Suspended Tennessee Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Robert Chavez has found a new attorney, which is a good thing because he needs one. Right now Chavez faces accusations of fraud arising from a $25,000 loan he secured for two sisters from a local nonprofit in 2006. According to court documents and first reported here (“The Bad Man of Nolensville Road,” Feb. 15, “From Bad to Worse,” March 8) Chavez co-signed for the loan on behalf of two immigrant sisters—Maria and Araceli Lopez—promising to give them the money after he received the check. He never did. Now Chavez and the sisters are being sued by the nonprofit for nonpayment of the loan, the sisters are suing Chavez and Chavez is countersuing the sisters. In the middle of this legal fingerpointing, Chavez’s attorney, Delain Deatherage, withdrew from the case in mid-February, giving no reason in either her court filing or in an interview with the Scene.
The bad news for Chavez—as if being accused of fraud and suspended from the Hispanic chamber because of said accusation wasn’t bad enough—is that he’s retained Michael Sneed, an attorney with a less than Cochranesque record and reputation. Since 1993, Sneed’s been censured four times and suspended once for six months by the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, which polices and disciplines lawyers. Right now Sneed faces four additional charges of misconduct before the board, including accusations that he took on cases he was not qualified for, mishandled at least one client’s money and lied to board investigators. In November 2006, the board recommended that Sneed be disbarred.
For a little perspective, consider that of almost 4,000 attorneys practicing law in Davidson County in the 2006 reporting period, only nine were censured, two were suspended and one was disbarred by the board.
It’s not just other lawyers who don’t think much of Sneed. In September 2005, he lost a malpractice suit brought by a former client. One of the complaints in that case was that Sneed failed to show up for a deposition and dodged his client at every turn. The episode is currently on appeal but, if he loses again, it could end up costing him more than $24,000. These and many other, um, lowlights of Sneed’s recent career were chronicled by the Scene in July of last year (“Legal Weasel,” July 9, 2006).
Also investigated in that article were Sneed’s less than honest dealings with Hispanic immigrant clients, the same community that Chavez has been accused of exploiting.
Sneed has received referrals from and has shared clients with Carmen Ceja, a woman who runs a business on Nolensville Road that purports to help immigrants with translations and filing paperwork—such as immigration documentation—with the government. Ceja is currently being sued by Rodolfo Gonzalez, a former client who claims that Ceja and Sneed misrepresented him by improperly drafting a loan document. As a result Gonzalez is out over $1,500.
Another former client of Ceja’s, Margarita Kennen-Sanchez, claims in a complaint to the Board of Professional Responsibility that she was referred to Sneed by Ceja and that both Ceja and Sneed mishandled a routine immigration filing for her, which may now result in her deportation.
Sabrina Jacal worked as a paralegal at Ceja Enterprises from 2001 to 2003 and saw what was happening. “Carmen would call [Sneed] and he would come in and take fees from the clients,” she told the Scene last year. “Then, six months later, the [documents] would never have been filed. I would call the clerk’s office to investigate and find out that he just wasn’t doing it.”
Sneed wouldn’t comment on any of the board allegations against him, saying that it was a confidential matter. He did question the truthfulness of some of those who have accused him of wrongdoing.
The official complaint of Kennen-Sanchez, for instance, was written in English, yet she is not a fluent English speaker. “Does that indicate to you that maybe she does not know what was written and it was written on her behalf by somebody [else]?” Sneed asks. “You can’t really make the representation that she made the complaint herself.”
Sandy Garrett, the attorney at the board who has handled the Sneed investigation, says her findings and recommendation for disbarment will go to a three-member panel appointed by the state Supreme Court. The panel will make a recommendation—which both sides will have a chance to appeal—and then the case will go before the Supreme Court itself. In short, Garrett says that procedurally, “this case has a long way to go.”
As for the Lopez matter, Sneed says the Lopez sisters and their attorney, Sean Lewis, have yet to produce “specific facts” that would prove that Chavez committed fraud. “He’s (only) made conclusory allegations of fraud,” Sneed says of Lewis. “Where are the specific facts?”
On April 20, Sneed will argue this before a Chancery Court judge. Given his history of failing to show up on behalf of clients, Chavez might want to call his attorney on the 19th of this month and offer a friendly reminder.