The D.C. Court of Appeals disbarred Anita Kanu in an opinion handed down today that says Kanu failed to refund $13,000 to two Chinese students who hired her to help them secure U.S. visas. The appeals court’s disbarment sanction is stiffer than the two-year suspension the Board on Professional Responsibility originally recommended.
Kanu, who has a license to practice law in Washington but lives an practices in California, was regularly hired by an organization named the Chinese Christian Services to help obtain immigration benefits for the organization’s religious workers.
According to the court’s 48-page opinion, in 2003, CCS referred two Chinese students to Kanu who were nearing the expiration date of their U.S. visas. The two students paid Kanu $13,000 in advance for her services. Kanu then prepared visa applications for the two students based on their alleged status as “religious workers” even though both students said they were not qualified for that status. In fact, one of the students told Kanu that he “did not in fact have any background as a religious worker, did not belong to any denomination, did not attend church, and was not a religious person,” the opinion says.
That’s where the trouble began. Kanu stopped responding to requests for status updates from the two students. When they went online and found that their visa applications had been rejected, they requested a refund from Kanu. She stopped responding to those requests as well and never returned the money the two students said they were owed.
When Washington’s Office of Bar Counsel began investigating the case in 2005, Kanu said that she was communicating with the two students and would return their payments in full. But then she stopped responding to bar counsel inquiries as well.
In March 2006, the bar counsel office filed a three-count specification of charges against Kanu, alleging failure to safekeep property; failure to return an unearned fee; engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit and/or misrepresentation; false or misleading communications regarding a lawyer’s services; engaging in conduct that seriously interferes with the administration of justice; and failing to cooperate with bar counsel. Bar counsel recommended a 90-day suspension, with 30 days of the suspension stayed in favor of a one-year probation with the requirement that she repay the money owed the students and attend continuing legal education.
Finding that bar counsel’s recommended sanction was “insufficient,” the hearing committee of the board recommended that Kanu receive a two-year suspension. When the case reached the full board, its members found that the charge of failing to cooperate with bar counsel should be dismissed because bar counsel failed to seek a motion to compel a response from the board.
Kanu, who was represented on appeal by Marion Baurley, a Washington-based solo practitioner, argued that she received no notice from bar counsel that she would be facing allegations of engaging in a scheme designed to commit immigration fraud. Had she known, she argued, she would have presented a different defense. The court’s opinion, which was written by Judge Kathryn Oberly and joined by Judge Blackburne-Rigsby and Judge Phyllis Thompson, says that argument was “unpersuasive.”
The court’s opinion also says that the failing-to-comply charge should stand because bar counsel is not required to obtain a motion to compel when an attorney makes no effort to respond to inquiries at all.
On the sanctions question, the appeals court required supplemental briefs from bar counsel and the board because, after Kanu’s case was argued, a different panel of the court found that in cases in which an attorney had committed fraud or had misappropriated funds, the attorney must be disbarred. The Bar Counsel’s Office was represented by Elizabeth Herman, deputy bar counsel. The board was represented by its executive attorney Elizabeth Branda.
Based on Herman and Branda’s briefs, the court determined that Kanu’s misconduct warranted disbarment with a requirement that she repay the $13,000 plus interest before being reinstated.
“Dishonesty toward the institutions of this court is bad enough, but coupled with the dishonesty and evasion Kanu has demonstrated toward her clients we equate her conduct to the dishonesty at issue in In re Cleaver-Bascombe II, and order that she be disbarred,” Oberly writes in the opinion.