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In re Petition for Disciplinary Action Against Villanueva

Supreme Court of Minnesota

July 31, 2019

In re Petition for Disciplinary Action against Israel Esquivel Villanueva, a Minnesota Attorney, Registration No. 0395952

          Original Jurisdiction Office of Appellate Courts

          Susan M. Humiston, Director, Jennifer S. Bovitz, Senior Assistant Director, Office of Lawyers of Professional Responsibility, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for petitioner.

          Israel Esquivel Villanueva, Saint Paul, Minnesota, pro se.

         SYLLABUS

         Disbarment is the appropriate discipline for a foreign legal consultant who misappropriated clients' funds, engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, neglected client matters, failed to communicate with clients, failed to return unearned fees, forged a client's signature on a document filed with a court, failed to adequately supervise nonlawyer assistants, falsely represented that he was authorized to practice law, failed to make required disclosures for a foreign legal consultant, and failed to cooperate with the Director's investigation.

          OPINION

          PER CURIAM

         The Director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility filed a petition for disciplinary action, alleging that respondent Israel Esquivel Villanueva, an attorney licensed in Minnesota as a foreign legal consultant, committed professional misconduct by misappropriating clients' funds, engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, neglecting client matters, failing to communicate with clients, failing to refund unearned fees, failing to adequately supervise nonlawyer assistants, forging a client's signature on a legal document filed with a court, falsely representing that he was authorized to practice law, failing to make required disclosures for a foreign legal consultant, and failing to cooperate with the Director's investigation. Because Villanueva did not respond to the petition, the allegations in the petition were deemed to be admitted. Villanueva has not filed a memorandum or otherwise appeared in this matter. Because of his egregious misconduct, we disbar Villanueva.

         FACTS

         Villanueva was licensed to practice law in Mexico in 2005. He received a foreign legal consultant license in Minnesota on March 24, 2014. As a foreign legal consultant, although Villanueva was authorized to provide legal services in Minnesota regarding the law of Mexico, he was not authorized to provide legal services regarding the law of the United States, Minnesota, or any other state. See Rule 11(E), Rules for Admission to the Bar ("Admission Rules"). Licensed foreign legal consultants are "expressly subject to . . . the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct and all laws and rules governing lawyers admitted to the practice of law in this state." Rule 11(F)(1)(a), Admission Rules.

         In 2014, Villanueva began working for Zimmer Law Group, LLC, a Minnesota law firm. Villanueva maintained a law office in Mexico City, Mexico, where he employed two nonlawyer assistants who helped with client matters. Zimmer informed the Minnesota Board of Law Examiners that Villanueva's employment with the firm ended as of July 11, 2015. A licensed foreign legal consultant must "[m]aintain an office in [Minnesota] for the purpose of practicing as a foreign legal consultant." Rule 11(B)(7), Admission Rules. Because Villanueva did not provide the Board of Law Examiners with notice of a new place of employment, his license lapsed. After months of communications, the Board of Law Examiners restored Villanueva's foreign legal consultant license on March 16, 2016.[1]His license lapsed again in October 2017.

         Villanueva's misconduct involves eight client matters over 5 years.[2] In addition, Villanueva failed to cooperate with the Director's investigation. We summarize the misconduct below.

         Misappropriation of clients' funds and failure to return unearned fees

         Villanueva misappropriated client funds. Four clients paid him a total of $9, 390 in attorney fees. Villanueva performed no work for these clients and did not return any of their attorney fees. See In re Voss, 830 N.W.2d 867, 874 (Minn. 2013) (stating that "misappropriation may occur when a lawyer perform[s] no work on [client] matters and never return[s] the funds to the clients." (alterations in original) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted)). In four other matters, Villanueva collected a total of $20, 200 in advance attorney fees, performed little work for the clients, and then failed to return any unearned fees to the clients after the representation ended. Villanueva's conduct violated Minn. R. Prof. Conduct 1.15(c)(4), 1.16(d), and 8.4(c).[3]

         Unauthorized practice of law

         Villanueva engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. He was retained by Minnesota residents in the W.K. matter in May 2013, but he was not authorized to act as a foreign legal consultant until March 24, 2014. Villanueva provided legal services to S.G., a Florida resident, even though his foreign legal consultant license authorized him to practice law only in Minnesota. Additionally, in the A.L. matter, Villanueva submitted temporary work visa applications to the federal government and provided legal advice to a Texas trucking company regarding United States Department of Labor procedures, which was beyond the scope of the practice of a foreign legal consultant. Villanueva's conduct violated Minn. R. Prof. Conduct 5.5(a) and Rule 11(E)(1)(e), Admission Rules.[4]

         Villanueva also held himself out as authorized to practice law in Minnesota when he was not actually authorized to practice here. Villanueva's foreign legal consultant license lapsed in October 2017. Because Villanueva did not disclose this to Y.V.J. or U.L.R., they continued to believe that he was able to represent them. He also falsely told Y.V.J. that he could finalize a Mexican deed registration after his license had lapsed. Villanueva's conduct violated Minn. R. Prof. Conduct 5.5(b)(2) and 8.4(c).[5]

         Improper retainer agreement

         In all eight client matters, Villanueva did not have a written retainer agreement that made all the required disclosures for a foreign legal consultant. His retainer agreements did not state in bold type that he "is not admitted to practice law in this state, nor licensed to advise on the laws of the United States or the District of Columbia" and that his practice "is limited to the laws of the foreign country where [he] is admitted to practice," in violation of Rule 11(E)(1)(h) of the Admission Rules. Even though Villanueva held client funds, the retainer agreements did not "specify in bold type the name of a Minnesota lawyer licensed in good standing who is also representing the particular client in the particular matter at hand," in violation of the same rule. And by failing to comply with applicable rules regarding the required disclosures for a foreign legal consultant, Villanueva violated Minn. R. Prof. Conduct 3.4(c).[6]

         Neglect of client matters and failure to communicate with clients

         In all eight matters, Villanueva failed to advise his clients of the status of their matters, failed to act diligently on the matters, and eventually effectively terminated the representation by stopping work on the matters. For example, although Villanueva was removed as W.K.'s attorney by the Mexico courts, he failed to inform his client of his removal, in addition to failing to communicate with his client for a period of 3 months during the representation. He later ceased communication with W.K. completely and effectively ended his representation. In the J.C.C. matter, Villanueva stopped responding to his client's inquiries within 4 months of signing the retainer agreement and failed to produce any documents showing that he had taken any substantive action regarding J.C.C.'s divorce proceeding or that a hearing that he told J.C.C. was scheduled had actually occurred.

         In the S.G. matter, Villanueva prepared the necessary documents in May 2016 but failed to file them until November 2016. Later, after the Mexico court directed Villanueva to make corrections to his filing, he informed the court that "S.G. would be unable to present adequate proof of paternity and requested that S.G.'s paternity matter be closed." Villanueva never informed S.G. of any of this activity. After he stopped working on the matter, he failed to return documents to S.G. In the A.L. matter, Villanueva ceased all communications with A.L. after 4 months, effectively discontinuing his representation; no evidence suggested that Villanueva had performed the legal services promised. In the J.G.M. matter, Villanueva failed to provide any documents and wrote to J.G.M. saying that "this law office has closed your case" after the client requested documents proving what work he had done.

         In the E.P.C. matter, Villanueva ceased all communications with the client after failing to produce any evidence that work had been completed. Villanueva also failed to communicate with Y.V.J. regarding the status of her deed registration matter. Y.V.J. complained to the Mexican consulate, who referred him to Villanueva. After a promise to finalize the deed, Villanueva ceased communication with Y.V.J. and effectively ended the representation. Lastly, Villanueva failed to communicate with U.L.R. regarding the status of his case, and after 6 months of representation, Villanueva ceased all ...


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