The state Superior Court has upheld the criminal conviction of an attorney who—after his disbarment—continued to represent two clients in lawsuits.
Former attorney Arnold Steinberg was convicted by an Allegheny County jury of two counts of unauthorized practice of law and sentenced to an aggregate term of 18 months’ probation Oct. 24, 2012. A three-judge Superior Court panel affirmed Steinberg’s conviction Tuesday.
Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen wrote in the court’s opinion that Steinberg represented plaintiffs in a personal injury matter and a financial securities case, respectively, after his Jan. 29, 2009, disbarment upon consent.
Steinberg’s chief claim on appeal was that the state’s unauthorized practice of law statute “is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad” in explaining exactly what the unauthorized practice of law entails, according to Allen. Steinberg also claimed the statute does not go into prohibited conduct for “formerly admitted attorneys versus people who had never been licensed to practice law.”
Citing the state Supreme Court’s holding that a statute is only unconstitutional when it is so vague that a person of “common intelligence” has to guess at its meaning, the panel adopted the trial court’s reasoning in denying Steinberg’s constitutionality claims.
The trial court held that “at the end of the day, the court does not see that a person of ordinary intelligence would continue to do tasks a lawyer normally does after being told you are no longer a lawyer.”
Steinberg’s first instance of unauthorized practice of law stems from his representation of Marci Caliguire in a personal injury case concerning an auto accident in North Carolina.
Caliguire retained Steinberg in November 2009, almost nine months after Steinberg’s disbarment. Highlighting the trial court’s opinion, Allen noted that Steinberg sent Caliguire a letter stating that he was able to settle her case for $5,000, but could not get more.
According to the trial court, Steinberg told Caliguire, “‘Based upon everything, this is far better than having to retain North Carolina counsel to file an action that would be a major distraction to you in the forms of depositions, hearings, independent medical exams, etc.’”
The second instance relates to Steinberg’s representation of Carol and Nicholas Batis in their suit against a stockbroker for the loss of $95,000. Steinberg represented the Batises in a previous investment matter that went to arbitration.
The trial court’s opinion, according to Allen, said Steinberg suggested that the Batises reject the defendant’s settlement offer of $30,000 and “go all the way” for the $95,000. A hearing was held Oct. 29, 2009, and the Batises won their case; however, they only recovered $3,000.
The Batises did some independent investigating and learned that Steinberg had been disbarred, according to the trial court.
Following Steinberg’s conviction, he appealed to the Superior Court. In addition to his constitutionality claims, Steinberg also maintained that he was deprived of a fair trial because of numerous errors and instances of bias committed by the trial judge, according to Allen.
Steinberg claimed the trial judge announced in front of the jury that he believed Steinberg was guilty, an example of “overt prejudice.” According to Allen, Steinberg called for the judge’s recusal.
“Appellant does not provide a citation to the record to support his assertion. Assuming that appellant is referring to the trial court’s comments made before denying his motion for judgment of acquittal, we note that the comments were made outside the presence of the jury,” Allen said.
According to Allen, the trial judge explained to Steinberg that it was not his position that Steinberg was guilty, only that he would not grant a motion for judgment of acquittal.
“The fact that appellant disagrees with the trial court’s denial of his motion for judgment of acquittal does not establish a basis for recusal,” Allen continued. “Thus, appellant’s second issue is meritless.”
Steinberg represented himself and could not be reached for comment. The lawyer who represented Steinberg during his disbarment, Pittsburgh-based Craig Simpson, did not return a call seeking comment.
Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Paul R. Scholle did not return a call seeking comment.
(Copies of the 16-page opinion in Commonwealth v. Steinberg, PICS No. 14-1353, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •