Bryan Cave is combating individuals who fraudulently represent themselves as immigration attorneys or consultants qualified to help clients with immigration-related legal tangles by filing federal and state cases to stop them and asking the American Bar Association and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for help.
Bryan Cave is involved in a multi-pronged project to combat so-called notario fraud. A notario, which means notary in Spanish, is different than a U.S. notary public because a notario usually has a law degree and another specialization, said Washington litigation associate David Zetoony.
In many Spanish-speaking countries “to be called a notario indicates that you’re better than an attorney and have more qualifications and more training,” Zetoony said.
The firm’s efforts include an adversary proceeding in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland resolved victoriously last month and a pending state court case in Virginia. Argueta et al v. Mejia, 0:09-ap-24 (Bankr. D. Md.); Reyes v. Olazaba, No. 20006-2009 (Fairfax Co., Va. Cir. Ct.)
“This is the first time we know of where anyone has attempted to bring a civil case,” Zetoony said. “Usually, [these situations] go unreported because the victims are embarrassed.”
The firm formally petitioned the FTC on Feb. 2 on behalf of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington to boost enforcement against individuals involved in notario fraud. The petition also asks the agency to issue industry and consumer guidance. The FTC did not respond to a request for comment about the petition.
Bryan Cave teamed up with the ABA to set up an online notario fraud clearinghouse, fightnotariofraud.org, that includes pleadings other lawyers can reference and an online referral system for cases.
“We knew this was far larger than our firm could take on nationally,” Zetoony said.
The firm’s Maryland test case began in state court but ended up in bankruptcy court when the defendant filed a voluntary Chapter 7 case.
Claims in the case include alleged violations of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, the Maryland Immigration Consultant Act and common law fraud. According to court papers, the defendant admitted that she was liable for violating the Maryland state laws but not for common law fraud.
On March 18, Judge Thomas J. Catliota issued a final judgment and order for permanent injunction barring the defendant from providing legal services or immigration consulting services unless she obtains a valid license to practice law or is certified by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to represent people in immigration-related matters.
The order bars the defendant from advertising herself in various misleading ways for 10 years, including as an attorney; as a notario, notaria or notario publico; or as an abogado or abogada, which are Spanish words for an attorney.
The court authorized Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, or any other agency appointed by the court, to enforce the injunction.
Through an interpreter, the defendant Maria F. Mejia of Hyattsville, Md., declined to comment.
The notario fraud cases are important for the victims, but they’re also important because ultimately lawyers’ reputations are at stake, Zetoony said.
Aside from immigration cases, Bryan Cave has been learning of pretend notarios taking family law and traffic court cases.
“When something bad happens [to people who use fraudulent attorneys or notarios] they attribute it to attorneys in general and the legal system,” Zetoony said.