Attorney Hal Erwin Wright settled Steve Isaacson’s personal injury lawsuit for pennies on the dollar without his knowledge, then forged his client’s and wife’s signatures on release forms and settlement checks to pocket the cash. He charged Isaacson hundreds of dollars for lawsuits he never filed.The Davis Enterprise:
“From the beginning of his representation of Isaacson in September 2010 until January 2013,” State Bar of California officials said, “he lied to his client on numerous occasions, saying he was working on his personal injury lawsuit when, in fact, he had never filed one.”
And, when Isaacson, vice president of the Davis Musical Theater Company, hired him in 2012 to handle a patron’s posthumous $15,000 donation to the company, the attorney walked away with all but $3,000 of it, then told him the spare change was a partial payment from the injury suit. After Isaacson fired his attorney, his new lawyer, Jason Ewing, uncovered the scheme in early 2013.
Wright was sentenced Aug. 12 in Yolo Superior Court to three years of felony probation and a six-month stretch in county jail for grand theft, and barred from practicing law in California. The State Bar, following its own investigation, stripped Wright, 60, of his law license in June for forgery and multiple thefts of client funds. The bar also ordered Wright to pay $58,000 restitution.
An Oct. 7 court date has been set in Yolo Superior Court to determine how much more Wright must pay.
“It so devastated (Isaacson), what (Wright) put him through these 2 1/2 years,” said Jennifer McHugh, the Yolo County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case. “The impact is twofold: He relied on his attorney. He’s a person you’re supposed to trust. To see someone do this when the victim is so vulnerable, it destroys public trust in attorneys. It’s heartbreaking.”
For Isaacson, the show goes on even through the constant pain of a 2010 fall at a Sacramento theater (the production was titled “Death Trap,” Isaacson deadpanned) that he said injured his knee, compressed his spine and spurred the injury suit.
“It’s been four years of hell for me, I’m in excruciating pain 24 hours a day,” Isaacson said Wednesday from his Davis home.
After Isaacson’s injury, he said he didn’t have to go far to find legal help. Wright played bass guitar for Davis Musical Theater Company but also had been an attorney in Davis for more than 20 years, with an office on F Street.
Isaacson hired Wright later in 2010, seeking a settlement with the Big Idea Theatre, where the accident occurred, that would take care of his medical expenses and lost wages. Wright went to work, but Isaacson wouldn’t see a dime.
By April 1, 2011, Wright had settled his claim with the theater for $40,000, far less than the value of the suit, according to Yolo County District Attorney and State Bar officials. Isaacson and his wife never knew.
The same day, Wright forged the couple’s signatures on a release from the theater’s insurer. The insurance company mailed two checks days later. Two more forgeries, then Wright moved the checks into first a trust account, then his own.
For nearly two years after that April Fool’s Day, Wright managed to hold off Isaacson, citing court delays and postponed meetings, and even drawing up fake interrogatories – the formal list of questions sent to a party in a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Isaacson’s money and disability payments were running out and his pain and desperation were growing worse, according to a string of emailed correspondence between Isaacson and Wright that Isaacson supplied The Bee .
In an email dated Jan. 17, 2012, Isaacson pleads with Wright for an update on their case: “What are they waiting for my knee to rust away? I have been in do (sic) much pain lately. Please let me know.”
Wright reassured him two days later.
“It sickens me that you are still in pain and I’m trying best with these ‘suits,’ but thinking outside the box/bun is not their forte,” Wright wrote, adding that the case “is actually in better shape now than is (sic) was 6 months ago. Everybody’s in.”
By October 2012, Wright told Isaacson that he was “still working on getting you some jingle.”
There was no jingle. There was no case.
Prosecutors said Wright also pocketed a $15,500 check intended to benefit DMTC, which had been named a beneficiary in a patron’s will. Isaacson reportedly learned of the embezzlement in early 2013 after hiring another attorney to represent him.
Yolo Superior Court Judge Samuel McAdam sentenced Wright on Aug. 12 to three years of felony probation and 180 days in the county jail. A future court date will be scheduled to determine the amount of restitution to be paid in the case.
The Yolo County Public Defender’s Office, which represented Wright, declined to comment on the case Wednesday.
In addition to the criminal-court consequences, Wright was disbarred in May and is no longer eligible to practice law in California, according to the State Bar website.
The Woodland Daily Democrat
In 2010, the victim, a Davis resident, sustained a serious fall which required multiple surgeries. He hired Wright to represent him in a personal injury lawsuit, according to the DA's Office. Wright also told the victim that he would file a medical malpractice suit. Wright did not file the lawsuit but instead took the $390 filing fee check, scratched out "Sac Superior Court" and wrote his own name. He deposited the money in his own account and never filed the victim's medical malpractice case.
Later, Wright forged the victim's signature on a Release of Liability form and settled the victim's personal injury case for $40,000, far less than the monetary damages caused by the injury. Wright then forged the victim's signature on the settlement check, kept the money and never told the victim that the case settled, the DA's Office reported. For the next two years, Wright continued telling the victim that the case was progressing through the court system, going as far as sending fake demands for information to the victim which he told the victim were from the insurance company.
The victim also hired Wright to represent the Davis Musical Theater Company in obtaining the proceeds from a will. Instead of turning the money over to the Davis Musical Theater Company, after Wright received the $15,500 check, he forged the victim's signature and deposited it in his own account, according to the DA's Office. He never informed the Davis Musical Theater Company that he received the money. It was not until early 2013, when the victim hired another attorney, that he learned Wright settled his personal injury case and pocketed the proceeds from that case and from the Davis Musical Theater Company.
District Attorney Jeff Reisig said, "Attorneys are ethically obligated to serve their client's best interests. In this case, Wright violated this trust as the victim's attorney and used it for his own personal financial benefit. Such actions undermine public trust in attorneys and undermine the entire judicial system."
The extensive investigation by the State Bar of California in this case helped the Yolo County District Attorney's Office to obtain a felony conviction.
California State Bar Communications Director Laura Ernde stated, "Wright was stripped of his law license earlier this year after the State Bar of California's Office of Chief Trial Counsel initiated disciplinary proceedings." Wright is no longer eligible to practice law.
On Oct. 7, Judge McAdam will schedule a court date to determine the amount of restitution Wright owes to the victim.
Also covered in the Regional News section of the Lodi News and the Sacramento Bee Crime News section of the Crime in America blog.
The CA State Bar maintains a Client Security Fund (CSF) to compensate victims of lawyers. Even though Hal Wright stole $3,250 from me, I have already been compensated by the CSF. There may be other victims. If you are a victim, file a claim with CSF.