CHARLESTON – Prior to the pending statement of charges issued against him by the Lawyer Disciplinary Board, records show Michael Santa Barbara was warned multiple times about his lack of diligence and communication with clients.
In 2003, the Board closed two complaints against Santa Barbara the Office of Disciplinary Counsel received in 2001. The first was filed by Susan M. Gurson of Berkeley Springs regarding a Social Security disability claim.
In her complaint, Gurson alleged she had to reapply for disability benefits after her initial claim in December 2000 was denied, and Santa Barbara missed a Feb. 19, 2001, deadline for an administrative hearing. Santa Barbara admitted he missed the deadline, blaming it partially on the departure of his law partner.
Because he expressed remorse for his inaction, the Board took not action against him. In his closing letter dated March 23, 2003, Allan N. Karlin, the chairman of the Board's investigative panel cautioned Santa Barbara that "future similar conduct will result in disciplinary action."
The former law partner Santa Barbara blamed for being partially responsible for missing the deadline to file Gurson's Social Security disability appeal was the other complaint filed against him in 2001. Scott A. Ollar alleged Santa Barbara either co-mingled or misappropriated client funds, improperly obtained loans from three clients and failed to share with him his portion of a $350,000 settlement.
In concluding its investigation on Oct. 21, 2003, the Board determined Santa Barbara did violate Rule 1.15(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct when he failed to deposit the $350,000 Ollar complained about into is client trust account. However, because no harm was done to the client since the amount funds "did not fall below the amount of money held for the client during the time involved," the Board only warned Santa Barbara to follow that Rule.
In regard to the allegations Santa Barbara borrowed money from clients, and failed to properly split the $350,000, the Board found the loans were done in accordance with Rule 1.8 (a), and a lawsuit was the proper manner to address the disputed fee.
Shortly after Ollar's case was closed, Junior L. Sites of Burlington filed a complaint against Santa Barbara. In his complaint filed Nov. 20, 2003, Sites alleged, after retaining him on Sept. 7, 2000, to file a personal injury suit against Quality Farm and Fleet, Santa Barbara "failed to keep him appropriately informed about the status of the matter."
In response to Sites' complaint, Santa Barbara said action in it was stayed for two years after Quality Farm and Fleet filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Suits up to the amount of the store's deductible limits with its insurance carrier, Hartford Insurance, resumed in October 2003.
Though he was hamstrung from acting on Site's case due to the bankruptcy, then-Chief Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel Lawrence Lewis in closing the complaint on Sept. 30, 2004, reminded Santa Barbara "of his duty to effectively communicate with his clients."
Communication failure was the basis for a complaint Laura Alderman of Paw Paw filed against Santa Barbara on Nov. 16, 2005. In her complaint, she alleged Santa Barbara failed to pay a doctor he asked she visit to provide an opinion about injuries she sustained from a 1999 fall at a Virginia grocery store.
After receiving bills from the hospital, Alderman made multiple attempts to discuss them with Santa Barbara including a letter dated Sept. 2, 2004, that she sent via certified mail. Santa Barbara failed to contact her, and she was subsequently sued in Berkeley Magistrate Court by City Hospital for $1,693.
Because the contract she signed with Santa Barbara said he "may advance expenses on behalf of the client to pursue litigation," Alderman's complaint was closed without any disciplinary action. However, in his closing letter dated Dec. 13, 2006, Lewis said Santa Barbara's "apparent refusal to communicate with [Alderman] throughout much of 2004 as evidenced by her certified letter requesting an appointment to discuss this bill is troubling and [he] is cautioned regarding his obligations to explain a matter reasonably necessary to permit a client to make an informed decision and to promptly comply with reasonable requests for information."