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An exasperated California Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered a State Bar investigation after an attorney and his former boss spent 45 minutes blaming each other for missing arguments in a case last month. A visibly angry Chief Justice Ronald George, who met behind closed doors with the six other justices for about a half-hour following the argument, told Allen Kent and his ex-boss, Raul Aguilar, that the court would refer the matter for “inquiry and possible disciplinary action.” George ordered both attorneys to preserve all documents and other evidence, and said the court would forward all briefs, declarations and other relevant information, including a tape recording of Tuesday’s contempt hearing, to the State Bar. No deadline was set in open court, but Bar officials were directed to provide the court “a written report” once their investigation is complete. After Tuesday’s hearing — during which neither side apologized — both attorneys claimed victory. George and Justice Joyce Kennard told the two men — who had been ordered to explain why each shouldn’t be held in contempt — that their conflicting written and verbal statements had created a “credibility problem” that could only be resolved through a thorough review. “You say you’re speaking the truth,” Kennard told Aguilar. “Mr. Kent says he’s speaking the truth. Where does the truth lie?” The Supreme Court was attempting to ferret out who was at fault for missing oral arguments in Sacramento on Feb. 10. Kent had long been the attorney of record in the case for Aguilar, Kent’s longtime boss, who was involved in a fee dispute with his divorce lawyer. Contacted by the court by telephone that day, Aguilar agreed to submit the case on the briefs. The two men have since waged war in court documents. Kent maintained that he was no longer the attorney of record, having been constructively terminated from the firm of Aguilar & Sebastinelli five days before the Supreme Court argument. Aguilar has maintained that Kent was still the attorney of record and that he had not put the firm on notice that oral argument was scheduled. On Tuesday, Kent’s lawyer, San Francisco’s Philip Ryan, told the court that his client was no longer employed by Aguilar’s firm and had “no authority” to appear on Feb. 10. He also argued that Kent had taken “every step he could” to ensure his former firm was aware of the oral argument date. But both George and Kennard asked why Kent, at a minimum, couldn’t have telephoned in advance to let the court know circumstances had changed. When Ryan tried to explain that was no longer Kent’s duty, George cut him off. “Let’s get real here,” he said. “You’re saying he couldn’t make that phone call?” As Ryan tried to argue that might have been the “polite thing” to do, Kennard jumped in. “Doesn’t it go beyond mere politeness, mere courtesy?” she asked. “Wasn’t there a duty on behalf of your client, as an officer of the court, to report that he was not going to appear?” Ryan then tried to analogize by comparing Kent’s departure from the law firm with someone who had died, but was slapped back again. “Dead people don’t make phone calls,” George snapped. Aguilar brought firm associate Dominic Flamiano to represent him but ended up arguing his own case. He didn’t fare much better. George questioned how it was possible Aguilar didn’t know about the February hearing, considering he is the head of the firm, was the plaintiff in the case, and had helped resolve a conflicting date between that hearing and an appellate argument the same day in another case in Los Angeles. “Frankly,” George said, “it strains credulity that you didn’t know that the Supreme Court case involved the case in which you were the plaintiff.” Aguilar responded by saying his mind was occupied with other matters. The law firm had been hit in December with a judgment for $500,000 in attorney fees in a dispute with the firm’s landlord, he said, and he had “switched” his attention from litigation to maintaining payroll and trying to satisfy a lien that had been placed against the firm’s accounts. “I knew [the case] was coming up,” he told George, “but I didn’t know it was coming up [then].” Ryan later pointed out that the $500,000 judgment against Aguilar & Sebastinelli was in a case in which Kent had recommended the firm settle for $75,000, but had been rebuffed by Aguilar. In court papers, Ryan said Aguilar subsequently demoted Kent and slashed his salary by $25,000, effectively forcing Kent to leave the firm. Ryan said Tuesday’s hearing went well. “That’s a win,” Ryan said, adding that all he wanted was a “factual finding” and a chance to present all the records and documents. “We now have that investigation,” he said. “This is a dead-bang win.” Aguilar said an inquiry gives him an opportunity to exonerate himself and show he did no wrong. Asked why he hadn’t simply apologized to the court in the course of his argument, Aguilar got defensive. “It was my ox that was gored,” he said. “The matter that got us here was pending for years and was essentially wasted.” State Bar Chief Trial Counsel Mike Nisperos Jr. said Tuesday he hadn’t seen the court’s order yet, but would follow it “to the letter” once it arrived. “In anticipation, having read the newspapers,” he said, “I have geared up, and we will be ready to respond to whatever the order directs us to do.” The case is In re Kent and Aguilar, S099667.

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