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State Bar seeks to recoup unpaid discipline costs

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

The State Bar has stepped up its collection efforts to help recover the millions of dollars it is owed as a result of disciplinary proceedings.

In the past year, the bar has filed nearly 600 money judgments in superior courts against resigned or disbarred attorneys to help collect disciplinary costs, nearly double the number from the several years prior, according to Assistant General Counsel Danielle Lee. The State Bar has also started renewing older judgments that are approaching the 10-year statute of limitations.

Lee and a paralegal in the bar’s Office of General Counsel handle the State Bar’s collection efforts, including the recent push to bring its filed judgments up to date. The judgments, contained in California Supreme Court discipline orders, are filed in either San Francisco or Los Angeles County superior courts, the cities where the State Bar’s two offices are located.

Since 2007, the State Bar has filed about 1,136 judgments against disciplined attorneys totaling more than $10.8 million, according to the bar’s Office of Finance.

“It’s something to be proud of,” Lee said of the effort. “We have a good process going.”

The judgments also cover money owed to the Client Security Fund, which reimburses clients who’ve lost money or property due to theft or dishonesty by a California attorney.

Although it’s not a huge amount of money, any funds collected do help, according to Lori Meloch, the fund’s director.

“The Client Security Fund is always appreciative of any amounts that are collected and can be used to reimburse the victims of attorney theft,” she said.

The State Bar started setting up the process to file judgments in 2004, when changes in the law allowed it. The judgments can also give the State Bar access to untapped assets, such as when a debtor attorney attempts to sell or refinance a property.

To that end, Lee said she regularly gets calls from escrow and title companies who encounter a State Bar lien when trying to transfer or refinance property for a resigned or disbarred attorney. The attorney will often pay the full amount of the debt, because if they don’t, the transaction will not go through, Lee said.

Since 2014, the State Bar has also had another tool at its disposal. That year, the Legislature enacted a law that allows the State Bar to intercept tax refunds through the Franchise Tax Board. The money – $327,000 has been brought in to date – goes into the Legal Services Trust Fund, which provides free legal services to low-income people in the state.