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Lengthy discipline history ends with disbarment

Twenty years after he was first suspended for ethical misconduct, and with a lengthy record that includes 90 days in federal prison for a contempt conviction, resignation from practice and later reinstatement, a Lake Forest lawyer was disbarred. The Supreme Court ordered that ROGER JAMES AGAJANIAN [#55393], 65, lose his license Nov. 4, 2010, after earlier rejecting his effort to resign rather than be disbarred.

The latest punishment was his fourth round in the discipline system, although he faced four sets of pending charges when he resigned in 1994. A quick Google search of Agajanian also turns up several stories about his apparent incompetence, which in one capital case led the California Supreme Court to order a trial court to review the facts of the case. One justice said Agajanian’s “deficiencies as trial counsel were pervasive and serious” and called his plea to spare his client “worthless.” Nonetheless, the state courts upheld the client’s death penalty.

A three-member federal appeals court, however, unanimously overturned the client’s death sentence, finding the Agajanian provided ineffective assistance. The U.S. Supreme Court later reversed the Ninth Circuit. Agajanian’s client remains on Death Row.

None of that, however, entered into his problems with the bar, which recommended Agajanian’s disbarment last spring after finding he committed 18 acts of professional misconduct in three client matters. Among Judge Richard Platel’s findings: Agajanian charged an illegal $28,000 fee, failed to maintain client funds, communicate with a client, obey a court order or perform legal services competently, and he misappropriated client funds, sought an agreement to withdraw a bar complaint, commingled funds, improperly withdrew from employment and committed multiple acts of moral turpitude.

“Given (Agajanian’s) history of recidivism — at least three disciplinary records in the past 23 years, the recommended degree of discipline in this matter leaves no room for debate,” Platel wrote.

Agajanian was suspended for two years in 1990 following his 1985 conviction of two counts of criminal contempt in a federal drug case. He misled a judge to avoid having his client appear in court and was sentenced to 90 days in federal prison.

The following year, he was suspended for three years for multiple ethical lapses, including practicing law during his previous suspension. When he didn’t meet probation conditions, he was disciplined again.

Agajanian resigned in April 1994, facing four sets of charges that included acts of moral turpitude and a large number of failures — providing incompetent legal services, failing to refund unearned fees, properly maintain client funds or maintain respect for the courts.

He was reinstated to practice in 2001, but according to Platel’s findings in the most recent charges, his misconduct began in 2005 with a conservatorship matter in which he accepted $25,000 in legal fees without the necessary court order. Charges were filed in that case and two others in 2008.

In the conservatorship case, Agajanian ignored an order to return the $25,000 to a temporary conservator, used his client trust account to pay personal expenses and allowed the balance in the account to fall below the required amount. Platel found that Agajanian misappropriated $25,000.

At one point in the same matter, he agreed to a settlement of the estate, conditioned on the conservator withdrawing his complaint to the State Bar about Agajanian. He made a series of misstatements in a court document and claimed he was owed almost $24,000 in fees without disclosing that he already had received $38,000 from the client.

In a construction defect dispute that another client lost, the court dismissed the appeal because Agajanian did not pay costs on time. He didn’t notify his client and took no further action after the dismissal. Agajanian also misappropriated at least $3,600 of settlement funds he received in a personal injury case.

When Agajanian responded to the 2008 charges, he pleaded no contest and tried to resign. In 2009, the Supreme Court declined to accept his resignation without explanation. He did not appear at a scheduled trial in March 2010 and his default was entered.

Platel recommended disbarment, finding Agajanian “has repeatedly committed misconduct during 23 of the 37 years of his practice. This is (his) fourth disciplinary proceeding. He had resigned with charges pending and was reinstated to the practice of law. He had been given multiple opportunities to reform and to rehabilitate. Probation and suspension have proven inadequate to prevent continued misconduct. And, no compelling mitigation has been shown.”