Attorney Sung-Ho Hwang ()
Like attorneys in many practice areas, immigration law attorneys are often guarded when it comes to revealing information that might expose their clients to legal trouble.
But as North Haven solo Paulus Chan has learned, there appears to be no special exception for lawyers who represent illegal immigrants.
To the contrary, refusing to turn over client records when requested by the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel can lead to ethics charges against lawyers, according to a recent decision by the Statewide Grievance Committee, which paves the way for a disciplinary hearing involving Chan.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Chan said by telephone when asked about the pending disciplinary case against him, which could result in a suspension of his law license. “The whole thing is ridiculous,” he said. “It’s a long story.”
In February, the Statewide Grievance Committee issued a decision finding the Office of Disciplinary Counsel has legal cause to bring a disciplinary case against Chan. In its decision, the committee found by clear and convincing evidence that Chan did not cooperate with disciplinary authorities when asked to turn over his client trust account records.
Chan claimed he did not want to turn over the books, out of concern it could reveal the names of undocument immigrants to the government. But the Statewide Grievance Committee said it found Chan’s argument that he was acting to protect the identities of immigrants “unpersuasive.”
“An exception to the disciplinary authorities’ right to review IOLTA account does not exist in the event that an attorney represents undocumented individuals,” the committee said in its decision.
Adding to the seriousness of the case against Chan, the committee found evidence that Chan may have committed financial misconduct, including charging a client “an improper $50 check cashing fee.”
The committee said there is additional evidence that Chan did not cooperate with disciplinary authorities “because a proper review of his accounting records would reveal additional financial misconduct.”
Chan’s long story began in December 2012, when he represented Sara Wing Lam Au in a landlord-tenant dispute.
The case was settled, and Chan’s client was awarded $1,860 as a gross settlement, according to court records. Chan deposited the entire amount, and sent Au a settlement statement showing his legal fee was $1,400, leaving her a balance of $460.
Chan removed the money from the IOLTA account for his fee on Jan. 11, 2013, without hearing from Au that his fee was acceptable.
Two weeks later, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Chan changed his records of the case to reflect it was a pro bono manner, and restored $1,250 to his IOLTA account. He then sent Au a check for $1,706.25.
The check bounced, and the overdraft was reported to the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel in March 2013.
According to court records, state disciplinary counsel immediately asked for Chan’s explanation of the overdraft. Chan was asked to supply his financial records of the Au case, and he provided bank statements. But when the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel asked for his general ledger and individual client ledgers for the time frame in question, Chan did not provide additional records. According to court records, disciplinary counsel say Chan indicated “he chose not to provide the information to disciplinary authorities because he frequently represents undocumented workers, and he did not want to disclose either their names or financial transactions to a governmental authority.”
In a brief phone interview on May 15, Chan indicated that a disciplinary complaint would not have been brought against him if the Au case was not pro bono and “if I had charged a fee.”
The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel declined to discuss the case or the upcoming hearing in Superior Court. A hearing date has not yet been set.
Alex Meyerovich, a Bridgeport immigration lawyer, said clients in his practice do generally have concerns about their information being released to the government. “Illegal immigrants are even afraid to call the police when they are victims sometimes, because they afraid if they give their names that they will be arrested,” Meyerovich said.
While he found Chan’s argument “plausible in abstract,” and “pretty inventive,” Meyerovich said he’s never heard of an immigration lawyer being given a pass from revealing client records out of concern their identities might be revealed.
“The rules are clear, when it comes to discousure of client records, you have to disclose them. The grievance officials don’t care if [the clients] are legal or illegal,” he said.
Sung-Ho Hwang, an immigration lawyer in New Haven, said immigration lawyers “may have a little more of a duty to protect their clients” than other lawyers, because many are facing serious consequences, including deportation. But, he said, it seems unlikely that giving financial records to grievance officials would expose clients to deportation or other legal problems.
“I have never heard there is anything special about immigration attorneys, that because you are an immigration lawyer you have a special duty to keep client information secret,” Hwang said. “There is that rule that you have to be very careful to protect your clients’s records, because if personal information gets into the wrong hands, that could cause serious harm to your clients. But I don’t think as an immigration attorney you get special treatment.”