by Robert J. Hansen
The State Bar of California continues to allow the public to be harmed by attorneys like disbarred attorney Thomas Girardi and now, Anaheim attorney Kenneth Catanzarite, according to leaked email communications between Chairman Ruben Duran and Chief Trial Counsel George Cardona.
Appearing with Cardona and General Counsel Ellin Davtyan, State Bar Chairman Duran told legislators last month that he shared in the committee’s outrage and concern of the State Bar’s disciplinary process after revealing widespread bribery and corruption on March 10, 2023.
“The members representing the Bar here today share with you the ultimate purpose here, which is to reform this disciplinary system to protect consumers in California,” Duran said.
But a May 2022 email reveals that Chief Trial Counsel Cardona explained why the Bar has taken no disciplinary actions against Catanzarite, in a briefing requested by Chairman Duran.
“There were pending civil matters that involve substantially the same misconduct that is at issue in the State Bar matters,” Cardona wrote to Duran. “The civil matters charged Catanzarite and other attorneys with the law firm with committing additional potential acts of professional misconduct.”
The discipline cases arose from six separate lawsuits filed as part of a battle between two groups of shareholders Cultivation Technologies. Inc. (CTI) and Mobile Farming Systems. Inc. (MFS) an agricultural technology company.
Beginning in 2018, Anaheim attorneys Kenneth Catanzarite, Brandon Woodward, and Tim James O’Keefe filed six lawsuits against both MFS and CTI, and ultimately assumed the role of counsel for both MFS and CTI in those lawsuits at the same time.
On November 15, 2019, a misconduct complaint filed by Justin S. Beck to Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC) against Anaheim attorneys Kenneth Joseph Catanzarite, Brandon Woodward, and Tim James O’Keefe of Catanzarite Law Corporation which alleged, in part the attorneys: “concurrently representing parties with adverse interests … unauthorized direct and indirect contact with parties represented by counsel … Corruptly or willfully and without authority filing multiple complaints without legal authority or representation to do so.”
OCTC wrote to Duran that in April 2020 since the attorneys had filed appeals which were pending before the Court of and are also facing disqualification in two of the other cases, Beck was told to file a new complaint against the attorneys, once all of the disqualification orders became final.
State Bar investigator Joy Nunley, told Beck in an April 3, 2020 email that the State Bar cannot proceed with disciplinary charges unless it can present evidence and testimony in court, sufficient to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the attorneys have committed a violation of the State Bar Act or the Rules of Professional Conduct.
“The violation must be serious enough to support both a finding of culpability and the imposition of professional discipline,” Nunley wrote. “In some cases, there may be evidence of attorney malfeasance or negligence, but this evidence may be insufficient to justify the commencement of a disciplinary proceeding, or to be successful at a disciplinary trial.”
In 2018, the State Bar’s updated rules regarding conflicts of interest focused on the “disciplinary standard” for violations shown by Catanzarite. Two or more acts of misconduct range from suspension or disbarment according to State Bar’s Rules of Procedure.
Nunley told Beck that the OCTC closed his complaint and to file a new one once the various pending disqualification orders become final.
“Such rulings from the courts could then be properly evaluated by the State Bar to determine whether they can provide a basis for the State Bar to prove by clear and convincing evidence that a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct or State Bar Act occurred,” Nunley told Beck.
When the Court of Appeals upheld disqualifying Catanzarite in two of the six originally filed cases in June 2021, Beck submitted the appellate court’s opinion to the State Bar.
OCTC Cardona’s email to Duran said that the Bar essentially will conduct its own investigation, challenging the Court of Appeal’s opinion.
“In light of the [court’s] opinion, our office will open a separate State Bar investigation in which we will obtain all relevant information concerning the Court of Appeals opinion, including the evidence upon which its findings were based,” Cardona wrote.
Since then, the Catanzarite law firm has been disqualified four times—upheld by a California Court of Appeal which called Catanzarite’s conduct “absurd.”
The same Court of Appeals later said that “it is difficult to apply the ‘reasonable attorney’ test when there is evidence the attorneys initiated the cases violated multiple rules of professional conduct.”
Anand Kumar, Supervising Attorney for the Office of Chief Trial Counsel said in an email two days after the Court of Appeals upheld multiple disqualification orders, that the findings of the Court of Appeal are entitled to significant weight in State Bar Court.
“Which is the primary reason our office determined that the findings would be important in our ability to prosecute the case,” Kumar wrote in an email to Beck.
Kumar said that attorneys Senior Trial Counsel Eli Morgenstern and Investigator Nunley will be the assigned prosecutor and investigator in the new State Bar investigation and will contact you as necessary in the proceedings.
“I have already informed Ms. Nunley that a State Bar investigation is appropriate based on the Appellate Opinion,” Kumar wrote.
In November 2021, the OCTC told Beck that both complaints would remain abated awaiting resolution of pending civil matters.
“That there were pending civil matters that involve substantially the same misconduct that is at issue in the State Bar matters,” Cardona wrote to Duran “The pending civil matters charged Catanzarite and other CLC attorneys with committing additional, potential acts of professional misconduct, and that the harm caused by Catanzarite’s violation of the conflict rules, as well as his other alleged misconduct, is an issue in pending litigation.”
As a result, the letter explained, resolution of the pending civil matters would substantially assist OCTC in its investigation and any prosecution of the Catanzarite lawyers as well as in determining the harm caused by the actions of Catanzarite lawyers, according to Cardona.
Catanzarite and Catanzarite lawyers’ conflicts and activities remain open but have been abated pending the completion of the civil litigation, according to Cardona’s May 2022 email to Duran.
Office of General Counsel Davtyan emailed Beck demanding him to destroy the Cardona and Duran email inadvertently sent to him.
“You have no right to share or retain the State Bar’s privileged communications, and request that you identify all persons to whom you have distributed the communication and destroy any copies in your possession,” Davtyan wrote.
To date, there are zero records of disciplinary action taken against Catanzarite by the State Bar, according to its website.
This rolling investigation is on The State Bar of California as to whether the Thomas Girardi scandal is only an example of ongoing corruption at the State Bar. If you have been harmed by an attorney and/or the State Bar of California for failing to discipline attorneys, reach out to The Davis Vanguard at info.davisvanguard.org or to Robert J. Hansen at email@example.com.