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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Fired Calif. Bar Worker Opens Can of Worms

LOS ANGELES (CN) - A former administrative assistant sued the California State Bar for $15 million this week, claiming it fired her for turning up its incompetence and falsification of disciplinary cases.

Sonja Oehler sued the State Bar, its former chief prosecutor Jayne Kim, and what Oehler calls its "self-acclaimed 'co-CEO'" Robert Hawley, on Wednesday in Superior Court.

Oehler's attorney Thomas Girardi told Courthouse News: "Sonja is a spectacular woman who devoted her life over there and was loved by all the people, but got thrown out because they thought she was too much like Dunn," referring to ousted Bar leader Joe Dunn.

"She had a great job somewhere else, but was lured to the Bar by the importance of ensuring we have good, ethical lawyers," Girardi said in an interview.

According to Oehler's LinkedIn profile, she worked as an executive assistant with the California Medical Association from January 2006 to December 2010.

All attorneys who practice law in California must answer to the State Bar. Judges must answer to the state Judicial Council. But the State Bar answers to no one, Girardi said.

"She's not the only one," he said. "There are other lawsuits, and the facts have been verified, so it's not a fluke.

"There may be a way to explain one person getting fired and coming up with some song and dance on why that was appropriate, but when it's five or six people with impeccable records, it's tougher to explain unless you're covering up your own misdeeds."

In the brief, 3-page complaint, Oehler says she was not fired due to lack of ability or diligence or the Bar's need to cut back administrative staff, but because "she knew of the deceit, deception, incompetence and falsification of issues by the defendants."

Oehler claims Kim's "incompetence" in handling disciplinary cases caused the backlog to mushroom.

To make it look like the Bar was on top of things, Oehler says, Kim categorized 181 cases as "deferred" and submitted her backlog report with those cases omitted. Once the report was complete, she re-categorized the cases as "active," according to the lawsuit.

"It was a total scam," the complaint states.

Oehler claims the Bar ignored "hundreds" of fraud complaints filed by Mexican nationals seeking citizenship.

"These were farm workers seeking legalization who were taken advantage of by people saying, 'Give me $5,000 and I'll get you a green card.' It got so bad that legislation was passed [to stop it]," Girardi told Courthouse News.

"But Kim refused to open up any of their complaints. There's huge boxes, all unopened. These people were robbed of their money, but nothing has been done," he added.

Kim herself was the target of several ethics complaints, but she dismissed them rather than send them to an "impartial outside person," and made complaints against an unnamed member of the board disappear in a similar fashion, according to the complaint.

Oehler also accuses the Bar of misusing its funds: for instance, paying for a director to stay at a San Francisco hotel twice or three times more expensive than the usual hotel, and reimbursing another unnamed board member with $30,000 of Bar funds though the claim was not authorized.

She says she is not the only one who was wrongfully fired from the Bar, that several people who were friends of former Bar leader Joe Dunn experienced that fate. When they hired attorneys to fight back, defendant Hawley ordered all complaints filed against their lawyers over the past 30 years to "be re-opened despite the fact all of the complaints had been closed for decades," the complaint states.

Defendant Hawley retired from the Bar, is collecting retirement payments, and is back working for the Bar full time, and getting paid, according to the complaint.

Girardi said that he and the other attorneys involved in the matter are not charging for this one.

"We're doing it for nothing because we think it's a terrible injustice," he said. "I couldn't stand by."

He said they attended a settlement conference on the matter, but the State Bar offered a measly $1,000.

"It was unbelievable," Girardi said.

Girardi said his years of experience with the law and with juries makes him confident that they will prevail at trial.

"I think we'll get justice. Hopefully, once the jury hears her story, they'll do the right thing. I'm sure they'll like her, and see that the injustice is massive," he said.

"Jurors don't like people being taken advantage of or thrown under the bus."

Whether Oehler's case will be consolidated with the others' cases will be up to the judge to decide, Girardi said.

The Bar's attorney Moez Kaba, with Hueston Hennigan, told Courthouse News: "The Bar denies these allegations. We believe they are without legal merit, and the Bar will defend itself vigorously."

Oehler seeks $10 million for financial loss from her wrongful termination and $5 for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and punitive damages for fraud and deceit.

Kim replaced Dunn, the Bar's former executive, in 2011 after the Bar's board of trustees fired Dunn for lack of transparency in reporting on its disciplinary caseload, according to an Oct. 21, 2015 article in The Recorder.

In October last year, 76 percent of employees with the Bar's Office of Chief Trial Counsel cast a vote of no-confidence in Kim to try to stop the board from appointing her to another 4-year term, according to the Recorder article.

Several employees who spoke to the Recorder on condition of anonymity described Kim as a vindictive, thin-skinned bully and complained about heavy caseloads, understaffing, and constant pressure from managers to formally charge attorneys under investigation with disciplinary action.

Girardi is a partner with Girardi & Keese.

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