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Posts Tagged ‘Stormy Daniels’

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].

Attorney-Client Privilege? FBI’s Raid of President Trump’s Personal Lawyer’s Office

Posted on: April 10th, 2018

By: Gregory T. Fayard

On April 9, 2018, federal agents raided the law office of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal attorney. The purpose of the raid purportedly concerned a payment made to porn actress Stormy Daniels related to an alleged 2006 affair she had with Donald Trump in exchange for her silence. The FBI’s aggressive move certainly raised eyebrows among legal ethicists. Wouldn’t the FBI be prevented from reviewing a lawyer’s files based on the sacrosanct attorney-client privilege? After all, the attorney-client privilege is intended to allow lawyers to give honest legal advice without worrying about incriminating a client.

Not necessarily. To obtain a federal search warrant of an attorney’s office, high-level approval within the Justice Department must be obtained and special DOJ guidelines must be followed when the search target is an attorney. The warrant was also reviewed and approved by a federal judge.  Further, attorney client communications may be discovered under the rarely used and hard to meet “crime-fraud” exception to the privilege. That is, a client cannot hide evidence of a crime by relying on the attorney-client shield.  The concern for the Justice Department is whether any evidence from the raid will be admissible if “tainted” by the “fruit of the poisonous tree.” To deal with spoliation through “tainted” evidence, the Justice Department has used  “taint teams”—government attorneys who are segregated from FBI agents and prosecutors involved in the investigation. (“Taint Teams and the Attorney-Client Privilege,” Loren E. Weiss, Gregory S. Osborne, December 2015) Taint teams are charged with sifting through seized files and determining what prosecutors can and can’t use. (Id.)

In rare cases, a judge could appoint an independent special master to review the files or examine seized documents him or herself.  (United States v. Taylor (D. Me. 2011) 764 F.Supp.2d 230.)  Further, prosecutors can seize evidence of criminal activity that lies beyond the scope of a warrant if it is in plain view, like drugs, guns or other contraband—not likely at issue here.

In any event, Mr. Cohen will certainly contest the FBI raid as an overreach, including why the Justice Department did not issue a subpoena instead of a search warrant. A subpoena would give Mr. Cohen time to protect client confidences and seek court guidance on the attorney-client issues. While the FBI seems to be pushing the envelope as to the bounds of the attorney-client privilege, others have critiqued the raid as going beyond the scope of Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel investigation into collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign.

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