In the Matter of James Patrick Chandler, Case No. 08-O-13631, the State Bar Court Review Department found multiple acts of moral turpitude warranting suspension for two years and until the attorney paid restitution and proved his fitness to practice.
James Chandler had been licensed for six years when his association with another attorney, Sean Gjerde, with whom he attended law school and partnered, led to multiple complaints with the State Bar. Gjerde had been an ARAG attorney, providing legal services within the group’s network of attorneys for discounted fees billed for upon completion of services requested. ARAG discovered Gjerde had been billing for services not rendered and terminated him from the network. Shortly thereafter, Gjerde asked Chandler to join the network. When it was suspected Chandler was also over billing, ARAG conducted an investigation that showed Chandler was billing for Gjerde’s former clients and had in fact never met with any of them. Further investigation proved that he had never performed any of the legal services billed for.
The State Bar alleged that Chandler committed acts of moral turpitude and dishonesty in violation of Business and Professions Code section 6106 by submitting false bills to ARAG. On review, Chandler asserted that he was permitted to bill ARAG before the services were completed. However, this claim was in direct contradiction of the agreement with ARAG, ARAG claim forms, and other documentation. Furthermore, it was held that Chandler could not have expected to be paid for some of the services, as they were not requested nor needed by the clients. The Review Department agreed that Chandler had therefore violated Section 6106.
In 2009, Chandler and Gjerde partnered to form the Northern California Law Center (NCLC) to represent clients in bankruptcy matters. Chandler, who worked out of his Sonoma office, traveled to the Elk Grove office, where the NCLC was based, once every few weeks. However, between 2010 and 2011, he was unable to do so due to physical injuries and made the trip only once every three to five weeks. During this time, the bankruptcy court found that Gjerde handled a matter incompetently and granted his client’s motion to disgorge fees in the amount of $2,000. When Gjerde failed to return the fees or represent the clients in a related matter, the bankruptcy court issued a contempt order against him and revoked the filing privileges of him and any attorney associated with the NCLC without prior permission from the chief judge.
Despite Chandler’s absence from the office and claim to have not received notice of the ruling, there was clear evidence at the hearing to show that Chandler received notice of the bankruptcy court’s ruling in at least two instances. Chandler filed two bankruptcies shortly thereafter without the chief judge’s prior approval. One case it was discovered was filed by Gjerde in Chandler’s name; the other was filed by Chandler himself. As a result of disobeying the bankruptcy court’s order, the trustee in each case filed a motion to disgorge attorneys fees and sought civil contempt sanctions against both Gjerde and Chandler. The two were ordered, jointly and severally, to return their clients’ fees and ordered to pay approximately $36,000 in sanctions.
The State Bar alleged that Chandler violated Business and Professions Code section 6103 when he failed to obey the bankruptcy court’s ruling. Section 6103 provides that an attorney’s “willful disobedience or violation of an order of the court requiring him to do or forbear an act connected with or in the course of his profession, which he ought in good faith to do or forbear, and any violation of the oath taken by him, or of his duties as such attorney, constitute causes for disbarment or suspension.” At the State Bar hearing, Chandler asserted that his office staff filed the petitions and therefore he shouldn’t be held to have willfully violated the order. However, the hearing judge found that Chandler had a non-delegable duty to supervise his office staff and therefore was responsible. On review, the State Bar Court’s Review Department found that despite Chandler’s duty to supervise office staff, his failure to do so could not constitute a “willful” violation.
In another bankruptcy matter handled by Chandler, it was discovered that the petition contained several errors and was not correctly served. Chandler failed to correct the problems. The trustee thereafter moved to dismiss the petition. Without any objection by Chandler, the motion was granted. The clients contacted Chandler seeking their file and return of attorneys fees. While their file was returned, their fees were not. The clients notified the bankruptcy trustee of their problems with Chandler. The trustee filed a motion to reopen the bankruptcy and filed a motion for disgorgement of fees based on incompetent representation. The court ordered Chandler to return the attorneys fees and file an affidavit stating he had done so. Chandler never returned the fees nor filed the affidavit.
The hearing judge and Review Department both found that Chandler failed to provide legal services competently in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct section 3-110(A). Rule 3-110(A) provides that an attorney must not “intentionally, recklessly, or repeatedly fail to perform legal services with competence.” By filing documents with multiple errors, failing to correct the errors, and failing to oppose the trustee’s motion to dismiss, Chandler had failed to provide competent representation. Furthermore, Rule 3-700(D(2) requires an attorney, upon termination of employment, to promptly refund any part of an unearned fee. Chandler’s failure to return his clients’ fees after they requested it, and the bankruptcy judge ordered it, was a clear violation.
On review, based upon Chandler’s multiple counts of misconduct, the Review Department found the appropriate punishment to be a two year suspension, with Chandler’s reinstatement subject to him making restitution and proving he was rehabilitated and fit to practice law. In making its decision, the Court stated that the “purpose of attorney discipline is not to punish the attorney, but to protect the public, the courts and the legal profession, to preserve public confidence in the profession and to maintain high professional standards for attorneys.”
This case serves as a reminder to attorneys to be mindful of their professional responsibilities and ethical obligations to their clients. While willful acts in violation of the rules, such as some of those actions taken by Chandler and Gjerde, are clear violations, unintentional or negligent acts can just as easily form the basis of a rule violation.