Monday, May 2, 2016
State Bar Says Complaint Backlog at Seven-Year Low
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The backlog of disciplinary complaints against California attorneys is at its lowest level since 2009, the State Bar reported Friday.
The State Bar’s “Annual Discipline Report,” released Friday, shows that the number of complaints that had been pending for more than six months was 1,500 as of the end of last year. The comparable figure at the end of 2014 was 1,988.
In a transmittal letter accompanying the report, which is mandated by the State Bar Act, Executive Director Elizabeth R. Parker said the organization has been working diligently to whittle down the backlog and to implement reforms proposed in a state audit. Auditors said last year that in its effort to shorten the backlog, the State Bar rushed disciplinary cases, was soft on offending attorneys and spent $50 million over-budget to renovate its building in Los Angeles.
Parker said the number of attorneys suspended or disbarred has increased, even though complaints are down overall, and said the State Bar’s “new leadership” is committed to “transparency, accountability, and excellence.”
Parker acknowledged past shortcomings in collecting and reporting data, which she said have been addressed by replacing the part-time contractor who was previously in charge with a “professionally staffed” Office of Research and Institutional Accountability.
“This new office will be staffed by moving data analysts now scattered about the agency into a single organization which will be directed bay an experienced researcher with extensive data collection and analysis background in the California court system,” Parker explained.
Parker also promised to do more to act against unlicensed attorneys, particularly those who are enlisting unsuspecting immigrant clients. The State Bar drew the ire of legislators, particularly those with large numbers of immigrants in their districts, following reports that hundreds of unauthorized-practice-of-law complaints had been filed away without action.
She said the organization will hold a “Stakeholders Summit” later this month to “examine the problem of limited reporting,” to be followed by a meeting “focused on creating better systems of coordination with those law enforcement authorities responsible for the criminal prosecution of UPL matters.” Members of the Regulation and Discipline Committee are already working with law enforcement as to how best “to insure that UPL complaints are thoroughly investigated and timely referred for prosecution,” she said.
According to the report, the State Bar received 15,796 new complaints against California lawyers last year. Formal charges or stipulations to discipline were filed in 558 cases.
Discipline was imposed in 990 cases, including 421 in which lawyers were suspended or disbarred.
The report comes on the heels of last week’s announcement that Chief Trial Counsel Jayne Kim will leave her position, effective Thursday, although she has been asked to remain with the organization on a contract basis. The news of her resignation was greeted with cheers by leaders of the union representing State Bar employees, whose opposition reportedly made it unlikely that the State Senate would confirm the Board of Trustees’ decision to appoint her to a second term.
Employees cast a “no confidence” vote against Kim in October.
“This is the right time for me to move on,” Kim said in a statement Thursday. “In declining to seek reappointment I leave with a strong sense of accomplishment and confidence that the bar is on the right track to become an exemplary model of a mission-driven agency.”
Kim had wanted to leave earlier, State Bar President David Pasternak said in a statement, but was asked to see the organization through its leadership overhaul. In 2014, it hired a new general counsel, Thomas Miller. It also named former Alameda Superior Court Clerk Leah Wilson as its chief operating officer last year.
“Jayne has only stayed on as chief trial counsel this long because the board asked her to see us through a period of tremendous evolution and transformation,” Pasternak said. “Our new leadership team is now solidly in place and has profited tremendously from her steady hand at the helm of the OCTC.”
Kim’s five-year tenure was punctuated by controversy, most notably a lawsuit filed against her and the bar by her one-time boss, former State Sen. Joseph Dunn.
Dunn was fired as the bar’s executive director in 2014, and in a whistleblower action claimed that Kim, who he brought on in 2011 to head the group’s disciplinary unit, actually removed 269 cases from its backlog to make her office appear more productive.
But as the litigation ran its course, the State Bar said Dunn’s firing was the result of his own ethical foibles, and that prior to his ousting, Kim had filed a complaint with the bar over his improper use of funds and questionable political decisions. An arbitrator recently dismissed Dunn’s action, but his attorney Mark Geragos said the complaint will be amended soon.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company