ordered Fine not to file any further motions for partial distribution for at least four months.
Counsel for other plaintiffs, in the meantime, moved for sanctions against Fine for repeatedly filing motions for partial distribution of attorney fees and ex parte applications for expedited hearings on those motions.
Fine objected to Mitchell hearing those motions, claiming they were not covered by the stipulation allowing Mitchell to hear the case as judge pro tem, but Mitchell struck the objection and ordered Fine to show cause why he should not be removed as class counsel.
Fine, the hearing judge explained, responded with what turned out to be the first of at least 12 motions to disqualify the commissioner. All of the motions were either stricken by Mitchell or denied by an assigned judge.
After striking the ninth challenge, Mitchell issued an OSC and eventually held Fine in contempt, ordering that he serve five days in jail. The contempt order recited that Fine had made false, insulting, and scandalous charges against the commissioner.
The Court of Appeal affirmed in a published opinion which reviewed all nine of the challenges filed to that point and found all of them to be without merit. After Fine filed his 10th challenge, Mitchell ordered him to show cause why he should not be removed from the case completely, precipitating an 11th challenge.
Mitchell then ordered Fine out of the case, saying he “cannot be trusted as a fiduciary” and that more than $40,000 in sanctions, a jail sentence, “and the denial of every petition and appeal Fine has filed in the appellate courts in this case” had failed to result in compliance with the rules and requirements of the court.
Fine, he said, “will not follow the law, he will not tell the truth, and he will not obey court orders.”
Honn, writing for the State Bar Court, said that counsel had proven by clear and convincing evidence that Fine had “embarked on a litigation rampage” against Mitchell in retaliation for the commissioner’s fee rulings in the Di Flores case, in violation of his duties to his clients and the court; that he had pursued a frivolous theory—which Fine had advanced, unsuccessfully, in other cases—that judicial officers of the Los Angeles Superior Court have a conflict of interest because they receive county-paid benefits in addition to their salaries; and that he filed a frivolous appeal from an order that Mitchell never made.
Honn also found that Fine had filed meritless proceedings out of pique with Mitchell or other judicial officers, including a baseless lawsuit accusing Mitchell, Superior Court Judge James Chalfant, and Court of Appeal Justice Kathryn Doi Todd of having violated his civil rights in a state court case that none of them had anything to do with.
Honn acknowledged that Fine had practiced for many years without discipline prior to the Di Flores case. But neither that fact, nor his longtime involvement in civic activities, is sufficiently mitigating to outweigh the fact that Fine “continues to blame everyone but himself for his outrageous and extensive misconduct,” making it “extremely likely” that he would continue to engage in such misbehavior if allowed to remain in practice, Honn said.
Fine told the MetNews he believes he is being targeted because he and former State Bar President Sheldon Sloan have been on opposite sides of litigation concerning the Playa Vista development on the Westside. Sloan scoffed at that suggestion, saying that he never involved himself in Fine’s or any other State Bar disciplinary case, and that no State Bar prosecutor would have allowed him to become involved.
Prior to the issuance of Honn’s opinion, Sloan elaborated, the only knowledge he had of the proceedings came when he received a complaint—he said he could not recall who from—as to the length of time the case was taking. As with all similar complaints he received during his tenure as president, and on the Board of Governors before that, he merely passed the communication on to the State Bar’s executive director or the chief trial counsel, he said.
Sloan added that he was not involved in, and knew nothing about, Di Flores or any of the cases cited by Honn.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company