SAN FRANCISCO – In November 2013, a State Bar judge argued that two Bay Area attorneys should be disbarred for cheating homeowners by promising to save their homes and then providing incompetent representation, or none at all, and turning their cases over to a non-lawyer. In March, the state Supreme Court agreed.
Several clients lost their homes because of attorneys Stevan Henrioulle and Ronald Uy's continuous disregard of their clients' interests, the California Bar Journal reports. Judge Patrice McElroy suspended both men from the practice of law immediately and ordered repayment of $46,600 in fees that one or both of them had collected from six clients.
The original case explained that both attorneys merged their practices in 2009 after being brought together by Tarik Soudani, a former lawyer who had resigned his bar membership while facing disciplinary charges in 2008, then served as their office manager.
Over the next two years, McElroy argued that the prospective clients who asked for help with their home loans were assured by Soudani, who was not allowed to practice law, that the firm would sue the banks and save their properties. They were required to pay $600 for a useless "forensic analysis," plus an initial fee of $4,000 or more and a monthly charge of $500 to $850 for services that were never performed.
For example, Henrioulle and Soudani told a woman who had already sued her mortgage lender that they could save her home, but she lost it to foreclosure a year later and learned that the firm had taken no action whatsoever. When she sought a refund of $13,000 in fees, Henrioulle asked her for an additional $7,742.50.
In other cases, the firm filed suits that were dismissed because they failed to follow court rules or present credible arguments against foreclosure. A few clients saved their homes by hiring new lawyers, but others were evicted, the original complaint said.
“(Henrioulle and Uy) took advantage of vulnerable, desperate homeowners," McElroy said. "(They) let Soudani take over their office knowing he was ineligible to practice law.”
After the initial ruling by McElroy, the attorneys appealed, but a three-judge review panel upheld most of McElroy’s findings, including that they aided and abetted the unauthorized practice of law, engaged in moral turpitude and failed to respond to clients, account, return unearned fees or notify the State Bar they were employing a resigned attorney.
The official judge panel document agreed in the findings that the firm known as the Law Offices of Uy and Henrioulle did pair with former attorney Tarik Sami Soudani, hiring him as their office manager. Furthermore, Henrioulle and Uy took on as many as 200 clients between July 2009 and October 2011, entering into agreements with them to perform loan modifications and file lawsuits against their lenders that they claimed would lower their mortgage rates or stop foreclosure.
Clients, some of them immigrants who learned of the firm from foreign-language radio stations, paid upfront fees of $3,995 to $4,500, followed by monthly payments initially set at $500, which rose to $650 and then $850. Despite no longer being a lawyer, Soudani was allowed to meet with clients and in many of the cases Uy and Henrioulle did little or no work, causing the clients to lose their homes anyway.
Writing on behalf of the panel, Judge Judith A. Epstein noted that Henrioulle and Uy used a broad intake process that gave them far more clients than they could handle, and advertised to financially distressed people, many of whom spoke English as a second language.
They also failed to supervise their litigation manager, a resigned attorney who made misrepresentations to clients and held himself out as entitled to practice law when he wasn’t.
“It was a system designed to fail,” Epstein said. “The breadth of Henrioulle and Uy’s incompetence, coupled with the nonrefundable retainers and monthly fees collected regardless of whether services were provided, greatly exacerbated the harm sustained by vulnerable clients, many of whom lost their causes of action and endured foreclosures and evictions.”
Although McElroy initially found the attorneys exploited clients for personal gain without intending to perform, the judge review panel concluded there was evidence they provided legal services – just not always with competence or success.
“In many instances, they failed to competently provide legal services to their clients, and many lost their homes,” Epstein said. “Other clients were able to keep their homes, usually through their own efforts to restructure their loans.”
Based on these findings and corroborations with McElroy, Henrioulle and Uy were ordered to pay $41,314.22 plus interest in restitution to six clients, as ordered by the judge panel. Henrioulle was ordered to pay an additional $17,610 in restitution to two other clients.