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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].