Court places Martinsburg attorney on year's suspension

By Lawrence Smith | Jun 14, 2012

Santa Barbara CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has suspended a Berkeley County attorney for his lack of diligence in four clients' cases.

Santa Barbara

CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has suspended a Berkeley County attorney for his lack of diligence in four clients' cases.

The Court on June 7 placed Michael Santa Barbara on suspension for a year. The suspension stems from a four-count statement of charges issued against him by the Court's Lawyer Disciplinary Board on Nov. 3, 2010, that he mishandled four personal injury suits between 2002 and 2005.

Specifically, the statement accused Santa Barbara, 52, of Martinsburg, of missing the deadline to file separate lawsuits for Robert S. Sencindiver and Tommy D. Burris. Though Santa Barbara admitted to missing the deadline to file Burris' suit, he told the Office of Disciplinary Counsel in its investigation he had no intention of filing suit for Sencindiver.

However, the client file he provided ODC in Sencindiver's case showed a signed retainer agreement, and medical release form.

Also, the statement accused Santa Barbara of not being attentive to deadlines in Christa B. Clark's and Jennifer L. Milanowski's case. They jointly hired Santa Barbara to file suit for injuries they received from a fall from a workplace fire escape.

Though he did file it, the suit was eventually dismissed since their claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act which requires paperwork to be filed six months in advance.

Finally, the statement accused Santa Barbara of taking over five years to use $15,000 of a $50,000 settlement Kathy Thomas received from Wal-Mart to pay off a Medicaid lien. An investigation discovered during that time, Santa Barbara used money held in trust to pay for the lien for his personal use.

In defending his actions during oral arguments before the Court in April, Santa Barbara said he was distracted during the time period due to dealing with depression brought about by office-related misconduct by his former legal assistant, Penny Young. According to Santa Barbara, Young, who was eventually fired, and prosecuted for defrauding his office out of "tens of thousands of dollars," was the likely source of the problem in Thomas' case.

Instead of suspension, he argued a reprimand, followed by a year of supervised practice, would be a more fitting punishment.

However, the Court said he is fortunate to get just a year's suspension. In concluding the unsigned, unanimous 23-page opinion, the Court noted the Board consider a longer suspension, but opted for just the year since prior to the filing of the statement he sought treatment for his depression.

Along the suspension, the Court ordered Santa Barbara to undergo psychological/psychiatric counseling until treatment is deemed no longer necessary, provide ODC with reports of his progress every six months and pay the costs of the disciplinary proceeding. Also, the Court ordered he take an additional eight hours of continuing education in office management and practice sometime in the next two years, and have his practice supervised for a year following reinstatement.

The suspension is the first formal disciplinary action taken against Santa Barbara since he was admitted to the state Bar on Jan. 15, 1991.

He was represented by Harrisburg, Pa., attorney Robert H. Davis Jr.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 10-4011

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