Joe Dunn, the former executive director (fired in 2014) of the State Bar of California. Also a former state senator. (Photo: Mathew Sumner)
SACRAMENTO—An arbitrator on Monday rejected all of Joe Dunn’s remaining claims against the California state bar, ending a three-year legal saga that pit the one-time executive director against his former employer.
The arbitrator, Edward Infante, a former chief magistrate judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, said Dunn failed to prove his November 2014 firing was retaliation for his allegations that the Office of Chief Trial Counsel was manipulating disciplinary backlog numbers.
Infante said Dunn “breached his duties” to keep the bar’s trustees “fully informed” and to maintain a good relationship with the state Supreme Court. He “misinformed the trustees that the proposal to move state bar headquarters to Sacramento had been ‘socialized with the court’ and implied that the court supported the proposal,” Infante wrote.
Dunn, according to Infante’s ruling, also failed to alert trustees that the court opposed a bar-backed bill. And he charged the bar for some of the cost of a 2014 trip to Mongolia after telling trustees that outside groups would pick up the tab.
“What Judge Infante’s decision today did is affirm what the state bar has been saying since the beginning, which is that the bar had legitimate reasons for terminating Joe Dunn,” said Moez Kaba, the Hueston Hennigan partner who represented the bar. Firm partners John Hueston and Marshall Camp and associate Joe Reiter also defended the bar.
Dunn’s attorneys, Mark Geragos and Ben Meiselas of Geragos & Geragos, did not return messages seeking comment.
In January, Infante dismissed Dunn’s related claims against former state bar president Craig Holden and Beth Jay, the now-retired counsel to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. That left Infante to decide two remaining allegations against the bar—a whistleblower claim and a breach of covenant accusation. He rejected those claims Monday.
The bar’s legal victory appears to have closed a chapter of turmoil and turnover in the organization. Bar trustees hired Dunn, a former two-term state senator, to lead the agency in 2010 with hopes that his political background would soothe the bar’s tense relationships with the governor and lawmakers.
Dunn was never far from controversy. In July 2011, he fired four veteran managers in the bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel and began an effort to eliminate the agency’s chronic backlog of open disciplinary cases against lawyers. Two months later, he hired former assistant U.S. attorney Jayne Kim as the bar’s new chief disciplinarian, calling her the bar’s “new sheriff.”
By January 2012, Dunn issued a press release saying the backlog had been cut to zero, an assertion that would later prove to be false. A 2015 report by the state auditor concluded the bar, to reduce the number of open cases, had cut overly generous disciplinary deals with lawyers in trouble. Even then, the backlog was not eliminated.
Dunn and Kim’s working relationship soured. In July 2014, Kim filed an internal complaint with the bar, raising numerous questions about Dunn, including his hiring of general counsel Thomas Miller, the handling of his travel expense reports and his alleged offers of “assistance” to board members. Trustees hired a Munger, Tolles & Olson team to investigate. Their report concluded that “Dunn’s repeated failure to provide adequate or truthful information to the board plainly provides an adequate basis to terminate his at will employment.”
Dunn’s termination was announced in November 2014. He filed a whistleblower suit, alleging he was fired for telling trustees about alleged efforts by Kim to conceal the ongoing disciplinary backlog. Under terms of Dunn’s employment contract, that suit was moved to arbitration, which was concluded by Infante on Monday.
Much has changed since Dunn’s departure. Kim announced in April 2016 she would step down following a no-confidence vote by employee labor groups. The board named a new executive director and a new general counsel, and it created and filled the position of chief operating officer. Under scrutiny from the Legislature, trustees instituted a series of governance reforms, although the relationship between the bar and Sacramento remains rocky.
“The state bar is pleased with the resolution to this litigation and is happy to move forward,” state bar president James Fox said in a statement.