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Posts Tagged ‘California’

The State Bar of California Moves to Suspend Michael Avenatti’s Law License

Posted on: June 11th, 2019

By: Paige Pembrook

On June 3, the State Bar of California filed a petition to place attorney Michael Avenatti – infamous for his past representation of Stephanie Clifford (a.k.a. Stormy Daniels) and his own present legal woes – on involuntary inactive status, which is the first step toward disbarment. The State Bar action follows Avenatti’s indictment for his alleged embezzlement of millions of dollars from clients in California, conduct that the Bar says poses “a substantial threat of harm to clients or the public.”

The State Bar petition primarily focuses on the case of former Avenatti client Gregory Barela, who alleges that Avenatti illegally withheld settlement funds and then repeatedly lied about it. Barela alleges that Avenatti did not disclose receipt of Barela’s settlement funds despite Barela’s repeated inquiries over several months, that Avenatti refused to provide an accounting of the settlement funds as required by California law, and that Avenatti presented Barela with a falsified settlement agreement that misrepresented that dates that payment would be received.

The State Bar stated that Avenatti provided no defense or response to the State Bar investigators. Avenatti disagreed and stated that he “offered to cooperate with the Bar and instead they decided to issue a press release as a stunt.” Avenatti has until June 13 to file a formal response and request a hearing, or else he will waive his right to a hearing.

Although the allegations in the State Bar petition to suspend Avenatti’s license appear extreme, all attorneys should be wary of misappropriating client funds in violation of California Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.15, and Business and Profession Code section 610. Under Rule 1.15, attorneys have a duty to properly hold, manage, and account for money held in trust on behalf of clients, and sometimes on behalf of others. An attorney violates Rule 1.15 when the attorney’s trust account balance falls below the amount required to be held on behalf of his or her clients, and it is due to a willful act of the attorney, regardless of the attorney’s explanation. If the Rule 1.15 violation occurs due to the attorney’s dishonesty, recklessness, or grossly negligent management of the client trust account, then the misappropriation of client funds also violates Business and Profession Code section 6106 and almost always results in severe discipline, including possible disbarment.

Whether or not they are in the public spotlight, all attorneys must attentively manage their client trust account to ensure that they always contain the amounts held on behalf of clients. Otherwise, those attorneys may be exposed to State Bar discipline, disbarment, and civil liability to their clients, just like Avenatti.

For more information, please contact Paige Pembrook at [email protected].

Dear California Legislature the Constitution Prohibits Ex Post Facto Laws

Posted on: June 10th, 2019

By: David Molinari

If you have practiced law in the State of California for an appreciable period of time you become numb to warnings from out-of-state clients and counsel bemoaning enactments by the state’s legislature that will doom business and cause exodus of industries from the state. We are a resilient people, capable of prospering despite the “well-intentioned” actions of the state’s governing bodies.  However, did the State Assembly really intend to draft a bill that violates California Constitution Article 1, Section 9 prohibiting ex post facto laws with California Assembly Bill 5, adding Labor Code 2750.3?

Assembly Bill 5 seeks to codify the recent California Supreme Court decision of Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, 4 Cal.5th 903 (2018.). In the Dynamex case, the State Supreme Court virtually eliminated the status of independent contractor. The California Supreme Court adopted an “ABC” test for determining whether workers are employees under California Wage Order laws. The test requires the hiring entity establish three elements to disprove employment status: (A) That the worker is free from control of the hiring entity in connection with work performance-both under the contract and in fact; (B) That the worker performs work outside the hiring entity’s usual business; and (C) That the worker is customarily engaged in an independent business of the same nature as the work performed.

Under Assembly Bill 5, the legislature seized on the ability to expand the categories of individuals eligible to receive benefits by creating a legislative instrument that would result in additional monies being deposited into the state via continuously appropriated funding from an expanded pool of employers. The Bill seeks to codify the Dynamex decision. But the legislature simply adopted the Supreme Court’s opinion which includes retroactive application. The legislative findings clearly show a financial purpose behind codifying Dynamex: The loss to the state of revenues from companies that use “misclassified” workers to avoid payment of payroll taxes, premiums for workers’ compensation, Social Security, unemployment and disability insurances. The Assembly clearly did not overlook or ignore retroactive application of Dynamex may subject this new pool of employers to criminal penalties they currently are not exposed to suffering. The Assembly in its findings concluded: Assembly Bill 5 “Would expand the definition of a crime.”

The Supreme Court held applying Dynamex retroactively was consistent with due process because the Court was “merely extending” principles previously stated in S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc v. Department of Industrial Relations, 48 Cal.3rd 341 (1989) and represented “no greater surprise than tort decisions that routinely apply retroactively.” The holding has been cited for authority for retroactive application by the 9th Circuit in Vasquez v. Jan-Pro Franchising as well as the State Courts of Appeal including the 4th District, Division 1 in Garcia v. Border Transportation Group, LLC, 28 Cal. App. 5th 558.

Codification of Dynamex threatens to create an ex post facto law that expands exposure to criminal penalties. Thus, it would seem to be in violation of California Constitution, Article 1, Section 9 that the legislature shall not pass ex post facto laws.  For example, the new pool of employers will be immediately subject to prosecution under California Labor Code Section 3700.5. Labor Code Section 3700.5 makes it a crime, punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for up to one year, or by a fine of not less than $10,000.00 or both, for any entity that fails to secure workers’ compensation insurance. A second or subsequent conviction is punishable by imprisonment for up to a year and a fine of not less than $50,000.00.

Article 1, Section 9 has been applied to past employment-related legislation; but only with respect to the Article’s prohibition against laws impairing the obligation of contract. The language of Article 1, Section 9 appears unambiguous and absolute. However, prior challenges have run into judicial interpretation that the Article may not be read literally and the prohibitions of Article 1, Section 9 may not be absolute; at least with respect to the impairment of contracts. The clause “is not to be read with literal exactness like a mathematical formula.” Torrance v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, 32 Cal.3rd 371 (1982).

The guidelines for determining the constitutionality of a statute imposing an ex post facto criminal penalty applies a presumption against retrospective application unless the legislature expresses such specific intent. The legislature’s findings expressly stated Assembly Bill 5 “would expand the definition of a crime.” Is that enough of a legislative expression of intent even though the State Supreme Court only referenced civil “tort decisions” to justify retroactive application? Maybe we shouldn’t be numb to those warnings any longer.

For more information, please contact David Molinari at [email protected].

Hiring Summer Employees? Make Sure Your Business is Covered.

Posted on: June 3rd, 2019

By: Allison Hyatt

Summer is here and many businesses are looking to hire additional employees to cover the influx of business inspired by vacation season. One option is to use a temporary employment staffing agency to cover seasonal employee needs. Staffing agencies usually provide their own worker’s compensation and employment practices liability (EPL) insurance. However, what if an accident occurs and a seasonal employee hired through a staffing agency files a personal injury tort claim against both the business and the agency? Business owners may be surprised to find themselves in a situation where the exclusive remedy of their state’s workers compensation statute may not apply to the claim against the business. The surprise may turn to shock when the claim is further denied by the business’ commercial general liability (CGL) insurer, citing the common exclusion for bodily injury to an employee.

How can businesses avoid this coverage gap? It is important to examine the definition of an “employee” in the CGL policy’s employee exclusion, which may include “leased employees” and “temporary employees.” Depending on your jurisdiction, both leased employees and temporary employees can be deemed employees of just the outside staffing agency or both the staffing agency and the business.  In the dual employment situation, which is usually a factual determination, the business would be covered by its own worker’s compensation insurance. Businesses can increase their coverage by requesting an endorsement to their CGL policy eliminating temporary and leased workers from the employment exclusion, just in case they find themselves in the situation described above.

For more information, please contact Allison Hyatt at [email protected].

The Enforceable Unwritten Exclusions and their Business Risks

Posted on: May 31st, 2019

By: Rob Cutbirth

Claim experience on a local or national basis, or generalized soft or hard insurance market conditions, can affect an insurer’s decision on pricing and offered coverage terms. Premiums and underwriting guidelines may change to address market or loss experience concerns. Coverage benefits may be expanded or contracted to address competition or fiscal concerns. One often forgotten constant that continues to impact insurer/insured and insurer/broker relationships, however, are public policy coverage limitations imposed by statute or court-defined public policies.

“Implied” coverage exclusions are commonly triggered in D&O, E&O, and EPL claims, where covered forms of conduct can implicate “intentional” or “self-dealing” acts, or restitutionary, remedial or punitive damages, “excluded” as a matter of public policy not identified in a policy or its endorsements. Definitions of “loss” or “damage” may state no coverage exists for amounts deemed uninsurable under the law governing the application of the policy to a given claim, even experienced brokers and insureds are often unaware of such limitations, let alone how they impact an insurer’s right to assign counsel, manage the claim, and/or limit its settlement or judgment contributions. This can be particularly confusing given the fact insurers often address these issues differently, even when confronted with similar claims in the same jurisdiction.

As claims and coverage counsel, we often advise clients to take the following steps to avoid harm to important business relationships, and improve the efficient handling of claims:

  • Identify and raise with the insured and its broker any applicable public policy limitations at the earliest possible date, recognizing that educated brokers can be a positive resource (or at least an informational resource) for insureds who may be “surprised” about the existence of coverage limitations outside of the four corners of the policy. Because public policy limitations are almost never raised during the underwriting process, but they can override express policy terms in a given jurisdiction (i.e., California Insurance Code Section 533 overrides standard policy form language on indemnifiable conduct and damages), early and clear communications may be needed to avoid and argument of waiver or estoppel, where the insured maintains that it “relied” on the policy’s coverage provisions in its participation in the claim and its defense.
  • Raise relevant and applicable public policy limitations with recognizing that doing so does not necessarily create a right to “independent counsel.” In many jurisdictions, implied public policy limitations relate only to indemnifiable damages (not defense considerations) that do not implicate or create a right to separate counsel. These issues should be carefully evaluated and addressed, however, to ensure that conflict of interest issues are properly evaluated and addressed with the insured in order to avoid ongoing conflicts on representation that can impair efficient claim management.
  • In advance of mediations or settlement conferences, particularly given inconsistencies in how insurers are addressing public policy limitations in those pre-judgment settings, expectations on contributions and/or allocation of settlement amounts should be addressed in writing in advance of such proceedings with the insured in order to help avoid “surprises” and disputes that can derail productive settlement opportunities.  Insurers should also consider filing “coverage briefs” or having pre-conference separate discussions with a mediator/settlement conference judge to help ensure that they understand the factual and legal basis for any allocation or contribution demands that might be made or rejected by the parties.

The “unwritten” exclusions that can limit coverage rights present challenges to all concerned. They cannot be overlooked in terms of their financial and relational impact for both insurers and insureds, with the use of skilled claims and/or coverage professional important to successfully navigating their impact on challenging claims.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Rob Cutbirth at [email protected].

California Attorneys Who Fail to Comply with the State Bar Re-Fingerprinting Rule Risk Monetary Penalties and License Suspension

Posted on: April 30th, 2019

By: Paige Pembrook

April 30, 2019 marks the initial deadline for California attorneys to comply with California Rules of Court, Rule 9.9.5—the rule that requires attorneys to re-submit fingerprints to the State Bar so the Bar can obtain records regarding attorney arrests and convictions.  Attorneys who fail to comply with the re-fingerprinting rule by April 30, 2019 will be subject to monetary penalties. Attorneys who fail to comply with the re-fingerprinting rule by the final deadline of December 1, 2019 will have their licenses suspended.

For the past 30 years the State Bar has not been complying with its statutory mandate to use attorney fingerprinting to obtain information about attorney arrests and convictions from the California Department of Justice (DOJ).  Although attorneys were fingerprinted at the time of admission to the State Bar, neither the Bar nor the DOJ retained those fingerprints for purposes of reporting arrests and convictions of admitted attorneys.

Rule 9.9.5 rectified this situation by requiring all active licensed attorneys to be re-fingerprinted by December 1, 2019. The State Bar and DOJ will retain the fingerprints to enable the Bar to receive state and federal criminal record information, including a summary of arrests, criminal charges, and sentencing.

Thus far, the re-fingerprinting rule has revealed that over 2,000 practicing attorneys have previously unreported criminal records, including 20 previously unreported felonies. The 20 previously unreported felonies have been sent to the State Bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel for review and potential disciplinary action.

Regardless of the re-fingerprinting rule, attorneys are required to report criminal convictions to the State Bar under the self-reporting mandate. The State Bar may discipline attorneys for failing to report a conviction to the Bar, for the conviction itself, or for both.  The best practice is to self-report any convictions as well as timely comply with the re-fingerprinting rules.

Even attorneys who have no criminal history should be sure to submit their fingerprints by the final December 1, 2019 deadline. Otherwise, such attorneys risk license suspension and exposure to liability for the unauthorized practice of law.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Paige Pembrook at [email protected].