Ethics

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A California lawyer has been suspended for 30 days for failing to disclose that one of his clients had died, even as the case headed to trial in a countersuit after an appellate win.

Lawyer Steven Pabros of Sonoma County received a one-year suspension, stayed for all but 30 days, and a two-year probationary period. The California Supreme Court imposed the discipline May 2, the Recorder reports. The Legal Profession Blog has highlights.

According to stipulated findings of fact, Pabros represented commercial landlords Alfeo and Leann Mattei in a civil suit brought by tenants whose antique shop was damaged by a fire in 2011. The fire started in the business of an adjacent tenant who operated a business selling the contents of storage units. The antique shop tenants claimed that the Matteis knew the storage item business was a fire hazard but did nothing about it.

The Matteis claimed in a countersuit that the contract required the tenants to indemnify them.

Jurors found the Matteis liable on a theory of passive negligence, but the trial judge found that the negligence was active in a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Pabros appealed the judge’s finding. Alfeo Mattei died in January 2016 when the appeal was pending. Pabros won the appeal, and the case returned to the trial court.

Pabros didn’t inform the court or the opposing counsel of the death, even though Alfeo Mattei was the only person who could testify about the Matteis’ contractual intent. Leann Mattei wasn’t involved in the lease.

Pabros, however, thought he could establish intent by legal argument, by cross-examination or by use of an expert. He successfully opposed the tenants’ motion for summary judgment, and trial was set for April 2017.

On the first day of trial, the opposing counsel asked Pabros why Alfeo Mattei wasn’t on the witness list. Pabros didn’t answer. The court took up pretrial motions, and on the third day the opposing counsel commented on the fact that Alfeo Mattei had not been in court. The opposing counsel asked whether Alfeo Mattei would testify, and Pabros didn’t answer.

The opposing counsel did an internet search during the break and learned that Alfeo Mattei had died. The opposing counsel informed the judge, who asked Pabros whether it was true. “He has passed, yes,” Pabros responded.

The judge sanctioned Pabros about $31,000 for continuing to litigate the case for more than a year without informing the court or the opposing counsel of the death. The court reported the order to the state bar. Pabros’ appeal of the judge’s sanction is pending.

The court also granted the tenants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that there was no triable issue of fact on intent behind the lease. That decision is also on appeal.

Pabros has no prior record of discipline. He told the ABA Journal he has no comment on the suspension.

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