Protect Us from Lawyers

Posted on: June 28, 2012 | By: dunn_access | Estate Planning, Ethics

By Stephen J. Dunn

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Paul David Seeman was arrested recently and charged with embezzling at least $1.6 million from an elderly neighbor couple.

The arrest came after an eight-month-long investigation by the Berkeley Police Department and the Alameda County District Attorney’s office.

In 1999, the Berkeley Fire Department was called to the Santa Barbara Road home of Lee, then 89, and Anne, then 86, Nutting. Lee had fallen. The Fire Department found that the Nuttings were hoarders, and that their home was uninhabitable. The Nuttings were forced to vacate the home. They moved to the nearby Radisson Hotel at Berkeley Marina.

At about that time Seeman, who lived across the street from the Nuttings’ house, offered to help them, court records state. Seeman was then an attorney practicing juvenile law, according to Court records.

Less than a month after Seeman offered to help the Nuttings, he won a durable power of attorney over the Nuttings, “claiming he found $1 million worth of stock certificates and uncashed dividend checks in their house.”

About a year later, Lee Nutting died, and Seeman is alleged to have begun a systematic campaign to steal all of Anne Nutting’s assets. The alleged campaign continued after Seeman was appointed a court commissioner in 2004, and after he was appointed a Superior Court Judge by then-Governor Schwarzenegger in 2009.

By August, 2004, Seeman had taken over almost all of Anne Nutting’s financial affairs, putting his name on her bank accounts as joint tenant with right of survivorship, and on her investment accounts as transferee on her death, according to court records. At that time there was more than $2.2 million in Anne Nutting’s accounts, authorities say.

Police charge that in 2004, Seeman persuaded Anne Nutting to loan him $250,000—money that had been raised by auctioning part of her art collection. He gave her a “simple promissory note” requiring monthly payments at 3 percent interest for the money, according to court papers. Police allege that Seeman made only eight payments on the promissory note. In 2010, Ms. Nutting’s attorney contacted the police to report the suspected embezzlement. After police contacted him, Seeman repaid the $250,000, but refused to provide an accounting of Anne Nutting’s assets, authorities say.

In 2007, Anne Nutting wanted to move back to her home, and sought the assistance of an attorney to remove Seeman from her financial affairs. But Seeman refused, authorities charge. Ms. Nutting died at age 97 in 2010, not survived by any family.

Seeman is also charged with 11 counts of felony perjury for lying on statement of economic interest forms required of California judges. Prosecutors say he failed to disclose the $250,000 loan from Ms. Nutting on the forms. They also say that he failed to disclose $1.4 million in local real estate investments—investments he allegedly made between 2003 and 2009.

Seeman made his $525,000 bail, and is taking a voluntary leave of absence during the prosecution of him.

The Seeman case reminds me of one of my cases a few years back. After Elderly Woman’s husband died, she executed an estate plan leaving her estate to four charities. A neighbor lady, much younger, whom we shall call Interloper, began coming to Elderly Woman’s house, working her way into Elderly Woman’s confidences. Elderly Woman fell in her home, and was diagnosed with dementia. Elderly Woman’s internist testified that Elderly Woman also suffered from leukemia, and that on visits to the internist’s office Elderly Woman was lonely and tearful. Interloper continued working her way into the Elderly Woman’s confidences. Eventually Interloper got the Elderly Woman to Interloper’s attorney’s office. Interloper’s attorney drew a new estate plan for Elderly Woman, leaving her estate to Interloper. After Elderly Woman died, I represented the four charities in successfully contesting her revised estate plan drawn by the Interloper’s attorney.

I know of lawyers who as a matter of practice name themselves as fiduciary in estate planning documents they draw for clients. When the client dies, the lawyer-fiduciary hires himself to perform legal services for the estate or trust. I have always considered it unethical for an attorney to name himself as fiduciary in a client’s estate planning documents, unless the client is fully informed in the circumstances, is aware of the conflict of interest, and nonetheless insists.

I have always considered practicing law a great privilege. I know that if I take good care of clients, they will take care of me. Overreaching a client, taking advantage of a vulnerable client, or misappropriating a client’s assets, is something I would never do.

I regard law as a helping profession. I remember well Dean David T. Link’s first year Legal Ethics course at Notre Dame Law School in 1982. Dean Link said that clients come to you because they are burdened; because you are better able to deal with their problem. He said you must take their problem from them, relieving them of their burden, and then deal with the problem. You must not harm clients in any way.

A few years ago I was attending the Stations of the Cross. When they got to the station about Simon of Cyrene being pressed into service to carry Christ’s cross, it struck me that that is what I do for a living. Dean Link was telling us that 30 years ago.

After Dean Link’s wife passed away, he discerned a calling to the priesthood, and entered the seminary. He was ordained a Catholic priest at age 71. The father of five, grandfather of 14, is now engaged in full-time prison ministry in Michigan City, Indiana. He gives hope to men who would otherwise have none.

The facts of the Seeman case set forth above came from articles in the ABA Journalthe San Fransisco Chroniclethe Oakland Tribuneand the San Jose Mercury News.