Tuesday, May 21, 2002
Court Reporter Cannot Be Disciplined for Not Paying Debts to Colleagues, Court of Appeal Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court Reporters Board cannot discipline a licensee for failing to make payments to other reporters with whom he subcontracted, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Overruling the board and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs, the appellate panel concluded that Michael P. Hall did not engage in “unprofessional conduct.” By inducing fellow reporters to rely on unfulfilled promises of payment.
Hall, a reporter for more than 40 years, has been the subject of numerous complaints over the last several years. In each instance, the complaining reporter claimed that he or she accepted a subcontract from Hall and performed it, but that Hall did not pay.
Another veteran reporter testified at an administrative hearing that it is customary for court reporters to accept assignments and then subcontract them orally to other reporters. The contracting reporter is then responsible for billing and collecting from the client, and for paying the subcontractor.
In 1991, the board advised a reporter who complained about Hall that while it “certainly does not condone its licensees not meeting their financial obligations, the Board also has no legal authority in fee matters.”
But seven years later, it brought a formal accusation charging Hall with having committed misconduct by not paying a total of nearly $24,000 owed to 18 subcontractors for work performed between 1991 and 1997. The accusation was later amended to charge that Hall owed nearly $6,000 to six more reporters.
Hall stipulated that he did not pay, but claimed that it was a result of financial difficulties. He admitted that in some cases, he did not pay the subcontractors after he collected from the clients, saying all of the reporters were paid from a common pool, rather than on the basis of payments by a specific client.
The administrative law judge concluded that in the absence of a legitimate fee dispute, a reporter who subcontracts out work and who knows or should have known that payment was not going to be made is guilty of “unprofessional conduct in the practice of shorthand reporting” and subject to discipline.
The board agreed, as did the trial judge, who said Hall had engaged in a pattern of conduct “tantamount to fraud.”
But Justice Dennis Perluss, writing for the Court of Appeal, said that the board exceeded its authority because failing to pay one’s bills is not part of the “practice” of reporting.
The regulatory statute, Perluss elaborated, is intended to promote competency and protect the public in general and litigants in particular.
“Although it is possible to conceive of circumstances where the failure to pay subcontractors for shorthand reporting services would undermine the declared legislative purpose—for example, nonpayment may result in a significant delay of services or compromise the integrity of the product delivered—the record in this case is devoid of any such evidence,” the justice wrote.
The jurist noted that the statute permits discipline for “fraud” and suggested that the fraud need not occur in the “practice” of reporting, so long as it somehow relates to the profession. But the accusation against Hall did not rely on the fraud provision, so the issue is not before the court, Perluss said.
The case was argued in the Court of Appeal by George Baltaxe for Hall and by Deputy Attorney General Linda L. Sun for the Court Reporters Board.
The case is Hall v. Court Reporters Board of California, B151461.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company