We were shocked by this story about Sandeep Baweja, an Irvine attorney who admits he stole most of the money from a $3.55 million wage and hour class action settlement in a case against ZipRealty. Lubocki, et al. v. ZipRealty, Inc., Case No. CV 07 2959 SJO (JCX) (C.D. Cal.)
As resumes and accomplishments go, Irvine attorney Sandeep Baweja was a superstar. Then, in the span of a few months this year, he threw it all away. In an unfolding case that has stunned colleagues, Baweja, 38, has admitted to burning through almost all of a $2.7-million settlement that was supposed to be shared by about 1,000 plaintiffs he represented in a class-action labor lawsuit. In legal filings, Baweja cites his inexperience as a stock market investor and this year's market freefall for the massive losses — money he had no right to transfer without court approval, according to legal documents.
We'd never met or heard of him, but apparently "superstar" Baweja is a ten year lawyer, active in politics and civic matters. And apparently, ZipRealty and/or the claims administrator Garden City Group released all of the settlement money to Baweja, who then spent several months playing the stock market with the money. Unfortunately for Baweja and his clients, mid-2008 was a bad time to be playing the stock market. He blew all but $54,846.90 of the settlement money.
Baweja and his co-counsel have taken down most of their website about the ZipRealty case, and replaced it with an update informing class members that Baweja is withdrawing due to a conflict of interest.
On December 24, 2008, Mr. Baweja filed a Motion to Withdraw as counsel in Lubocki v. Zip Realty, Inc. Case No. CV 07-2959-SJO (JCx). Mr. Baweja is asking to be removed as class counsel due to a conflict of interest. All class members should expect to receive a letter explaining the basis of the conflict of interest, with a copy of the Motion to Withdraw. The hearing on the Motion to Withdraw is currently set for January 26, 2009.
That motion will be granted. He also sent an email to class members that same day, confessing what he had done with their money. For a cached version of the site, check here. For a copy of the class notice, check out this blog post. There is no evidence that Ernest J. Franceschi or any of the other lawyers involved in the case played any role in the disappearance of the money.
What's next? A new class action to represent the class members in the pursuit of their class settlement money. Disciplinary proceedings are also a certainty. Playing with and losing your clients' money is about as serious a violation as a lawyer can commit. As one lawyer asked about the case and the rule Baweja violated put it this way: "That's Ethics 101." Actually, that's one you learn in kindergarten. Don't take what doesn't belong to you. Don't borrow without permission. You don't have to be a lawyer to know that.
On a side note, as further evidence that Avvo.com ratings are worthless, here's a link to his Avvo rating. "No ratings yet. ... We have not found any instances of professional misconduct for this lawyer." Perhaps when the angry clients and newspaper readers find out about Avvo, that will change. Baweja does have a wikipedia page now, though. Baweja was also the treasurer in Irvine for the Yes on Measure R and Yes on Measure S campaign committees. You can't help but wonder how clean those campaign accounts were kept.