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‘Reprehensible conduct’ and ignoring clients’ interests lead to disbarment

A Los Angeles attorney who represented a client who tangled with “Golden Girls” star Rue McClanahan in “contentious and acrimonious” litigation was disbarred. The State Bar Court recommended that EUGENE PAOLINO [#123208], 56, lose his license to practice for, among other things, offering to dismiss a case his client brought against McClanahan in exchange for $5 million. Paolino’s client, former documentary filmmaker Dirk Summers, had sued the late actress for defamation, slander and libel.

Bar court Judge Richard Platel found that Paolino committed eight acts of misconduct, three stemming from the Summers-McClanahan litigation and the remainder for essentially selling his law license to a non-lawyer who appeared before the immigration court.

After McClanahan pulled out of a project to build a health resort, Summers sued her in San Diego Superior Court. She countersued, alleging that he improperly took $200,000 of her money. The court dismissed Summers’ complaint in 2003 and granted McClanahan a $263,157 judgment. An appellate court affirmed the ruling.

Paolino then represented Summers in a lawsuit for slander and defamation against McClanahan’s lawyer, John C. Edwards, which was dismissed.

Summers sued McClanahan for defamation, slander and libel, but served the actress’ manager rather than Edwards, who still represented her in the health resort case. The documents sent to the manager include a 22-page letter outlining allegations that McClanahan committed perjury and violated various criminal statutes including smuggling currency, tax fraud, filing a false insurance claim, conspiracy to commit burglary and tampering with evidence. The letter stated that neither Summers nor Paolino planned to contact the authorities but once the media became aware of the charges, they believed charges would be filed.

A trial would create “a three-ring circus atmosphere” and could destroy McClanahan’s career, Paolino warned. He demanded a settlement of $5 million. Edwards testified before the bar court that he thought Paolino’s actions were an attempt to extort money from McClanahan.

Paolino testified that he sent the letter at Summers’ direction but acknowledged that he did not know if any of the allegations were true. Paolino secured a $3.75 million judgment against McClanahan that was overturned on appeal. The case was dismissed by a three-judge appellate panel that found Paolino did not properly serve the complaint. The court sanctioned Paolino $35,000, a development he blamed on Summers.

Platel said Paolino’s testimony “lacked candor. It was at times rambling and totally unbelievable, as he continued to berate McClanahan and Edwards, totally ignoring his conduct in all the Summers litigation matters, always blaming others for his actions.” He described Paolino’s conduct in the litigation as reprehensible.

Platel found that Paolino improperly communicated with McClanahan without Edwards’ consent, made threats against McClanahan in order to gain the advantage in a civil suit, and he committed acts of moral turpitude. Sending the threatening letter to McClanahan “was a vile, base attempt to place McClanahan in fear of criminal prosecution and loss of stature with the public and is an act of moral turpitude,” Platel wrote.

McClanahan, who played Blanche Devereaux from 1985 to 1992 on the hit NBC series, never was charged with any criminal acts. She died in June.

Platel also found that Paolino committed five additional acts of misconduct involving some 20 immigration cases over an eight-year period. He hired Jay Araghi, whom he believed graduated from law school and who said he wanted to help aliens in asylum cases avoid “certain death and torture upon return to Iran,” according to Platel. Although Araghi attended law school, he never graduated and he did not meet the requirements for non-lawyers to appear before the immigration court.

Araghi led many clients to believe he was a licensed attorney and he “played fast and loose” with the rules in immigration procedures, Platel wrote. He signed documents indicating he was a lawyer.

Between 1997 and 2004, Paolino and Araghi were listed as representing about 20 clients before the immigration court. Araghi represented approximately 17 clients while allegedly being supervised by Paolino. Paolino said Araghi never received compensation for his work on immigration cases but was paid for his paralegal work.

Paolino said he always supervised Araghi and claimed that as a law school graduate he was permitted to appear before the immigration court. Platel said Paolino’s testimony lacked candor and for “about eight years, he essentially sold his law license to Araghi for a cut of the fees made from unwitting immigrants.”

Platel found that Paolino committed acts of moral turpitude by engaging in a scheme to defraud at least 20 clients, aided in the unauthorized practice of law, split fees with a non-lawyer, collected illegal fees and permitted his name to be used by a non-lawyer.

The Supreme Court disbarred Paolino March 26, 2010, and ordered him to comply with rule 9.20 of the California Rules of Court.