Thursday, July 11, 2013
State Bar Judge Rejects Charges Glendale Lawyer Bilked Client
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A State Bar Court judge has rejected all charges against a Glendale attorney accused of 18 counts of misconduct for what State Bar prosecutors said was a scheme to charge excessive legal fees.
Hearing Judge Donald F. Miles, in an opinion filed July 1, noted that five counts against Joseph Bernard McHugh Jr. were dismissed during trial, and said the evidence presented against McHugh “does not provide proof of any culpability…for any of the remaining counts.”
The notice of disciplinary charges, filed last year, and an accompanying press release issued by the State Bar accused the attorney of having billed Helen Sprinkle, a woman in her 90s, more than $407,000 for bogus estate planning services, with the assistance of a supposed paralegal, Naomi Campbell.
In fact, the State Bar charged, Campbell—whose alleged services constituted $363,882 of the bill—had previously been convicted of defrauding the elderly and had no paralegal training.
The State Bar said McHugh met with the victim just three days after the death of Sprinkle’s only child and not long after the deaths of her sister and pet dog. Over the course of four months, McHugh allegedly charged Sprinkle thousands of dollars for work he claimed was done to update her estate plan.
But there was “nothing unusual or suspicious about the timing,” nor did it reflect any dishonesty on the part of McHugh, Miles wrote. As for Campbell’s involvement, the judge said, McHugh knew her to be a close friend and adviser to Sprinkle and had no personal or professional relationship with her.
No Ethical Lapse
Nor was there any ethical lapse on McHugh’s part in failing to tell Sprinkle what he may or may not have known about Campbell’s criminal record, which was actually a conviction for grand theft. The State Bar, Miles said, acknowledged during the proceedings that there is no legal authority for the proposition that an attorney must disclose his paralegal’s criminal past to a client.
Miles also rejected charges that McHugh’s fees were unconscionable.
The evidence, the judge said, showed that Sprinkle approved all of the work that was done, in particular the work done by Campbell, and was aware that the fees were mounting. McHugh, the judge said, took “extraordinary steps to document the fact that this work was being done with the knowledge and approval of his client.”
McHugh also arranged for the client to be examined by a psychologist experienced in gerontology, who reported that Sprinkle was competent.
State Bar prosecutors can seek review of Miles’ decision before the Review Department.
McHugh, a State Bar member since 1987 and a graduate of California State University, Fullerton and Whittier College School of Law, told the MetNews yesterday that he has “a problem with the State Bar having prosecutors who’ve never represented a client and don’t know anything about estate planning.”
He said he thought he had adequately explained his actions to the prosecutor handling his case, but was the victim of retaliation—the more serious charges carry the possibility of disbarment—after he declined an “arrogant” supervising prosecutor’s request that he admit charging excessive fees and accept a suspension.
McHugh has no record of State Bar discipline.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company