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An albatross returned to the neck of famed Oakland civil rights lawyer John Burris, as an appeal court last week revived a claim that exposes him to liability for allegedly steering a client to a bad lawyer. Back in January, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay had ruled that the client could not pursue damages for emotional distress, which represented the bulk of her claim. Without explanation, First District Justices William Stein and Justices Douglas Swager and Sandra Margulies granted a writ petition that reopens the way to those claims. The case goes back to 2001, when Burris referred Angela Brumfield to Miles Washington, a lawyer with a history of financial misbehavior who rents office space from Burris. After Brumfield’s discrimination claim against NASA was settled for $135,000, Washington allegedly forged her signature and cashed the check. Brumfield later got her money back but nevertheless sued Washington, Burris and a third lawyer, David Handsher. Brumfield’s lawyer, Oakland-based Peter Stanwyck, said Burris should not have sent work to a lawyer who had been twice disciplined by the State Bar for financial misconduct. According to State Bar records, Washington received one year of probation in 1990 for commingling trust funds with his own money. In 1992, he was convicted of grand theft for misappropriating funds from an attorneys general group. “[Burris] should have known better,” Stanwyck said Friday, adding that he respects his civil rights work. “It was no pleasure taking this case,” he said. Quidachay’s January ruling, which came on a demurrer filed by Handsher, would have also applied to Washington and Burris, said Stanwyck. Burris said Friday that he didn’t know about the decision, adding that he is not responsible for any issues that arose between Brumfield and her attorney. “It’s a stretch to include me,” he said. Washington — who still rents space in Burris’ office — said he had little involvement in the demurrer, and was not surprised that Quidachay’s January order did not put the case to rest. “It was a very important ruling, but I didn’t think that was the end all and be all,” he said. Edward Garson, a partner at Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker who represents Handsher, insists that his client was only peripherally involved in representing Brumfield. He said Wednesday’s order focuses only on intentional misconduct, and that his client was not guilty of such behavior. “You can’t be vicariously liable for someone else’s conduct,” Garson said. “So in a sense, [the order] is a victory. That’s the spin I’d like to put on it.”

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