Fair housing center, others join forces against man posing as "Legal Aid"

1020 N. Fair Oaks Ave.
Pasadena CA 91103

Contact: Gary Rhoades, Litigation Director 626-791-0211 x 117

(June 26, 2002) -- Consumer and tenants’ rights lawyers from southern and northern California, along with the California Department of Justice, have joined to defend a series of trial verdicts, rulings and a statewide injunction against a businessman holding himself out as “Legal Aid” and “Legal Aid Services.” The Southern California Housing Rights Center (based in Los Angeles), Legal Services of Northern California (Sacramento), the Law Offices of Cibula & Cibula (Redding) and the law firm of Downey, Brand, Seymour & Rohwer (Sacramento) represent the low-income tenants in their deceptive business practices and false advertising case against Walter Moore (aka Jeff Simmons), a Modesto businessman who advertised his business as “Legal Aid” throughout California. After Moore appealed the verdicts, rulings and injunction to the California Court of Appeal, the Department of Justice filed an amicus brief in support of the trial court’s false advertising ruling and injunction.

The plaintiffs, all low-income individuals in Shasta County who needed legal assistance as they faced evictions from their homes, paid Moore, a non-lawyer, for such assistance. The plaintiffs all received representation from Legal Services of Northern California in amending the pleadings Moore gave them and then winning their eviction trials. The plaintiffs then sued Moore under California laws prohibiting deceptive business practices, false advertising, the unauthorized practice of law, and providing unlawful detainer assistance without registration.

“The deceptive practices and false advertising laws were passed to stop shysters from holding themselves out as something they’re not,” said Gary Rhoades, Litigation Director for the Southern California Housing Rights Center, lead trial and appellate counsel for the plaintiffs. “Here, we have a businessman who is not a lawyer calling himself ‘Legal Aid’ in the Yellow Pages throughout the state and on his website.”

At trial, four families from Shasta County and then four witnesses from three other counties testified as to how they were deceived first by the name “Legal Aid” into calling Moore. Several court forms adopted by California’s Judicial Council, including those received by the plaintiffs, suggest that if a person cannot afford a lawyer, they should call their local legal aid office. The jury also heard from two of Moore’s former employees and a tester that Moore trained his staff to lie to callers, claiming that he was the “legal aid” mentioned on court forms, and that it would cost anywhere from $85 to $400 to type simple forms.

The plaintiffs obtained three jury verdicts against Walter Moore. The verdicts came under the Consumer Remedies Act, the State Bar Act (unauthorized practice of law), and the Unlawful Detainer Assistance Act (the first such verdict in California). The jury also made a fourth finding that Moore had acted with fraud, malice or oppression.

After the verdicts were announced, Judge Richard McEachen ruled that Moore had also violated California’s Unfair Business Practices and False Advertising laws. In February 2001, the trial court issued a state-wide injunction and restitution order against Moore, his partners and successors, prohibiting them from using the names Legal Aid, Legal Services, or Legal Aid Services, and ordering them to advertise the results of the lawsuit in the newspapers of the 22 cities Moore advertised in so that all former consumers had the opportunity to get their money back.

In his appeal, Moore’s principal contention is that false advertising and deceptive business practices rulings and injunctions cannot stand without a consumer survey showing that the advertising would have deceived the general public. The plaintiffs and Attorney General Bill Lockyer disagree: “The primary evidence in a false advertising case is the advertising itself,” said Lockyer in a “friend of the court” brief filed in support of the plaintiffs. Rhoades said the case has been briefed and awaits an oral argument date from the Court of Appeal.

The Department of Justice today issued an legal alert that assists consumers in sorting out what organizations are legitimate non-profit legal services organizations from legal document preparers. “The true non-profit legal services organizations in California provide indispensable free legal assistance to consumers who can’t afford to hire an attorney but need help while facing dangerous domestic violence situations, evictions from their homes and other emergencies,” Lockyer said. “But consumers must be wary of deceptive, for-profit companies that purport to offer services from quality, non-profit legal services organizations but instead may provide shoddy advice that can actually hurt consumers and interfere with their legal rights.”

In addition to providing a series of inquiries consumers can make when seeking legal aid, the Department of Justice’s legal alert also provides contact information: 1) To verify that an attorney is licensed, consumers may contact the California State Bar Association by calling (800) 843-9053 or visiting the State Bar's website at http://www.calsb.org/mm/sbmbrshp.htm, 2) to verify that a legal aid organization is federally funded or to find a local non-profit legal aid office, consumers may check the Legal Services Corporation's website at http://www.lsc.gov/fundprog.htm And 3) to report victimizations by non-attorney document preparers, consumers can call local district attorney or to the Attorney General=s Public Inquiry Unit at (800) 952-5225. Consumer complaints also may be filed online at the Attorney General’s website at http://www.ag.ca.gov/consumers.