Tuesday, January 7, 2003
State Bar Court Increases Length of Proposed Suspension Of Immigration Lawyer Working With ‘Notarios’
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
A Los Angeles immigration lawyer will be suspended—absent intervention by the state Supreme Court—for at least three years for abandoning clients and helping non-lawyer “notarios” engage in what the State Bar of California charges was unauthorized practice of law.
James R. Valinoti was slapped with a two-year suspension at the trial court level, but his appeal to the State Bar Review Department resulted in another year of actual suspension and two years probation. A dissent from the Dec. 31 opinion, made public yesterday, went further and called for Valinoti’s disbarment.
Four of nine instances of misconduct in the early years of Valinoti’s practice resulted in deportation orders, the State Bar said. Those orders were later reversed.
Valinoti, 38, said he was devastated by the ruling. He charged that the State Bar treated him unfairly, without regard for the way immigration attorneys must conduct their practices to protect their clients’ interests after the clients have visited legitimate, or outlaw, non-lawyer consultants.
“If I’m doing something wrong, then I promise you 60 other immigration lawyers are as well,” Valinoti said.
Hundreds of clients come to him, Valinoti said, after so-called notarios win delays for their clients by filing fraudulent asylum applications, leaving him to do his best to salvage their chances at obtaining a green card. He said others are referred by legitimate immigration consultants who save their clients thousands of dollars by doing the brunt of the voluminous paperwork, then referring them to lawyers like Valinoti when it comes time for an initial appearance before an immigration judge.
But the Review Department, in a 100-page opinion by Presiding Judge Ronald Stovitz, said Valinoti actually was assisting in the unauthorized practice of law by working hand-in-hand with illegitimate immigration consultants.
“[B]y relying on or permitting those nonattorney providers to prepare and file immigration applications, pleadings, and other documents for his clients—[Valinoti] deliberately aided and abetted the providers to represent aliens in violation of federal law,” Stovitz wrote.
The Review Department also rejected Valinoti’s arguments that he acted within the norm of immigration law and that he simply served as “appearance counsel” for many of his clients after the paperwork was performed by notarios.
Stovitz noted that as soon as a lawyer files an official notice of appearance as attorney for an immigration clientówhat immigration lawyers know as a Form EOIR-28óhe or she becomes attorney of record, cannot withdraw without permission of the immigration judge, and has “the duty to competently represent the client before the immigration court and to properly prepare each and every application, pleading and document necessary for proper representation of that client.”
Valinoti violated federal regulations by permitting nonlawyers to prepare immigration court documents once he had signed a EOIR-28, Stovitx said.
The court also found that Valinoti had an irresponsibly high caseload managed by too small a support staff. The opinion cited several attorneys he hired and assigned to immigration clients without adequately training them.
Less than two years after opening his office, he said, he had a personal caseload of more than 1,000, with another 700 cases assigned to lawyers associated with him.
In several cases, Valinoti was referred cases in which an alien seeking permanent residence went to a nonlawyer notario, who filed an application for asylum knowing the client lacked the well-founded fear of persecution to qualify. The filing often qualifies the would-be immigrant for temporary work authorization.
Valinoti would take the case and properly withdraw the fraudulent application. But he failed in some cases to follow up with an application to suspend deportation, believing, he told the State Bar Court, that the consultant or another lawyer was taking care of it.
Stovitz said Valinoti also failed to notify his clients when he moved his offices, so they often couldn’t find him, and lied to immigration judges about the status of some of his cases.
Immigration consultants, who often advertise themselves as notarios, are a fixture in the business of immigration counseling, especially for Latin American clients who seek their services in part because they speak Spanish and in part because professionals called notarios have the status of attorneys in many Latin American nations.
In the United States, however, a notario is often simply a notary public whose only legal authority is to witness signatures on documents.
The Legislature has attempted to crack down on U.S. notarios who may or may not actually be notaries public but rarely are attorneys. Many immigration lawyers complain that notarios steal legitimate business, damage their clients’ legal status and denigrate the true profession of immigration law.
But many immigration lawyers work directly or indirectly with notarios, taking referrals from them or otherwise picking up their cases when it is time for a court appearance that cannot be made by a nonlawyer.
Stovitz made a point in his opinion of declining to refer to nonattorney service providers as notarios, calling the term deceptive. He also rejected the term immigration consultant, except as applied to a statutorily defined class of professional.
None of the numerous nonattorney immigration service providers cited in the Valinoti opinion were statutory immigration consultants.
One of the nonattorney services cited in the opinion was called JVóthe same initials as Valinoti’sóand shared an office with the lawyer.
Stovitz’s opinion was joined by State Bar Court Hearing Judge Paul Bacigalupo, who was sitting by designation and since has been elected to the Los Angeles Superior Court. James Obrien, retired presiding judge of the State Bar Court, sat by designation and authored a strongly worded dissent calling for Valinoti’s disbarment.
Valinoti’s lawyer, former State Bar attorney R. Gerald Markle of the South Pasadena firm of Markle & Pansky, called the opinion “very harsh.”
Allen Blumenthal of the State Bar Office of Chief Trial Counsel said charges were brought against Valinoti at about the time of the virtual shutdown of the State Bar due to then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s veto of a lawyer fee bill. The charges had nothing to do with a ramping-up of efforts to close illegitimate immigration consulting businesses, he said.
Valinoti said the State Bar’s stance was shaped by a need to appear tough in the wake of the shut-down.
“I feel the State Bar came out blood-hungry after me,” he said.
The lawyer acknowledged being somewhat disorganized in the early days of his practice, and said his fate may have been sealed when, in the midst of a relationship problem, he failed to respond to an initial contact by the State Bar.
But he said the problem was largely part of the structure of the immigration system. People from other countries desperate to get work authorization here must “play games” with the law, he said, before coming to immigration lawyers to clean up what they have done.
If a lawyer has been unable to help and an immigrant is facing deportation, he said, the answer is often to get a new lawyer and file a so-called Lozado motion to reopen the case—on the ground prior counsel was incompetent—and gaining a further delay.
His case was hurt by those kinds of filings by former clients, he said.
Valinoti said he did not plan to appeal to the Supreme Court, which must enter a final discipline order. He said he would turn over his practice to other lawyers, perhaps those who work with him at his current office in the City National Bank building near Pershing Square, where the immigration court is located.
The case is In the Matter of Valinoti, 96-O-08095.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company