Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 18, 2018

Pinchak puts fake lawyers in their place

Attorney Frank Pinchak has a word for people who cheat others out of their money: charlatan. He wields it with disdain on his tongue as he tells a story about a woman he says has duped undocumented aliens in the Chattanooga area out of large sums of cash.

“She approached an undocumented alien (who had missed a meeting with U.S. Immigration and Enforcement) and claimed to know both the immigration people and a local lawyer who would handle her case for $1,500,” Pinchak, a partner at Burnette, Dobson & Pinchak, says. “After being paid, she created a phony receipt from a local law firm for $1,500.”

Pinchak waves his hand, as if to dismiss the notion that he’s told the most shameful part of the story.

“The charlatan then acquired the victim’s ICE case number and wrote a letter asking Immigration Court to excuse her for not showing up for her meeting,” Pinchak continues. “She then mailed the letter to the court, which rejected the request and demanded that the woman be deported immediately.”

The “charlatan” then acquired ICE’s response and altered it to make it look like the victim’s request had been granted and that she would not be deported.

“She then gave the bogus letter to the victim, who believed her case had been handled for $1,500 when there’s actually a deportation order out for her,” Pinchak concludes.

The matter is just one of many Pinchak and the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) committee at the Chattanooga Bar Association has investigated and worked to resolve since the organization’s president in 2017, Bill Colvin, declared war on those who were attempting to practicing law locally without a license to do so.

Colvin issued his call to arms during his inaugural address at the bar’s annual meeting in January 2017, saying the Woodmore school bus tragedy had brought to light several issues regarding the unauthorized practice of law.

“The problems related to the Woodmore school bus tragedy came from out-of-state lawyers who either personally or through surrogates came to Chattanooga within 30 days of the tragedy and directly solicited clients,” Colvin recently wrote in an email to the Hamilton County Herald.

In response to this activity, which violated the 30-day no solicitation rule (Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 8, Rule 7.3), Colvin lit a fire under the feet of the UPL committee, which at the time consisted of Pinchak and attorneys Sam Elliott and Alex McVeagh. (McVeagh later stepped down after becoming a General Sessions judge.)

“The UPL committee collected information from lawyers in Chattanooga with personal knowledge of these activities and relayed the information to the Tennessee attorney general’s office, which had jurisdiction over lawyers from other states who were actively soliciting clients in violation of the 30-day no-contact rule,” Colvin wrote.

The committee also had contact with the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, which had jurisdiction over Tennessee licensed lawyers who were acting in violation of the 30-day no solicitation rule.

The combined efforts of the UPL committee, individual lawyers in Chattanooga, the attorney general’s office and the Board of Professional Responsibility resulted in the attorney general’s office suing a Texas law firm. That case is pending in Chancery Court in Chattanooga.

Meanwhile, spurred by Colvin’s rallying cry, the UPL committee has been actively putting a stop to additional behavior that otherwise might have gone unchecked.

In one matter, Pinchak, the chairman of the committee, discovered some of the advertising for out-of-state attorney Charles Pittman violated applicable Tennessee law. Because of Pinchak’s work on the matter, Pittman brought his advertising and website into compliance with Tennessee law.

Pinchak was also involved in the investigation of so-called “notaries” who were creating documents titled “Power of Attorney” and selling them to the Hispanic community as a means of protecting children should a parent be deported.

“They were not worth the paper on which they were written,” Colvin wrote in his email to the Herald.

In yet another matter, Pinchak and attorney Jimmy Rodgers of Summer, Rufolo & Rodgers investigated out-of-state firms that were advertising free asbestos screenings in Chattanooga.

“Those firms had no licensed Tennessee lawyer on staff, and based on my experience with them, they were doing their ‘clients’ a disservice,” Colvin wrote.

The UPL committee also investigated the sponsors of probate avoidance techniques that, according to Colvin, “generally created more problems for individuals and families than they solved.”

Elliott, an attorney with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott & Cannon, warns against relying on such techniques.

“Often, the purpose of a trust is to shield and preserve one’s assets, or to make provision for a close relation who doesn’t have the capacity to handle large sums of money,” he wrote in an email to the Herald. “If a trust is not competently created, the fund that’s meant to be protected is at risk.”

“Some people want to play lawyer,” says Pinchak. “But if you’re not a lawyer, you can’t practice law; you can’t be in the business of writing wills or preparing trusts. You’ll be prosecuted criminally and could face jail time.”

As the UPL committee tackled these and other matters, it faced several challenges. Especially tricky was figuring out whether the Board of Professional Responsibility or the attorney general’s office has jurisdiction in a matter, Colvin wrote.

“It depends on the nature of the problem and whether the potential offender was licensed in Tennessee or, at a minimum, had a Tennessee licensed attorney in a Tennessee office handling the Tennessee cases,” Colvin explained.

Then there was the matter of time. Investigating and resolving a UPL matter is rarely quick and simple, and Pinchak and Elliott both have active practices. Pinchak says his work on the case of the charlatan and the undocumented alien occupied half his work week while he was actively pursuing the matter – and those hours were not billable.

But that’s neither here nor there, says Pinchak, who volunteered his time and expertise out a sense of professional duty. “It’s our job to protect the public,” he adds, matter-of-factly.

While Colvin was president of the bar, he was impressed with not only the number of hours Pinchak willingly gave to the committee’s efforts but also his effectiveness.

When Colvin’s term expired in January, he presented Pinchak with the Albert L. Hodge Volunteer Award, which the CBA gives annually to an attorney who provides exemplary volunteer service to the local bar association and the legal community.

“I wanted to recognize Frank for the energy and devotion he brought to the committee, which was far more active in 2017 than it had been during my time on the board for the previous few years,” Colvin wrote.

It was a fitting gesture for not just one year of solid work but a quarter of a century of volunteer efforts on the committee.

UPL committee history

The CBA formed the UPL committee in 1992, when Donna Pierce was president of the association. Pinchak was onboard from the beginning.

“I asked if I could be a part of the committee,” he says. “I was puzzled how the stuff that was going on could happen. I still don’t know how some of this stuff happens.”

At the time, a number of independent paralegals in the Chattanooga area were selling irrevocable trusts for a considerable amount of money. “There was no way the clowns who were selling those trusts knew what they were doing,” Pinchak says. “There are reasons for having an irrevocable trust, but you need the assistance of a lawyer.”

One of the clowns bit back and filed a counterclaim against the CBA, alleging it didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. No problem; in 1999, the association went to the Tennessee legislature and convinced them to pass Tenn. Code Ann. § 23-3-103, which gives bar associations in the state the right to pursue action against people who are, as Pinchak says, “playing lawyer.”

“Any organized bar association of a municipality, county, except any county having a metropolitan form of government, or multi-county region in which a violation occurs, may bring a civil action seeking relief, as provided in this chapter, against any person that violates this chapter,” the law says.

Emboldened by the decree, the UPL committee continued its work with renewed vigor. At one point, the committee discovered that independent paralegals were drawing up defective wills. One such paralegal prepared a bankruptcy petition without claiming the personal exemption and a man lost his motorcycle.

During a hearing on the matter, the late Charlie Ragan, a respected member of the bar who practiced bankruptcy law, testified as to how incompetently the amateur petition was drawn.

The committee remained active in the ensuing years, although its level of activity tapered off, Pinchak says. Then, a swelling tide of advertisements on local billboards, television and radio stations and the sides of buses by lawyers not based in Chattanooga, and in some cases not licensed to practice law in Tennessee, brought in a new wave of issues, prompting Colvin’s declaration of war.

Even after 25 years of service on the committee, some things still surprise Pinchak, including the boldness of his charlatans. In the case of the undocumented alien, the perpetrator became greedy and went back to the well again hoping to extract more cash out of her victim.

“She went to the victim and said, ‘We handled your case for $1,500, but now the government is coming back for you and we need another $1,500,’” Pinchak says. “That made the victim suspicious.”

To learn about what was happening, the victim contacted the law firm on the phony receipt the perpetrator had given her – Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison. A lawyer at the firm with strong ties to the Hispanic community brought the matter to the attention of the UPL committee, which worked with the attorney to acquire the necessary documentation from the victim and notify the appropriate legal authorities. The matter is now in their hands.

During the investigation, the UPL committee learned that this was not its first run-in with this perpetrator. In 2016, the woman ran the same scam, pretending to be an agent of Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams.

In that case, the victim refused to provide testimony to prosecutors out of fear of being deported.

The victim in the current case faces the same dilemma, making these matters difficult to prosecute. But Pinchak is hopeful. “The victims in these cases are generally too scared to come forward, lest they put a target on their back,” he says. “But if we get a criminal prosecution, that might send a word of warning to everyone who wants to get into this type of business.”

At the very least, the CBA’s UPL committee has thrown a wet blanket on one perpetrator’s party. But if the committee’s 25-year history has taught it anything, it’s that a volunteer attorney’s work is never done.

“Much of this is ongoing and will not stop in the foreseeable future,” Colvin wrote. “There will always be new challenges.”