A tipster (send in your tips here) sent in a notice about an even that happened earlier this year but the story struck me so much I wanted to share it with you anyway.
It’s a good example of what happens to lawyers who lose control of their professional ethics and allow the sale to become more important than their fiduciary responsibility to the people they are supposed to serve, their clients.
Two southern California lawyers whose loan modification activities led to dozens of complaints from their clients were disbarred last month. Both had admitted to extensive misconduct last summer.
MATTHEW MICHAEL McCORMICK [#182543], 44, of Sacramento lost his license Jan. 1, and DEIDRE JOY PROZINSKI [#222591], 39, of Little Falls, Minn., was disbarred Jan. 13. Both were ordered to make restitution and comply with rule 9.20 of the California Rules of Court.
Seventy-seven clients hired one of McCormick’s law firms, Christian Lawyers of America (CLA) and Freedom Law Center, to try to negotiate a plan with their lenders to settle and/or restructure their mortgages or consumer debt. The clients paid between $1,000 and $21,695. In many cases, McCormick’s firm promised a 70 percent refund and a refund of advance attorney fees if he did not obtain a satisfactory loan modification or debt settlement.
Many clients were told they could expect the process to take 60 to 90 days or three to six months, and many were encouraged or outright instructed to stop paying their mortgage or their debts.
McCormick said he was seldom at his law offices in La Mesa and Woodland Hills and clients who tried to call him found his voicemail box full. Some went to his office and found it closed; others found his phone number disconnected. McCormick was served with civil suits brought against some clients, but he never informed them.
He stipulated that many clients “had creditors actively pursuing them or were in immediate danger of losing their homes. (McCormick) knew or was grossly negligent in not knowing that many of these clients were under great financial pressure and that their situation was precarious and required immediate action on his part.”
He admitted he committed seven acts of professional misconduct by failing to obtain loan modifications for all but two clients, and he did not refund advance fees, return files or properly supervise his staff.
Despite the seriousness of McCormick’s conduct, the bar considered his 14 years of discipline-free practice in mitigation, and he made some restitution and cooperated with the bar’s investigation. He asked to resign from practice rather than be disbarred, but the bar did not agree.
McCormick claimed he did not authorize his employees to make promises to clients or instruct them to not make their mortgage payments. He said he checked in with his offices daily, filed many loan modification applications and continued to try to help his clients. According to the stipulation, McCormick “wishes the best for all of (his) law firm’s clients.”
In Prozinski’s case, 38 clients, who paid between $1,248 and $3,595 to have her negotiate a payment plan with their lenders, complained to the bar. She did not obtain loan modifications for any of them. Prozinski’s retainer agreement promised a full refund if she could not obtain a loan modification and a 100 percent money-back guarantee; she claimed she never reviewed the marketing materials and was unaware of their contents.
Another 11 clients who lived outside of California hired Prozinski for similar work although she is not admitted to practice in those states. Several of those clients were told they qualified for loan modifications, although they did not.
Prozinski associated with Peter Zullo, a lawyer who is licensed in Illinois but not California; they practiced together in an office in Irvine. Her marketing literature listed him as part of her firm and he was described as “a successful trial lawyer (at the State and Federal level) and litigator for over 30 years.” Clients signed a form authorizing Zullo to negotiate with their lenders and he was in her office nearly every day. Prozinski’s employees believed he was qualified to represent clients in California.
Prozinski stipulated to seven counts of misconduct, including failing to refund unearned fees, practicing law in a jurisdiction where she wasn’t licensed, collecting illegal fees, making untrue statements and committing acts of moral turpitude by failing to supervise employees.
Despite graduating with honors from Thomas Jefferson Law School and receiving an LL.M degree, Prozinski was unable to get an attorney job that paid enough for her to support herself and begin repay her student loans, which totaled $180,000, and her credit card debt of $30,000. When Zullo asked her to work with his business, Real Estate Options Group, she believed she would be helping individual homeowners remain in their homes, while she earned enough to start to pay down her debt. The firm handled 1,000 loan modification matters and was successful in about half.
When her credit card company refused to release more than $170,000 in collected fees, Prozinski was unable to refund client funds. (She had made refunds up to that point.) When she stopped taking new clients, the credit card company said she had become a credit risk and would not release, for six months, any of the reserve it held. In addition, the company said any reversal of charges by her clients would re-start the clock for another six months. As a result, Prozinski lacked the operating funds need to make refunds. According to the stipulation, Prozinski “could not have reasonably foreseen this unexpected and disastrous financial circumstance.” – Source