Santa Clara attorney John Mlnarik is suspended from practicing law for at least a year after the California State Bar busted him for charging clients without their permission and, in one instance, for work he didn’t even do.
He could’ve fared worse. The 10-year barrister could very well have been disbarred for the kind of misconduct he admitted to. Cal Bar showed mercy, as we reported earlier this month, because Mlnarik had no previous disciplinary actions and because he made a convincing case of being an upstanding citizen who tirelessly volunteers for community organizations and his local parish.
But one jilted client says the lawyer’s skullduggery was more alarming, and more widespread, than public records indicate (more on that later). And at least one of the service groups to which Mlnarik dedicated his time—and in his response to the State Bar cited as proof of his upstanding character—wants nothing to do with him now.
The Rotary Club of Santa Clara, which appointed Mlnarik to serve as president from last summer to the next one, cut his term short once they found out how he (mis)treated clients and kept everyone around him in the dark about the resulting investigation.
“If I were president of the club, knowing that this is for the community and all that, I would come forward and say, ‘Listen, I’m going to step aside because of this and I don’t want to be a distraction,’” a longtime Rotarian, who requested anonymity, tells Fly.
Mlnarik didn’t do that. He reportedly remained at the helm, which put the Rotary board in the awkward position of having to oust him.
“Santa Clara Rotary is a great club, a very dynamic club; we do a lot of great stuff in the community, provide scholarships and do things for the greater good,” the source explains. “People also donate their time and money to us, so we need people with trustworthy character to lead.”
Mlnarik, who has yet to respond with comment, is evidently not that kinda guy.
According to Kia Friedman, who reported him to the State Bar, he’s worse.
“The State Bar complaint doesn’t tell the full story,” she says. “He didn’t just bill us improperly, he committed outright fraud.”
Cal Bar’s Nov. 28 ruling cites two cases, one involving charging a client named Aro Ebenhahn $6,200 after he already fired Mlnarik. In making the unauthorized expense, the disgraced attorney “intentionally committed an act involving moral turpitude, dishonesty or corruption ...,” the decision states.
The other case involves a client named Ludette Storozinski and Friedman, who offered to foot the bill so her friend, who was in dire need, could hire an attorney to help renegotiate her mortgage.
What the Cal Bar ruling does state is that Friedman agreed to fork out a $5,000 advance before Mlnarik would commence work on her friend’s case, that Mlnarik never obtained authorization to accept that payment and then proceeded to rack up an additional $13,828 even though the work wasn’t getting done. He then charged the entire amount to Friedman’s credit card without her consent a day after Storozinski terminated his service.
What the complaint leaves out, Friedman says, is that Mlnarik or someone under his watch allegedly forged her friend’s signature. Friedman even hired Patricia Fisher, a forensic document examiner with 30 years of experience, to prove it.
In comparing Storozinski’s signature on three documents, Fisher determined that Mlnarik had indeed faked the client’s credit card authorization. Whoever forged the signature, Fisher wrote, did so by cutting it from one document and pasting it on another. In the process, she concluded, the person cutting and pasting failed to align the signature block accurately. A dead giveaway.
“When she put up one signature up against another and found out it was a perfect match, I realized that it wasn’t all in my head,” Friedman says.
She prevailed over Mlnarik in fee arbitration, but because it was non-binding, Friedman says, he refused to pay. Then, he sued to keep the cash, forcing her rack up tens of thousands more dollars in legal fees the arbitration deal would have required him to pay if she won the case. To avoid the prospect of owing her more than he already did, according to Friedman, he withdrew his lawsuit and left her to foot the bill.
Mlnarik only returned what he wrongfully charge in October last year—after he found out Friedman complained to the State Bar. “It wasn’t out of the goodness of his own heart,” she scoffs. “He knew he had to.”