LOS ANGELES – The California State Bar Court placed San Jose attorney Steven Lee Dickinson on a 60-day suspension from practicing law and gave him a two-year probation with specific requirements that include completion of the multistate professional responsibility examination.
Dickinson’s failure to meet the requirements of his probation can lead to a two-year suspension.
The sanction is based on Dickinson’s comingling of funds during a 10-month period in 2009. He deposited advance fees into a client trust account and failed to remove them in a timely fashion and as soon as his interest in the funds became fixed. He used the funds to pay businesses and personal expenses that included a membership to Gold’s Gym and utilities.
In weighing Dickinson’s violations, the court found that although his use of funds from the client trust account indicated misuse and mismanagement, there was no evidence that he “actually endangered client funds, left insufficient funds in his account or otherwise used client funds to pay personal expenses.” Furthermore, the court found no evidence that any client was harmed, as a result of respondent’s misconduct, because the money he used was earned via fees.
In its report, the court supported its decision to deviate from the standard suspension time of 90 days.
“Taken together, the mitigating circumstances suggest a low risk of recidivism. (Dickinson) demonstrated remorse at the first opportunity and took significant steps to reduce potential misconduct from reoccurring. Under the circumstances, including the fact that the misconduct occurred over five years ago, and that it was isolated to one year in an otherwise discipline-free practice of over 25 years, a deviation from the 90 days minimum is appropriate.”
As part of his discipline, Dickinson must pay $2,797 related to the cost of disciplinary proceedings.
Dickinson has a previous record of discipline from 2011 when he received a private reprimand for misconduct in eight client matters that included presenting himself as eligible to practice law in Arizona, which he was not, and charging advanced fees for loan modification services. The court noted that his prior discipline took place during the same time period in 2009 as the current funds violation.
Even so, the court did not ultimately view these two instances as being an indicator that the bad behavior would be repeated.
"Since part of the rationale for considering prior discipline as having an aggravating impact is that it is indicative of a recidivist attorney’s inability to conform his or her conduct to ethical norms [citation], it is ... appropriate to consider the fact that the misconduct involved here was contemporaneous with the misconduct in the prior case."
In seeking a fair disciplinary measure, the court also considered Dickinson’s response to accusations of wrongdoing. It found that he “expressed remorse, acknowledged his wrongdoing” and took prompt steps to ensure that such wrongdoing does not reoccur in his practice. He enrolled in and attended client trust accounting school, reorganized his accounting procedures and hired a dedicated bookkeeper.
The court also gave Dickinson points for cooperating with the investigation and admitting to his violations rather than pushing the issue to trial, thus sparing State Bar resources.