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In re Ochoa

Supreme Court of South Carolina

April 24, 2019

In the Matter of Christopher Michael Ochoa, Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2019-000040

          Submitted March 27, 2019

          John S. Nichols, Disciplinary Counsel, and Ericka M. Williams, Senior Assistant Disciplinary Counsel, of Columbia, for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

          Christopher Michael Ochoa, of Florida, pro se.

          PER CURIAM.

         Respondent, previously licensed in Florida[1] but not in South Carolina, entered into an agreement with a non-attorney owned company (NVA) to market his legal services on the internet. Although respondent operated a solo practice in Florida, through NVA's advertisements, he specifically targeted South Carolina residents seeking to negotiate modifications of their home loans in violation of provisions of Rules 7.1 and 7.5, RPC, Rule 407 SCACR. Further, respondent provided legal services to numerous South Carolina residents regarding South Carolina legal matters without being licensed or otherwise authorized to practice law in in this state in violation of Rule 5.5, RPC, Rule 407, SCACR, and Rule 7(a)(1), RLDE, Rule 413, SCACR.

         Following an evidentiary hearing at which respondent did not appear, the Commission Hearing Panel (the Panel) recommended debarring respondent and ordering respondent pay the cost of the proceedings and restitution to two of his South Carolina clients. Neither party sought review of the Panel's report, and the matter is now submitted for the Court's consideration. We impose the sanctions recommended by the Panel.

         FACTS

         Although he identified himself as "licensed in the State of Florida," stated his law office was located at a Florida address, and he was not licensed to practice law in South Carolina, respondent offered legal services in thirty-five specified states, including South Carolina, through the law firm's "national network of attorneys." Respondent recruited attorneys in South Carolina and other states to handle legal matters as "of counsel" to respondent's firm. In exchange for legal services, clients were required to pay an up-front retainer and agree to monthly bank drafts, which were electronically deposited directly into respondent's operating account. Fee payments to NVA and local counsel were then paid by respondent from the operating account.

         The V.S. Matter

         In October 2013, a foreclosure action was filed against South Carolina homeowner V.S. by her mortgage lender. In response, V.S. retained respondent through NVA. V.S. signed electronic forms, including an "Engagement Agreement for Limited Representation" and a "Payer Services Agreement." Pursuant to the Payer Services Agreement, respondent collected two initial payments of $550 each and monthly payments of $605 via electronic funds transfers from V.S.'s personal bank account. Under the Engagement Agreement, respondent agreed to provide "legal services" including "representation to help the Client(s) achieve a satisfactory resolution with a mortgage that is in, or about to enter, default," and to "perform all legal services rendered herein, in accordance with the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct, and other applicable standards of law and ethics, as may be required in different jurisdictions."

         V.S.'s daughter spoke with respondent twice over the phone and both times respondent assured her he was an attorney and could help V.S. However, in late December 2013 or early January 2014, after V.S. received notice of a January 2014 hearing date in her pending foreclosure action, V.S.'s daughter contacted respondent to inform him about the court date. According to V.S.'s daughter, respondent stated that for an additional $300 per month he could have retained a South Carolina lawyer to represent V.S. in court but, "due to time constraints," there would not be enough time to do so.

         Unknown to V.S. or her daughter and contrary to the information provided to them, respondent retained the services of a South Carolina attorney as "of counsel" in October 2013. The South Carolina attorney was never notified of the filing of the foreclosure action against V.S. or of the hearing date. After repeated failed attempts to obtain information from respondent's office about the status of V.S.'s representation, the South Carolina attorney ended her relationship with respondent's law firm in January 2014.[2]

         During the course of respondent's representation of V.S., respondent's non-lawyer employees sent V.S. repeated requests for the same paperwork. In February 2014, V.S.'s daughter spoke with one of respondent's non-lawyer employees and complained about the duplicate paperwork requests. In response, respondent sent V.S. a form letter terminating the attorney-client relationship. The letter provided no explanation for the termination, no information regarding the status of the matter, no advice regarding how to proceed, and no refund of fees, which by that time totaled $2, 310.

         The ...


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