Friday, July 26, 2002
State Bar Court Accepts Readmission Petition From Hunt
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Former civil rights icon A. Thomas Hunt, who resigned from the State Bar with charges pending in 1993 and has since carried on a protracted fight with a former client, should be reinstated as an attorney in good standing, a State Bar judge has ruled.
In a decision filed Wednesday, Judge Paul Bacigalupo said Hunt, 62, became an alcoholic and abdicated his duties to clients, but has now established by clear and convincing evidence that he has been sufficiently rehabilitated.
Bacigalupo said he gave great weight to a host of testimonials from prominent attorneys, clients for whom Hunt won historic civil rights victories, and Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen S. Trott.
He also said Hunt showed he has stopped drinking and regularly participates in Alcoholics Anonymous and the Other Bar, an organization that helps lawyers with substance abuse problems.
In addition, Bacigalupo said, “Petitioner has been forthright and honest in his description of his misconduct and has expressed sincere remorse for that misconduct.”
Hunt did not return a call for comment.
State Bar attorney Margaret Warren, who opposed Hunt’s petition for readmission in oral arguments in March and April, declined comment.
Howard Bennett, the former client who most vocally has pursued Hunt in court and in the media, expressed disappointment in the decision.
“To give Hunt his law license back is to make a joke of the many clients whom he has hurt by his actions,” Bennett said. “I hope that when the State Bar attorney appeals, Hunt is denied his license to practice law. If not, I feel that justice was not only blindfolded but that she has had her eyes gouged out.”
Earlier this month, Bennett won the latest, and perhaps last, round in his long battle with Hunt when this district’s Court of Appeal upheld a summary judgment ending Hunt’s malicious prosecution action against his ex-client.
Bennett was a teacher in the Culver Unified School District, and Hunt a renowned civil rights attorney who won a host of discrimination class actions opening the Los Angeles Police Department and other institutions to more women and minorities, when Bennett hired Hunt to handle an age discrimination claim.
Hunt took the case but missed a court appearance and defaulted.
Bennett was a veteran of organizing and media campaigns, having successfully organized a clean-up campaign for the Santa Monica Bay that sparked creation of Heal the Bay, a well-regarded environmental organization. He applied the same savvy and zeal to going after Hunt, and the resulting publicity led to what Bennett said was more than 100 other ex-Hunt clients contacting him.
Bennett formed a group he called the “Hunt Club” to track bad lawyers. Meanwhile, he sued for malpractice, sought State Bar sanctions and asked the District Attorney’s Office to file criminal charges.
Grand theft charges brought against Hunt in 1995 and 1996 were either reduced to misdemeanors and then dismissed on statute-of-limitations grounds, or dropped because of unrebutted evidence that Hunt did at least some work for the clients, precluding a finding of intent to defraud.
One charge was dropped on double-jeopardy grounds, since Hunt was briefly jailed for contempt for failing to abide by a State Bar order to repay an ex-client.
Hunt, who was fighting execution of Bennett’s default judgment against him in the malpractice action, declared bankruptcy. Hunt’s wife, Eleanor Shellard, sued Bennett for slander. A settlement was proposed to take in all the actions but Hunt claimed Bennett breached it by speaking to the press.
After obtaining a rare finding of actual innocence in the criminal matters, Hunt sued Bennett for malicious prosecution, lost in trial court but won an appeal. He lost a second appeal in an unpublished decision July 15.
In his petition for readmission, Hunt said his drinking caused him to neglect client calls and mail, ignore warnings from the State Bar, abandon client cases and, on one occasion, commit perjury.
But he said he gave the ex-clients who filed claims with the State Bar client security fund good value for their money.
Hunt said he was overcome by alcoholism when the political mood of the nation—and the judiciary—changed in the 1980s and civil rights cases became harder for plaintiffs to win. But he said he had given up alcohol and learned to accept defeat in court.
He was represented in his petition by attorney Mark Werksman, who also defended him in the criminal prosecutions.
The state Supreme Court has the final say on Hunt’s readmission.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company