In re Jose Luis Serpa, No. BD-2014-025: Attorney Suspended for Charging Client Illegal Fees

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has entered an order suspending a Boston Attorney after finding that he charged a client an illegal fee.  In the Matter of Jose Luis Serpa, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (“CPCS”) appointed an attorney to represent a client in a criminal matter free of charge.  Nevertheless, the attorney requested payment of $1,250 from the client, who then paid him $400.

The client was charged with operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol.  The client pled guilty and after the matter was resolved, the attorney billed CPCS and received payment.

Thirteen years later, the client filed a motion for a new trial on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel.  The client filed an affidavit in support of this motion, which stated that he had paid the attorney for his services and had pled guilty relying on the attorney’s advice.  The attorney then submitted a counter affidavit, which denied that he was paid by the client, and that he told the client he would be detained by immigration officials.

The client’s motion was initially denied, but he subsequently moved for reconsideration and presented additional evidence, which included a receipt from the attorney’s receptionist for the payment, and a letter from the attorney outlining a fee for his representation.  After review of these materials, the court granted the motion, and the criminal complaint was subsequently dismissed.  The Judge also referred the matter to the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers (“BBO”) to review the attorney’s potential ethical violations.

The BBO issued a complaint against the attorney and appointed a hearing committee, which determined that the statement in the attorney’s affidavit regarding the receipt of payment from the client was false.  The committee believed that only a public reprimand was warranted, but both bar counsel and the attorney appealed the decision.  The BBO reviewed the committee’s findings and recommended a sixty day suspension.

The BBO presented its ruling to Justice Spina of the SJC, who found that the attorney had violated Mass.R.Prof.C. Rule 1.5 (a) and 8.4 (c) when he charged his client an illegal fee.  He also violated Mass.R.Prof.C. 8.4 (d) and 8.4 (h) when he submitted a false affidavit and gave false testimony in Court.  Thus, Justice Spina accepted the BBO’s recommendation and entered a judgment suspending the attorney from the practice of law for sixty days.

Decision: In re Jose Luis Serpa

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