SC Disbars Lawyer Previously Disbarred in the US

March 8, 2022

“When a foreign court renders a judgment imposing disciplinary penalty against a Filipino lawyer admitted in its jurisdiction, such Filipino lawyer may be imposed a similar judgment in the Philippines provided that the basis of the foreign court’s judgment includes grounds for the imposition of disciplinary penalty in the Philippines.”

Thus said the Supreme Court, as it disbarred a lawyer, who had been previously disbarred by the Supreme Court of California in 2000, for violating the Code of Professional Responsibility by committing unlawful, dishonest, deceitful conduct, and by willfully disregarding the lawful processes of courts.

In a per curiam decision, the Court ordered the name of Atty. Jaime V. Lopez stricken off the Roll of Attorneys effective immediately.

In 2000, Lopez was disbarred from the practice of law in the state of California in the United States of America following the recommendation of the California State Bar Court, which issued a Decision and Order of Involuntary Inactive Enrollment against him. His disbarment was due to his mishandling of the settlement funds amounting to USD$25,000.00 for a bodily injury settlement he received on behalf of a client.

His predicament in the Philippines started in 2007 when then Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno received a letter informing the Supreme Court of the proceedings against Lopez before the California State Bar. Subsequently, the Court commenced the instant administrative proceedings against Lopez and ordered him to show cause why he should not be suspended or disbarred.

Lopez was held administratively liable in the US for his failure, among others, to promptly notify his client of funds received and failure to maintain client funds in trust account. In 1995, he negotiated a bodily injury settlement with and received USD$25,000.00 settlement from Viking Insurance Company of behalf of client, Jemuel C. Monte-Alegre. However, Lopez failed to promptly notify his client of his receipt of said amount. In 1995, he deposited the settlement amount into his client’s trust account at Wells Fargo Bank but did not disburse any portion of this money to Monte- Alegre or to a lienholder on his behalf. Thus, the balance in the trust account fell below USD$25,000.00, such that in 1996, the balance was overdrawn by USD$2,047.53 and remained over overdrawn until it was closed on the same year. Likewise, he also repeatedly issued checks from the Wells Fargo trust account even when he knew or should have known that there were insufficient funds in the account.

The authority of our Supreme Court to disbar or suspend a lawyer for acts or omissions committed in a foreign jurisdiction is found in Section 27, Rule 138 of the Revised Rules of Court Resolution. Recognition of a foreign judgment only requires proof of fact of the judgment. In the present case, the

official copy of the decision from the Supreme Court of California is sufficient proof of the judgment.

But while a foreign court’s judgment of suspension against a Filipino lawyer admitted in its jurisdiction may transmute into a similar judgment of suspension in the Philippines, this is not automatic as due process demands that lawyers disciplined in a foreign jurisdiction must be given the opportunity to defend themselves and to present testimonial and documentary evidence on the matter in an investigation to be conducted in accordance with Rule 139-B of the Revised Rules of Court. Lopez was given due process.

The Court agreed with the findings of the Investigating Commissioner of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines that respondent’s act in the US violate the standards of ethical behavior for members of the Philippine Bar and thus constitute grounds for the imposition of disciplinary penalty in this jurisdiction.

Respondent’s failure to notify his client of funds received, failure to maintain client’s fund in trust account, and misappropriation of the same were equivalent to violations of Canon 16, Rules 16.01, 16.02, and 16.03. Canon 16 mandates a lawyer to hold in trust all moneys and properties of his or her client that may come into his profession. Both misappropriation and misappropriation through issuance of bad checks may also be considered as violations of Canon 1, Rule 1.01, which prohibits a lawyer from engaging in unlawful, dishonest, immoral, or deceitful conduct. His violations in the US corresponded to violations of Canon 7, Rule 7.03 which states that a lawyer shall not engage in conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law.

The Court also noted that respondent’s behavior before the California State Bar Court paralleled his behavior towards the Supreme Court, the Office of the Bar Confidant, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP). The common thread that bound the various proceedings in this case was respondent’s ability to make himself unreachable.

Respondent Lopez used his address in Pasay City in the two motions for extension he filed. Notices sent to the said Pasay address were returned unserved, prompting the Court to seek the help of the NBI. During investigation, the NBI was told by the occupants of respondent’s address in Pasay that he already passed away. In July 2005, the respondent’s secretary also gave information that Lopez died in July 2005. The Court noted, however, that Lopez was able to file his comment in April 2009, or almost four years after his alleged death in 2005. The NBI found two more addresses of the respondent in Manila and Makati, and, subsequently, the Court’s Resolutions were served to him in his Makati address.

The Court noted that when respondent filed his motions for extension and his Comment, he was already aware that there were court proceedings that required his participation. “However, respondent chose to not participate and not notify the Court of his updated address, notwithstanding repeated directives from this Court. Unfortunately for respondent, ignoring the proceedings do not make them go away. Respondent’s version of ghosting does not work in his favor. If at all, he displayed contumacious conduct and  a contempt for court processes,” lamented the Court.

Considering the gravity of the offenses committed by respondent which merited his disbarment in the state of California, exacerbated by his non- compliance with the directives from this Court, the Court found proper the recommended penalty of the IBP Board of Governors.

The Court reiterated that “the practice of law is not a vested right but a privileged that is clothed with public interest. To enjoy the privilege of practicing law as officers of the Court, lawyers must adhere to the rigid standards of mental fitness and maintain the highest degree of morality.”

The Court rejected the contention of Lopez that the California Supreme Court’s decision was void and could not serve as prima facie case against him in the Philippines. His insistence that due process was not observed in the California disbarment proceedings due to constitutionally deficient notices was not supported by the records. It noted that Lopez was sent notices to his official address. The Court further noted that aside from the charges of mishandling of his client’s funds, the California State Bar Court also sanctioned him for failure to maintain current State Bar membership records.