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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: January 2024

Adventures in the Law: Death Before Disbarment

Norm Tabler


  • Failure to report misconduct to the bar is a violation of the bar’s ethics code.
  • The bar may elect to dispatch State Bar investigators to resolve matters.
Adventures in the Law: Death Before Disbarment
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You’ve heard the phrase death before dishonor. This is a variant: the story of a California attorney who sought to choose death before disbarment.

Donald Stone had been a member of the California bar since 1972. In 2020 the bar informed him in writing that it had opened a disciplinary proceeding against him, based on a report that in 1995 he had been charged with shoplifting in a Sears store. According to the report, he had entered a no-contest plea to misdemeanor petty theft.

The basis of the bar’s concern wasn’t the theft itself, nor the charge or the plea. The concern was that Donald hadn’t disclosed the matter to the bar. If Donald had, in fact, pleaded no contest to a criminal charge, he was required to report the matter to the bar. Failure to do so would be a violation of the bar’s ethics code.

Donald responded to the bar’s notice with a letter noting that (a) the 1995 no-contest plea had been set aside and vacated after he had successfully completed probation, and (b) he was retired from law practice. Based on those two factors—the vacating of the plea and his retirement from law practice—Donald requested that the disciplinary case be dismissed.

The bar’s position was that the disciplinary proceeding would proceed. It declined to dismiss the case and scheduled a hearing. Donald was a no-show. The State Bar Court entered a default judgment against him.

Two months later the bar received information that would render the case moot, namely, notice of Donald’s death.

But something seemed wrong. News of the death didn’t come from any official source. It came by unsigned email from a private account, that of a “Jessie Stone.” This was the same account that Donald himself had been using in correspondence with the bar. And there was a noteworthy vagueness about the email. It read in its entirety, “I don’t know what this [notice from the bar] is, but Donald passed months ago.”

The bar dispatched State Bar investigators Julianne Finnila and Crystal Bruneau to investigate the matter and determine whether Donald was dead or alive. It didn’t take Julianne and Crystal long to resolve the matter. First, a search of public death records failed to list Donald’s death.

Next, an on-line search of the Winnetka, California, residence listed on Donald’s bar profile showed that the residence had been sold the previous July. After continued on-line searches and correspondence with the realtor who handled the sale of the Winnetka property, Julianne and Crystal determined that Donald was alive and well, living at a new address, in Chatsworth, California.

Julianne and Crystal travelled to Chatsworth and knocked on the door of 10918 Sweetwater Court. A man answered the door and identified himself as Donald Stone. When Julianne and Crystal introduced themselves as State Bar investigators, he said goodbye and closed the door.

In November the Chief Trial Counsel of the State Bar petitioned the State Bar Court to recommend Donald’s disbarment to the California Supreme Court, reciting that a default judgment had been entered and that he had failed to move to have it vacated or set aside within the prescribed period.

The Bar Court approved the petition, and the Supreme Court disbarred Donald—all because he didn’t disclose a petty theft charge.

The good news is that he’s not dead.

The case is In Re Donald Martin Stone on Discipline, Sup. Ct. Calif. bn