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Thawer v. Commission for Lawyer Discipline

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fifth District, Dallas

March 6, 2017


         On Appeal from the 134th Judicial District Court Dallas County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. DC-14-09242

          Before Justices Fillmore, Brown, and Richter [1]



         The trial court rendered judgment suspending appellant Sherin Thawer from the practice of law. Because we conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence, the evidence was sufficient to support the judgment, and the judgment was not excessive, we affirm.


         The State Bar of Texas Commission for Lawyer Discipline (the "Commission") brought this disciplinary action against Thawer, an attorney, alleging that she committed professional misconduct. The Commission alleged that Thawer violated the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation, and by violating a November 5, 2013 order of the United States Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, United States Immigration Court (the "Immigration Court Order").

         The Immigration Court Order was the result of a disciplinary proceeding against Thawer initiated in 2012 by the Disciplinary Counsel, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security. In an order dated July 31, 2013, Thawer was suspended from practice before "The Board of Immigration Appeals and the Immigration Courts" as well as "United States Citizenship and Immigration Services" ("USCIS") until July 26, 2014, "with conditional reinstatement restrictions."

         Thawer appealed the July 31, 2013 order. Her appeal was dismissed on November 5, 2013, in the Immigration Court Order. The Immigration Court Order also provided:

FURTHER ORDER: The Immigration Judge's decision suspending the respondent from practice before the Immigration Courts, Board of Immigration Appeals, and DHS [Department of Homeland Security], for one year, remains in effect.
FURTHER ORDER: The respondent's suspension is effective 15 days from this date. 8 C.F.R. § 1003.106(c)(2013).
FURTHER ORDER: The respondent is directed to promptly notify, in writing, any clients with cases currently pending before the Board, the Immigration Courts, or the DHS that the respondent has been suspended from practicing before these bodies.

         In this suit, the Commission alleges Thawer violated the Immigration Court Order and engaged in conduct violating rules 8.04(a)(3), 8.04(a)(7), and 8.04(a)(11), Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.[2] Those rules provide:

8.04 Misconduct
(a) A lawyer shall not:
. . .
(3) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation; . . .
(7) violate any disciplinary or disability order or judgment; . . .
(11) engage in the practice of law when . . . the lawyer's right to practice has been suspended or terminated . . . .

         The case proceeded to a bench trial. The Commission offered evidence that in December, 2013, several weeks after the Immigration Court Order became effective, Thawer appeared at the USCIS Dallas Immigration Field Office for a hearing regarding her clients Manan Sapkota and Emma Sharma. Thawer instructed Kiran Talluri, a newly-hired associate, to meet her there. Parker Jones, an immigration services officer, conducted the hearing. Priscilla Dobbins was the acting supervisor at the field office on the date of the hearing. Sapkota, Sharma, Talluri, Jones, and Dobbins testified at trial about the hearing.

         Sharma testified she hired Thawer in August 2013 to represent her to obtain her green card. A hearing on Sharma's application was scheduled at the immigration office in December. Thawer arrived late. Before the hearing commenced, "somebody came and took [Thawer] away." Sharma did not know who took Thawer away or why, and Thawer did not return. Sharma said at the time of the hearing she did not know Thawer had been suspended from practicing immigration law. Thawer never sent Sharma written notice of her suspension; Sharma did not learn of it until she was contacted by the State Bar in the year before trial. Sharma testified that although Talluri was present at the hearing, "I didn't know if he was my lawyer or not."

         Sapkota confirmed that he and Sharma, his then-fiancé, hired Thawer as their attorney to obtain Sharma's green card. They paid Thawer a fee of $1500. When he and Sharma arrived at the immigration office for the December hearing, Thawer was not yet there. They met Talluri, who instructed them to wait for Thawer. They had not met Talluri before, did not know he was a lawyer, and had not discussed their case with him. Sapkota testified that "I'm pretty confused at that time what he was doing out there." Thawer arrived, but "for some reason she was not allowed to come in over there to that-to that office." Sapkota had "no idea" why. He did not know Thawer had been suspended from practicing immigration law. She did not send him written notice; he learned of her suspension only a few months before trial.

         Talluri testified that he was employed by Thawer for three or four weeks in December 2013 and January 2014. Thawer called him in mid-December saying "she had an opportunity for me to go to the immigration court the next morning, show up at eight o'clock." He understood that his "role would be passive, that I would learn about how immigration hearings worked." He had not reviewed the file before that day and had not discussed the case with the clients. When he arrived at the immigration office, Thawer was not there. He introduced himself to Sapkota and Sharma and told them "[t]hat we're here waiting for [Thawer]. I'm just here to sort of shadow her, figure out how this is done." The case was called, but Talluri informed the immigration services officer that Thawer had not yet arrived, and she was the lawyer representing Sapkota and Sharma. When Thawer arrived, they "all went into a room in the back, " but before the hearing began, Thawer "got pulled out of the room, " and he was left to represent the clients.

         Talluri explained that at the time of the hearing, he did not know that Thawer had been suspended from practicing immigration law. That morning he did not hear Thawer tell anyone that she had been suspended. His understanding was that the clients were also "pretty clueless" about Thawer's suspension. He did not know at the time he was hired that Thawer had been suspended; he found out after the hearing when he returned to Thawer's office and was told by "the other employees."

         Jones testified that when he called the case to begin the hearing, he was told that Sapkota and Sharma were still waiting for their attorney. Thawer then arrived, and Jones took both attorneys and the clients back to his office. Jones asked Thawer why two attorneys were present. Thawer "stated that the other individual, Mr. Talluri, was going to be observing the interview." Thawer did not tell Jones that she was suspended from practicing immigration law, and he did not know of her suspension. Jones then received a phone call from another immigration officer, who asked Jones to meet him in the hallway. The officer informed Jones that "there was an issue with one of the attorneys in my office and that I needed to seek supervision." Jones consulted Dobbins, who advised him that Thawer "was not allowed to be present during the interview[3]process and that she would escort her out." After Dobbins escorted Thawer out, and Talluri's credentials had been verified, Jones proceeded with the hearing.

         Dobbins testified that she knew of Thawer's suspension before the day of the hearing. Dobbins escorted Thawer and Talluri from Jones's office. While Talluri waited outside, Dobbins spoke to Thawer briefly in another room. She explained that Thawer "was prohibited from serving or being in the office as a representative." Thawer told Dobbins "she was there to show her associate the ropes." After this short conversation Dobbins escorted Thawer to the lobby. She then confirmed that Talluri was licensed by the State Bar, and permitted him to return to the hearing with Sapkota, Sharma, and Jones.

         At the bench trial, Thawer's counsel cross-examined each of these witnesses. Talluri testified on cross-examination that he was licensed to practice law at the time of Sharma's immigration hearing, and signed the immigration office's form stating he was representing Sapkota and Sharma. He was not required to take any active role in the hearing. Sapkota and Sharma both testified that they chose to proceed with the hearing without Thawer, and were successful in obtaining Sharma's green card.

         The Commission also pleaded and offered evidence that in December 2013, Thawer appeared on her weekly radio show to answer callers' immigration questions. John Hammond, one of the owners of a company called FunAsiA, testified at trial. Hammond explained that Thawer's show was broadcast on a radio station operated by FunAsiA. In December 2013, Hammond received information "from multiple sources" that Thawer "is not allowed to practice immigration anymore." He contacted Thawer, who "told me that she's getting it reversed." On December 17 and 19, Thawer sent text messages to Hammond in response to his inquiries. Thawer assured Hammond that "[t]he hearings and motions are all done. We won. We are waiting on the order." Hammond replied, requesting a copy of the order once she received it. Hammond subsequently asked Thawer "many, many, many times" for a copy of the order, but he never received one. Thawer's response was that "it's all been taken care of" and that he did not need to worry. Thawer also sent him the State Bar's approval of her advertising, implying that she could not have received the approval if her suspension had not been reversed. He consulted with other attorneys, however, and learned that the approval had nothing to do with her suspension from the practice of immigration law.

         The Commission also offered evidence that Thawer signed written contracts with clients after November 20, 2013 to provide representation on immigration matters without disclosing her suspension from practice before the Immigration Courts, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and the DHS. The Commission also called Irene Ishak, an attorney formerly employed by Thawer. Ishak testified that after Thawer's suspension became effective, Thawer signed Ishak's ...

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