Friday, May 6, 2011
State Bar: Santa Barbara Attorney Will Be Placed on Inactive Status
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The State Bar yesterday announced that Santa Barbara probate lawyer accused of misappropriating funds from an estate will be placed on inactive status Saturday.
Sandra J. Smith, 51, stipulated that her conduct posed “a substantial threat of harm to the interests of her clients or to the public,” and is the first attorney in the state to do so, a State Bar spokesperson said.
State Bar deputy trial counsel Melanie Lawrence, who is prosecuting Smith, said Latasha Jones hired Smith in 2006 after seeing an advertisement that said, “Don’t Let Others Steal Your Elderly Parent’s Estates,” but Smith “did just that, depriving the beneficiaries of their share of the estate.”
After Jones retained Smith for help in probating the estate of Evelyn Fifer, Jones was appointed personal representative and opened an estate account to hold estate funds.
The State Bar alleges that Smith falsely told Jones the probate court wanted the estate assets held in her client trust account. Jones transferred $410,822.49 to Smith’s trust account, then withdrew $31,341, leaving a balance of $379,480 in the trust account. Three months later, the State Bar claims, the balance was $40.54.
The State Bar contends Smith subsequently filed a false accounting that stated $373,993 was on hand on behalf of the estate in a Bank of America CD before admitting to Jones that she no longer had the estate funds.
Smith said she was working to secure loans in order to make restitution but has failed to repay the monies, the State Bar spokesperson said.
Jones eventually sued Smith and reached a settlement for $422,940, payable in monthly installments of $10,000. The State Bar said Smith’s check to cover the first payment bounced, and a subsequently issued cashier’s check could not be honored because it was made payable to the “Estate of Evelyn Charles” rather than “Estate of Evelyn Fifer.”
Because the estate funds have not been repaid, the State Bar claims, the estate has not been able to close and has been required to pay an annual bond premium of $1,800 as well as attorney’s fees.
The State Bar moved to place Smith on inactive status under a section of the State Bar Act that allows such action when an attorney is causing substantial harm to clients or the public, when the evidence suggests the harmful behavior is likely to continue and when it is likely the bar will prevail on the merits of the case.
A spokesperson for the State Bar said the agency plans to file formal disciplinary charges against Smith within 45 days.
Smith is a graduate of the San Joaquin College of Law in Fresno and was admitted to practice in 2000.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company