Wednesday, September 10, 2003
State Bar Counsel Says Ex-Lawyer Hunt Should Not Be Readmitted
Review Department Urged to Overturn Judge’s Finding That Petitioner Is Rehabilitated
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Former civil rights lawyer A. Thomas Hunt, who resigned from the State Bar with charges pending 10 years ago, has not been rehabilitated and should not be reinstated, a State Bar lawyer told a bar panel yesterday.
Hunt does not recognize the seriousness of his past misconduct in abandoning clients and should not be allowed to resume the practice of law, Deputy Trial Counsel Alan Gordon told the Review Department of the State Bar Court. Hunt “fails the attitude test in a dramatic fashion,” Gordon argued.
Gordon urged the three-judge panel to reject a hearing judge’s recommendation that Hunt be reinstated. Then-State Bar Court Judge Paul Bacigalupo, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, ruled in July of last year that Hunt had established by clear and convincing evidence that he has been sufficiently rehabilitated.
Hunt testified at a three-day hearing before Bacigalupo that he became an alcoholic and failed to properly handle his clients’ cases in part as a reaction to social and political changes that were eating away at his success as a groundbreaking civil rights attorney.
Host of Testimonials
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.
Gordon yesterday acknowledged that Hunt stopped drinking around the time he resigned and that all indications are that he is currently sober. But he still has not fully taken responsibility for his actions, the attorney told the panel, citing a “vexatious and baseless” lawsuit that Hunt filed against ex-client Howard Bennett.
Bennett, a former English teacher, has vocally pursued Hunt in court and in the media and has rallied other ex-Hunt clients to oppose his reinstatement from the time he filed his petition.
In the lawsuit cited by Gordon, Hunt accused Bennett of malicious prosecution for having urged the district attorney to file criminal charges against Hunt for having effectively stolen from Bennett and other clients by taking funds and doing no work in return.
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.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal of Hunt’s suit against Bennett on the ground that prosecutors had based their filing of charges on an independent investigation.
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, a veteran of organizing and media campaigns, created a well-publicized group of what he said was more than 100 other ex-Hunt clients, some of whom attended yesterday’s hearing.
Hunt’s attorney, Mark Werksman, urged the panel to defer to Bacigalupo’s findings, although he acknowledged, in response to a question by Presiding Judge Ronald Stovitz, that the Review Department’s review is de novo. His client, he said, had shown “sincere remorse” at the “terrible” way he treated his former clients.
Hunt had testified that he began drinking heavily when the political mood of the nation—and the judiciary—changed in the 1980s and civil rights cases became harder for plaintiffs to win. He said he had given up alcohol and learned to accept defeat in court.
But Review Department Judge Judith Epstein noted yesterday that Hunt has acknowledged that he continued to abandon clients, ignore warnings from the State Bar, and on one occasion, lie to an arbitration panel—resulting in sanctions that went unpaid for years—after the date he says he took his last drink.
Hunt, who gave a portion of his own oral argument yesterday, responded that he remained depressed and dysfunctional for a time after he quit drinking, which is why decided to resign rather than fight the State Bar’s disciplinary charges. With treatment, he said, he was able begin “functioning the way a human being should function” in 1995 and 1996.
Werksman urged the panel to take note of several well-known employment and civil rights lawyers who came to the hearing to show their support of Hunt, leading Gordon to interject, calling attention to “the people on this side of the courtroom”—pointing to Bennett and other “Hunt Club” members.
Among the Hunt supporters in attendance was Paul Grossman, former head of the national employment law practice at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. Grossman, a frequent adversary during the heyday of Hunt’s career, told the MetNews that “Tom Hunt has done more than 99.9 percent of the attorneys in California to benefit the downtrodden in California.”
It would be “ridiculous” for the court not to allow Hunt to return to practice now that he has overcome alcoholism, Grossman added.
But Wes Brickner, a retired longshoreman who said he gave Hunt nearly $8,000 to litigate a claim that his employer failed to rehire him when he returned from military duty and had to seek reimbursement from the Client Security Fund, had a very different view.
Brickner recalled that before hiring Hunt, he did some research and found that the lawyer was under suspension for non-payment of State Bar dues. When he confronted Hunt, the lawyer said he was going to pay his dues with Brickner’s retainer.
Brickner said that while he eventually got most of money back from the Client Security Fund, he has been trying for 10 years to get some of his documents back and plans to file a new State Bar complaint against Hunt in an attempt to force the issue.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company