LOS ANGELES (CN) – A state court judge confirmed an arbitration order Monday that rejected a former California state senator’s allegations that the state bar fired him for disclosing its ethical breaches.
Former state Sen. Joe Dunn sued the State Bar of California and its president, Craig Holden, in November 2014, claiming the bar’s Chief Trial Counsel Jayne Kim had removed 269 backlogged cases from internal reports to make her office look more productive. He also accused the bar of failing to enforce state legislation designed to crack down on attorney fraud and said he was fired as chief executive after four years for blowing the whistle on the misconduct in an anonymous complaint.
Dunn later added that former principal counsel to the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Beth Jay, was instrumental in the decision to fire him.
Dunn, a former state senator for Orange County, asked for $4 million in damages and $190,000 in severance pay.
After a three-year legal battle that shook up the beleaguered bar, arbitrator Edward Infante in Los Angeles rejected Dunn’s claims and cleared the agency. The retired magistrate judge found that Dunn had misled the state bar’s board, and that the agency had fired him because he used its funds for a trip to Mongolia.
The state bar then filed a petition to confirm the arbitrator’s ruling.
Finding in favor of the bar at a Monday morning hearing in downtown LA, Judge Michael Raphael ruled that Dunn had failed to respond within the 10-day deadline to the petition. The judge said that Dunn had given the court notice on Friday of his intent to contest the arbitrator’s decision, but the filing came too late.
In response, Dunn’s attorney Ben Meiselas said that last week the firm had uncovered evidence of thousands of previously undisclosed fees between the arbitrator and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, which had represented the star bar.
Meiselas said he was guilty of “excusable neglect” but that the judge should not punish his client for the oversight.
“Blame me for that,” the Geragos & Geragos attorney said. Asking the judge to stay his order, he requested five days to file a petition to oppose.
The bar’s attorney Joe Reiter argued that there was no reason to delay the ruling, adding that he doubted a conflict of interest between the arbitrator and the law firm.
“They just filed a last-minute request on the eve of the hearing,” said Reiter, who is with Hueston Hennigan.
Jay’s attorney Robert Naeve accused Dunn of making a last-ditch attempt to drag proceedings out.
“There’s nothing in this record that comes even close to showing good cause. There’s gamesmanship going on,” he said.
Naeve is with Jones Day.
Judge Raphael questioned why Meiselas did not put anything in his statement of intent to support a delay, telling him he may have ruled differently if Dunn had filed a response after the deadline with a showing of good cause.
Raphael then made his tentative ruling final .
“I think it would be wrong to do anything else,” he said.
This is not the first time California’s State Bar, which has more than 250,000 members, has been mired in controversy. According to the LA Times, state audits have revealed excessive salaries for top executives, mismanagement of attorney licensing and professional discipline, and misspent funds totaling millions of dollars. The agency reports to the Supreme Court of California and is headquartered in San Francisco.
In a telephone interview after the hearing, Meiselas said that the state court did not have jurisdiction to consider a challenge to the arbitration because several witnesses are from the California Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. He said Dunn would refile the case in federal court in the next 30 days.
“We don’t believe that the court ever even had jurisdiction to hear today’s motion. We showed up today out of respect for the court and respect for the process,” Meiselas said. “But ultimately the challenge to the arbitration, we believe the only capable forum of hearing is a federal court based on the fact that the California state court is entirely conflicted because they are witnesses in the case.”
Reiter, on the other hand, said Raphael was right to confirm the “well-reasoned” findings of the arbitrator.
“It confirmed what we said all along, which is that Mr. Dunn was terminated for legitimate and non-retaliatory reasons. Dunn made a very late challenge to that ruling, and the court rejected that challenge and recognized it’s time to put this matter to rest,” Reiter said in a phone interview.