Appellate Court unanimously upholds injunction against predatory immigration law practice
Attorney Christopher Stender, Immigration Practice Group linked to one of City's 'most notorious predators' must stop misleading legal clients
SAN FRANCISCO (Dec. 5, 2012) --A panel of appellate court judges late yesterday unanimously upheld a preliminary injunction City Attorney Dennis Herrera won in March 2011 that forces immigration attorney Christopher Stender and his law firm, Immigration Practice Group, P.C., to stop aiding disgraced former lawyer Martin Guajardo's unauthorized practice of law, and to notify all of the firm's clients that Guajardo is no longer allowed to practice law. The injunctive relief additionally requires Stender and IPG to return case files in their entirety if clients choose to seek legal representation from another counsel, and to remove Guajardo's name from all marketing material used by the firm. The 42-page California Court of Appeal opinion was authored by Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline, and joined by Justices James R. Lambden and Justice James A. Richman.
The injunction and subsequent appeal arose from litigation Herrera filed in Nov. 2010 against Guajardo, whom the City's complaint describes as "one of San Francisco's most notorious predators," for an illicit law practice that for years defrauded clients and devastated the lives of countless immigrants and family members who sought legal counsel. Despite charging clients substantial sums while claiming to act on their behalf, Guajardo frequently took little action, or no action at all, leaving his clients' immigration cases to languish and ultimately be denied. According to declarations submitted in the case, Guajardo also promised immigrants and their family members that he could obtain green cards, or lawful permanent immigrant status, for them, when in fact he could not.
Stender, a licensed attorney alleged to have aided and abetted Guajardo's unauthorized law practice through IPG, was additionally named in the complaint, which detailed a shocking pattern of corrupt and deceptive business practices that fleeced clients of their life savings, and frequently resulted in adverse rulings, deportations and broken families. Guajardo resigned from the State Bar in 2008 in the midst of an investigation into multiple charges of misconduct, including ineffective representation and charging unconscionable legal fees.
"The evidence is clear that Martin Guajardo partnered with Christopher Stender to prey on vulnerable clients in immigration matters after Guajardo resigned in disgrace from the practice of law," said Herrera. "I applaud the Court of Appeal for upholding an injunction to halt the further exploitation of immigrants and their families by this attorney and his one-time firm. This injunction will protect prospective clients, and hopefully send a strong message to others who would defraud immigrants and rob them of their chance at the American dream. Throughout this litigation, we've been grateful for City leaders and nonprofits whose help has been so instrumental. In particular, I would thank Supervisor David Campos for his advocacy and leadership together with the Asian Law Caucus, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, and others. I'm also very thankful to the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe for the parallel class action suit they continue to pursue on behalf of Guajardo's victims."
Guajardo has never been located since Herrera first filed his complaint on Nov. 17, 2010. Less than a month after the filing, IPG ceased operations and abandoned its Financial District offices at 555 Clay Street. Stender remains a licensed attorney admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and other federal courts. He is not a member of the California State Bar, but remains a member of the state bars of Connecticut and New York.
During the three decades he was licensed to practice law in California, Guajardo and his colleagues lured clients into paying exorbitant fees for legal services with empty promises of favorable outcomes and extravagant assurances about his connections in government agencies. Guajardo's clients were not only immigrants themselves, but also family members of immigrants, many of whom faced imminent deportation. But Guajardo was negligent and even fraudulent in his legal representation, often doing little or nothing on cases, providing flawed legal advice, and filing multiple rounds of meritless appeals to further inflate his legal fees. The subject of numerous complaints to the State Bar, Guajardo's license to practice law was suspended twice in the 1990s, and he was frequently upbraided by the courts in which he appeared for substandard work.
After repeated disciplinary actions against him and with charges pending, Guajardo eventually resigned from the bar of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in November 2007. In March 2008, the Board of Immigration Appeals suspended Guajardo from practicing before them. Then, in April 2008, with serious disciplinary charges pending against him, Guajardo resigned from the State Bar of California. The terms of Guajardo's resignation prohibited him from practicing law or representing himself as eligible to practice. He also agreed to inform his clients of his resignation from the legal profession, and to file an affidavit with the State Bar attesting he had done so.
Guajardo, however, honored none of these promises. Instead, he changed the name of his law firm to the Immigration Practice Group, and with the assistance of Stender and others, used the renamed firm as a front for his illegal practice of law and his continued exploitation of desperate immigrants. Stender was made president, treasurer, secretary, sole director and sole shareholder of IPG.
The City continues to litigate this case in the trial court against Stender and IPG, and to look for Guajardo. The City's complaint seeks further injunctive relief, restitution for the victims, and civil money penalties.
The City's case is: People Ex Rel. Dennis J. Herrera v. Christopher Stender et al., California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Two, A131625 (San Francisco Superior Court No. CGC-10-505449, filed Nov. 17, 2010).
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