Thursday, March 5, 2009
Court Sentences Disbarred Attorney Fine to Jail for Contempt
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe yesterday sentenced disbarred Beverly Hills attorney Richard I. Fine to jail for contempt of court.
Ordering Fine into custody at a hearing yesterday, the judge sentenced Fine to five days in jail or a $1,000 fine for practicing law and holding himself out as an attorney without being an active member of the State Bar, and ordered Fine confined indefinitely until he complies with an order to participate in a judgment debtor examination.
Yaffe found Fine—who the California Supreme Court ordered disbarred Feb. 11—in contempt in January for Fine’s conduct representing a homeowners association in a 2007 action over the validity of county leases in Marina del Rey.
When the county and real parties in interest moved to dismiss the action, Fine sought relief based on an attorney affidavit of fault, and Yaffe—after striking Fine’s attempt to disqualify him for receiving supplemental judicial benefits from the county, which Fine contended was unconstitutional—sanctioned Fine in April 2008 with over $46,000 in fees and costs.
Judgment Debtor Examination
The awardees sought a judgment debtor examination of Fine in June 2008 and served a subpoena for production of documents, but Fine objected, arguing that Yaffe had been disqualified and that the award was void for lack of notice.
Commissioner Murray Gross overruled all of Fine’s objections and ordered him to go forward with the examination and produce the documents, but Fine—after allowing himself to be sworn in at the examination—declined to answer any questions. Instead, he stated only his name, that he had been served with an order to appeal and a subpoena, and that he had not obtained a stay of execution of the order awarding costs.
Gross again overruled the objections, but Fine refused to answer any questions or produce any documents at an August 2008 hearing, and did so again when the hearing was continued October and then December of that year. The hearing is now scheduled to take place March 16.
Allegations of Harassment
Meanwhile, the State Bar Court issued an order in October 2007 recommending Fine’s disbarment and involuntarily enrolling him as an inactive member of the State Bar after Hearing Judge Richard Honn found Fine had engaged in a concerted campaign of litigation designed to harass judicial officers who had ruled against him, in particular Commissioner Bruce Mitchell.
However Fine continued to maintain a website in which he held himself out as a licensed California attorney and issued subpoenas of his own in the lease validity action, so the real parties in interest in that case in November 2008 sought a judgment of contempt on 16 charges.
The charges were grouped into five categories for purposes of trial, and alleged Fine failed to answer questions and produce documents in violation of Gross’ order; attacked the integrity of the Superior Court and the State Bar Court; repeatedly moved for reconsideration in violation of state law; practiced law, or held himself out as entitled to do so, when he was not an active member of the State Bar; and lied about his status with the State Bar in pleadings and oral argument.
At trial, Yaffe found Fine—who represented himself—not guilty on three of the charges, but found him guilty for failing to answer questions and produce documents, and for practicing law and holding himself out as an attorney.
In an order issued yesterday, Yaffe explained that Fine’s contention that Gross lacked authority to make the orders because he was not “a referee appointed by the court” within Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 708.140(a) had “no merit” because Gross’ status as a commissioner did not disqualify him as a referee under the statute.
Yaffe also rejected Fine’s contention that he could disqualify Yaffe from holding contempt proceedings based on the judge’s receipt—like all other Superior Court judges—of supplemental benefits paid by the county.
Fine claims to be the victim of a vendetta by Superior Court judicial officers based on his litigation of suits challenging the benefits, and he told the MetNews in an email Tuesday that the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s ruling last year that the benefits were unconstitutional—as well as the Legislature’s approval last month of a bill allowing the county to continue paying the benefits—vindicated his position.
But Yaffe wrote that Fine failed to raise the argument at the earliest, practicable opportunity, noting that Fine knew about the compensation when he filed the underlying case in 2007 but failed to urge disqualification until 10 months later, after Yaffe had ordered the sanctions.
Yaffe also awarded attorney’s fees against Fine under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1218(a) for the contempt action, but limited the amount to approximately $24,000, or one-fifth of the amount sought, reasoning that only one of the five charges was based on a finding of contempt for violating a court order.
Fine could not be reached for comment yesterday, but has indicated he will seek review of his disbarment in the U.S. Supreme Court on free speech and due process grounds.
He contends the State Bar is retaliating against him for engaging in protected speech, while the State Bar says that Fine engaged in moral turpitude by continuously relitigating issues on which he had been ruled against.
Fine is also suing the State Bar in U.S. District Court, claiming that the statute allowing a finding of moral turpitude based on acts that are not crimes is unconstitutional.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company