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Harm to vulnerable clients results in disbarment

A San Francisco Bay Area attorney who harmed vulnerable clients – in some cases convincing them to withdraw State Bar complaints or sign agreements to avoid being held liable for his misconduct – has been disbarred from the practice of law.  

STERLING VOSS HARWOOD [#194746], 58, of San Jose, was disbarred Feb. 4, 2017 and ordered to comply with rule 9.20 of the California Rules of Court and make restitution.

Harwood’s misconduct involved five separate matters, all of which involved members of the Southeast Asian community, some of whom spoke limited English.

In two of the matters, he failed to promptly inform two clients he represented in a personal injury matter he’d received checks for them and misappropriated $12,200 and $8,750 of their money. After the clients filed complaints with the State Bar, he agreed to pay them their money but convinced them to sign a document to release him from liability and to sign letters addressed to the State Bar that claimed the complaints had been filed as a result of a miscommunication.

In another matter, he did not promptly notify a client he’d received her $15,000 settlement check, misappropriated $9,565 and misrepresented to the State Bar that $2,000 he did give to his client was a loan advance. An accounting he provided to the State Bar falsely stated that any remaining funds from the woman’s settlement were owed to her medical providers and that she was not entitled to any additional funds.

Harwood also failed to pursue a wrongful death suit, allowing the statute of limitations to expire and misappropriating $750 the client gave him. 

In a fifth matter, he failed to perform competent legal services by, among other things, failing to designate an expert in a slip-and-fall case and entering into a settlement agreement that was not fair and reasonable. Although he admitted to making mistakes with the client’s case and agreed to pay her $8,000, Harwood only gave her $1,000, did not have the ability to make further payments and did not provide her with any security interest that would ensure the debt would be paid.

Harwood engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, which involved vulnerable clients, and two of his clients ended up losing their cases. He had no prior record of discipline and entered into a pretrial stipulation with the State Bar.

He was ordered to pay $11,103.40 plus interest in restitution.