Court Opinions: Presiding Disciplinary Judge Opinions for May 2022

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

People v. Jean Abrahamson Pirzadeh

Jean Abrahamson Pirzadeh helped the personal representative of an estate settle a lawsuit in late 2019. According to the settlement agreement, Pirzadeh should have deposited the settlement proceeds into her trust account and disbursed them to the estate’s beneficiaries. However, Pirzadeh retained $473.85 that should have been disbursed. Around the same time, she gave her client a waiver indemnifying her and her employer from potential claims brought by the beneficiaries, which her client signed without having it reviewed by independent counsel.

Pirzadeh also overdrew one of her firm’s trust accounts by nearly $23,000 after writing a settlement check for a client against the wrong account. She replenished the overdrawn account the next day with funds from the firm’s second trust account. When disciplinary authorities inquired about the overdrawn account, Pirzadeh couldn’t produce the trust account records she was required to maintain.

Pirzadeh was found to have violated Colorado rules of professional conduct that require lawyers to keep client property separate from their own property, maintain trust account records and promptly deliver funds or property that a client or third party is entitled to receive. She also violated R.P.C. 1.8(h)(1), which prohibits a lawyer from making an agreement that prospectively limits their malpractice liability unless the client is independently represented.

The Presiding Disciplinary Judge suspended Pirzadeh for a year and one day, which will be stayed upon her completion of an 18-month probationary period with conditions.

People v. Rick Adams

This reciprocal discipline case involving Rick Adams arose out of discipline imposed against him in Arizona, where the presiding disciplinary judge suspended Adams from the practice of law for 30 days to be followed by a year of probation with conditions. The Colorado PDJ approved the parties’ amended stipulation to reciprocal discipline and suspended Adams for 60 days, with 30 days to be served and 30 days to be stayed during a one-year probation period, with conditions. 

Adams was disciplined for agreeing to create, fund and run a law firm with a nonlawyer. Adams was aware of rules prohibiting nonlawyers from owning law firms and structured the firm to “obscure the nature of the nonlawyer’s ownership interest,” according to the Colorado PDJ opinion.

Adams’ conduct was grounds for reciprocal discipline under C.R.C.P. 242.21, which requires imposition of the same discipline that was imposed in Arizona. Adams’ suspension took effect May 19, 2022.

People v. W. Jeffrey Barnes

The PDJ suspended W. Jeffrey Barnes for nine months, with two months to be served and seven months to be stayed upon his successful completion of a one-year probationary period with conditions.

In one matter, Barnes agreed to help a client appeal a civil judgment in a lawsuit related to the foreclosure of the client’s home. The client gave Barnes two initial retainer payments, but he didn’t put them in a trust account. The bank involved in the foreclosure moved for attorney’s fees and costs, but Barnes failed to advise the client about objections he could make. The client later asked Barnes whether the bank could begin collection efforts and Barnes said they could move to stay collection during the appeal, but he never did so. The client terminated the representation and requested an accounting and a refund of the unearned portion of the retainer. Barnes accused the client of extorting him and filing a meritless disciplinary grievance and threatened to report the client to the district attorney.

In another matter, a client gave Barnes a retainer for representation in two matters, but Barnes didn’t place the unearned funds into a trust account. The relationship deteriorated and Barnes asked for an additional retainer deposit. The client didn’t respond, and Barnes moved to withdraw. The client then demanded the return of her retainer. In response, Barnes suggested that the client was committing theft of services and threatened to report her to authorities.

The PDJ found Barnes violated rules of professional conduct requiring lawyers to hold client property separate from their own property and prohibiting lawyers from threatening criminal or disciplinary charges to obtain an advantage in a civil matter. Barnes also violated requirements for lawyers to act with reasonable diligence and promptness and to keep clients reasonably informed about the status of their case as well as other professional ethics rules.

People v. Justin Herrera

Justin Herrera was hired to represent a client in an immigration case in 2017. Herrera filed an asylum application for the client in early 2018 and didn’t communicate with him again until the month of the asylum hearing three years later. Herrera didn’t prepare the client for the hearing because he thought the client, who was facing removal, was amenable to voluntary departure or deportation. Herrera told the client he was unlikely to be granted asylum and advised him to withdraw his application.

On the day of the hearing, Herrera told the court that the client didn’t wish to proceed. But the judge indicated that the case wasn’t meritless and agreed to hear the client’s story. Herrera was unprepared to present the case and didn’t request a continuance. Herrera told the client that the prosecution would bring up his felony conviction and advised him to agree to deportation to maximize his stay in the U.S., and the client agreed. Herrera didn’t tell the client he could appeal if his asylum was denied. Herrera also said it could take up to two years to be deported, but the client received a letter requiring him to surrender just weeks after the hearing.

In another case, Herrera agreed to help a father and son seek asylum but failed to advise that the son could apply for special immigration juvenile status. Herrera also agreed to advise two other family members who wanted their own asylum hearings. Herrera convinced them they should combine their cases with the father’s, even though each family member had their own unique grounds for asylum. He didn’t disclose that his representation could pose a conflict of interest or obtain a waiver. The family was denied asylum and retained Herrera to appeal, but Herrera discussed his concerns about the appeal with the father only. Without getting consent from any of the clients, Herrera withdrew the appeal and told the family their appeal had been denied.

The PDJ found Herrera violated several rules of professional conduct, including requirements to competently represent clients, abide by the client’s decisions about the objectives of the case, act with reasonable diligence and promptness, promptly inform clients of a decision requiring informed consent and explain matters so clients can make informed decisions about representation.

The PDJ suspended Herrera for six months, all of which will be stayed upon his successful completion of a two-year probationary period with conditions.

People v. R. Alex Raines

According to the PDJ opinion, R. Alex Raines abused his power while serving as assistant district attorney for the 12th Judicial District by “engaging in a pattern of threatening behavior that prejudiced the proceedings and the administration of justice.”

In March 2021, Raines repeatedly interrupted a probation officer who was providing her opinion during a hearing about a defendant’s probation violation. Raines said the probation officer wasn’t entitled to object or make recommendations that differed from the attorneys’ agreement. The judicial district’s chief probation officer later called Raines to discuss. During the call, Raines said probation officers don’t represent the state or people of Colorado and threatened to investigate the chief probation officer.

In another case, Raines objected to a plea deal that one of his colleagues and a defense lawyer had agreed to. The case was continued for a month, during which the defense lawyer met with the elected district attorney, who signed the petition for the same plea agreement. At the next hearing, Raines again objected to the plea. Raines said the defense lawyer was “not behaving in a way that’s very conducive to … getting things done,” adding that he would remember the defense attorney’s behavior during future cases — a threat that “served no substantial purpose other than to burden the defense lawyer,” according to the PDJ opinion.

In yet another case, Raines yelled and shouted at opposing counsel and his office manager after a defendant failed to appear for a hearing because of a miscommunication between court staff and the defense attorney’s staff. Raines asked the court to file a warrant for the defendant’s arrest, even though he was aware the defense attorney had filed a motion to continue the hearing and knew about the miscommunication and the fact the attorney had told the defendant he didn’t need to appear.

Raines was suspended for six months with the requirement of reinstatement under C.R.C.P. 242.39, all to be stayed upon successful completion of a two-year probationary period with conditions. The probation period will run consecutive to Raines’ six-month suspension imposed in another disciplinary case. In that earlier case, Raines stipulated to a six-month suspension to be stayed on completion of a two-year probation period. Because Raines violated the terms of his probation by engaging in further misconduct, the PDJ lifted the stay on his six-month suspension.

People v. Peter Ricciardelli

The PDJ publicly censured Peter Ricciardelli, effective April 22, with conditions. In 2012, a client hired Ricciardelli to defend him in a tax fraud case. In 2015, Ricciardelli negotiated a plea agreement to dismiss all but one charge. The client was also required to pay the federal government $161,000 in restitution. The client then fled the country, forfeiting a $10,000 non-appearance bond.

Ricciardelli held $14,000 of the client’s funds in trust, which the client asked him to return in the years after he fled. Ricciardelli refused as the liens and claims against the client exceeded the amount he held in trust. In 2020, Ricciardelli told the client he had to research whether he could release the funds, then billed the client for the time he spent researching the matter. Early this year, Ricciardelli asked the court for an order directing the funds’ distribution.

In October 2020, the client asked Ricciardelli about discrepancies in his account. Ricciardelli’s records and invoices for the account were internally inconsistent. A fire had destroyed many of the client’s records, contributing to the inconsistencies. A composite accounting by Ricciardelli’s staff showed a shortfall in the funds that should have been held in trust, and Ricciardelli never provided a comprehensive billing report.

The PDJ found Ricciardelli violated rules requiring attorneys to act with diligence and promptness, explain matters to allow a client to make informed decisions, not charge unreasonable fees and maintain appropriate records of funds.

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