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A local man is accusing the California State Bar of allowing loose lips when it came to his moral character proceeding. The Bar is vehemently denying that any employee let anything slip. And to extinguish the case at the outset, the Bar is trying to persuade a San Francisco Superior Court judge to label Sharon “Simon” Levi’s case a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP, and throw it out. But Judge James Warren seemed troubled by that argument in court Thursday. He asked for more briefing from both sides, then continued the hearing on the Bar’s motion to strike the suit until later this month. Levi alleges that Rachel Abelson, now a Lake County prosecutor, had learned about him through her work as a student law clerk at the Bar and, over burritos, disclosed something about his Bar proceeding to a female law student with whom Levi had been friendly. According to court documents, Levi alleges that the disclosure made his fellow student “despise” and fear him. In a declaration filed with the court, Levi said his allegation was based on “the fact that [the female student] and Abelson met at a burrito store � and had a conversation about me.” He claims the woman later told an administrator at the law school that a friend at the State Bar had told her he was “bad news.” In a deposition taken by Levi, Abelson said her friend had simply told her stories about getting unwanted attention from a man, according to court documents. Abelson testified that she told her friend to “stay away from him.” But, she said, “I told her that as a result of all the information she had given me before she even mentioned your name.” Levi apparently doesn’t believe her. His lawsuit accuses Abelson of violating a state confidentiality law, invading his privacy and negligently inflicting emotional distress. He also names the Bar and Donald Steedman, a lawyer there who worked on his proceeding and supervised Abelson, and accuses all the defendants of violating his civil rights. Levi has not been admitted to the Bar. A San Francisco Law School graduate, he passed the bar exam in 1997, according to the Bar’s court papers. The foundation of his case is a state law that says “all investigations or proceedings conducted by the State Bar concerning the moral character of an applicant shall be confidential.” Arthur Margolis, whose Margolis & Margolis firm in Los Angeles often defends lawyers in front of the Bar, says that law has never been an issue with his clients because the Bar keeps such a tight lid on proceedings. “They won’t even tell people a proceeding exists,” even if a person has already heard about it somewhere else, he said. “The idea is that the applicant has a right for it not to be public that there’s even a question about his moral character.” If the Bar, after an initial screening, finds an applicant lacks “good moral character,” the prospective lawyer can request a formal hearing and review on the matter. In Levi’s case, Warren hasn’t yet reached the question of whether Abelson actually did spill anything about his proceeding. But in court Thursday, the judge seemed troubled by the Bar’s argument that the case should be thrown out at an early stage under the anti-SLAPP law, which prohibits meritless suits that are filed to chill free speech. There is something “disquieting,” Warren said, about the idea that an employee with a legal obligation not to disclose something might still share it and be protected. The Bar is arguing that Abelson didn’t tell her friend anything about Levi’s proceeding. But even if Abelson had said something in the burrito shop, Bar counsel James Wagstaffe argued, that’s the kind of speech that would fall under the anti-SLAPP statute. “My clients deny adamantly that there was any disclosure,” Wagstaffe told the judge. But if there had been, it would meet the first hurdle under the anti-SLAPP law because it would be speech made in a public place in connection with an issue of public interest, or speech in connection with an official proceeding, Wagstaffe told the judge. Warren seemed skeptical. Of the 16 cases the State Bar had cited in its briefs, the judge said, “The Braun case is your best authority,” referring to Braun v. Chronicle Pub. Co., 52 Cal.App.4th 1036. Wagstaffe replied, “Good. I’ll stick with it” — eliciting some laughs from the courtroom audience — before Warren added that he wasn’t necessarily persuaded by it. If the Bar convinces the judge that Abelson’s alleged speech would fall under the anti-SLAPP law, the burden will fall to Levi to show there’s a probability he would prevail on his claims. As for Levi, he said Thursday that he won’t be intimidated by Wagstaffe, who’s handled many anti-SLAPP motions before. And he’s inviting “any competent member of the Bar” to come to his aid. “In the past, I did make mistakes, and I was a crummy person,” he said. “Through religion, I’m hoping to become a better person. “But the Bar,” he added, “they show no recognition of wrongdoing.”

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