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State Bar seizes Orange County-based SoCal Latino Legal Services and Ortega Legal Services for unauthorized practice of law

The State Bar has seized a business based in the city of Orange that was operating as SoCal Latino Legal Services and Ortega Legal Services. The business deliberately misled hundreds of people, predominantly Spanish speakers seeking help with family law cases, criminal cases, evictions, civil rights, medical negligence, and auto accidents. The primary owner, Erika Ortega, claimed she provided legal services in these areas, even though she has never been licensed to practice law in California.

One client paid Ms. Ortega over $2,000 for help in terminating a commercial lease after a business downturn driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. The client’s goal was to avoid eviction. After receiving no meaningful assistance for months, and after numerous follow-up communications, the client faced an eviction proceeding anyway. She requested a refund from Ms. Ortega but never received it.

When the State Bar investigated the complaint, Ms. Ortega claimed she was just a process server. A Yelp online review referenced in the petition claimed that Ms. Ortega was a paralegal, even though no attorney supervised her work.

On September 20, 2021, the Superior Court of Orange County assumed jurisdiction over Ortega’s unauthorized law practice after granting the State Bar’s request for an interim order and injunction. This allowed the State Bar to immediately seize approximately 200 client files, several client checks, and Ms. Ortega’s computer. On October 22, 2021, the court found cause to grant a permanent order and injunction prohibiting Ms. Ortega from providing unauthorized legal services.

The State Bar is seeking to return client files to their owners and has established a dedicated bilingual phone number, 213-765-1742, for former clients who wish to reclaim their files or documents.

The court order also enables the State Bar to request that the court appoint a receiver to take control of bank accounts relating to Ms. Ortega’s unauthorized law practice.

The State Bar has a unit dedicated to investigating and addressing the unauthorized practice of law, including those who give legal advice without a license or otherwise pose as attorneys.

People who have been targeted by someone who is not licensed to practice law can file an unauthorized practice of law complaint with the State Bar. There is no cost, and U.S. citizenship is not required; the State Bar will not ask complainants about their citizenship or immigration status. The online complaint form is available in English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese.

In 2020, the State Bar opened more than 600 cases in which a nonattorney was alleged to have engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. The agency referred more than 300 such cases to law enforcement last year.

The State Bar advises Californians to take the following precautions to avoid fraud by attorneys and unlicensed legal providers:

  • Ask for the attorney’s full name and State Bar number. Before hiring an attorney or paying any sum of money, look up the attorney on the State Bar website or the website of the state in which they say they are licensed, to see if their license is active and whether they have any history of discipline. You can also call the State Bar at 800-843-9053 for information.
  • Get your contract in writing, and make certain to get receipts for payments you make.
  • Be wary if someone requires cash payments. If you must pay in cash, be sure to get a written receipt.
  • Keep a paper trail. If you do not have a bank account, use a cashier’s check, and insist on a written receipt. If you have already made a payment, you are entitled to ask for an accounting of the fees and a description of the services being provided.
  • If the attorney is representing you in immigration matters, make sure they are licensed to practice before the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. The office posts a list of practitioners who are not currently authorized to practice or have been disciplined.
  • Do not hire anyone who threatens to report your immigration status if you do not pay them immediately or for any other reason.

Additional State Bar resources for consumers:

This article was released by The State Bar of California.