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December 26, 2006

Sangha v. La Barbera (2006) 146 Cal.App.4th 79

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The Fourth District decides in a criminal legal malpractice case that the client must make a threshold showing of actual innocence of both the crime charged and of lesser included offenses to prevail in a legal malpractice action.

Roopinder Sangha became enraged at his girlfriend, damaged some of her property, and threatened her and her family.  Sangha alleged his criminal defense attorney, Vincent La Barbera, negligently advised him to plead guilty to felony vandalism.  Sangha retained new counsel who persuaded the court to set aside Sangha’s plea and allowed him to admit guilt to a misdemeanor vandalism charge.

The trial court granted La Barbera’s summary judgment motion because Sangha did not prove actual innocence and post-conviction exoneration.

On appeal Sangha argued that he need only show actual innocence of the felony vandalism charge.  He reasoned that he need not show innocence of any offense, only innocence of the offense for which the attorney’s legal malpractice led to the wrongful conviction.  La Barbera contended Sangha must show actual innocence of all lesser included offenses, not just the offense that involved the malpractice claim.

La Barbera showed that in pleading guilty to felony vandalism, Sangha entered a guilty plea and admitted that he had destroyed property of more than $400.00, the threshold amount for a felony.  Sangha testified that he entered the guilty plea on La Barbera’s instruction and presented the police investigation listing property damage as being less than $400.00.  The trial court found the investigation evidence was hearsay.  Thus, Sangha failed to rebut La Barbera’s evidence that he had committed a felony. 

The Court of Appeal also concluded that Sangha must show his actual innocence of the lesser included offense of misdemeanor vandalism.  Sangha maliciously destroyed the victim’s property, disputing only the extent of the damage.  Other counsel eventually negotiated more favorable plea.  The fact that other counsel did better warranted post-conviction relief, but that does not translate into civil damages.  In the criminal legal malpractice context the criminal act remains the ultimate source of the client’s predicament regardless of attorney negligence.  The harm is not only because of attorney error but is primarily due to the client’s crime.  Damages should only be awarded to a person who is truly free from any criminal involvement.

Whether it is a felony or a misdemeanor, vandalism is an intentional and malicious act damaging or destroying property.  The same policy considerations supporting the imposition of an actual innocence requirement for the originally charged offense apply with equal force to a lesser included crime.  To forgo the requirement of proof of factual innocence would allow Sangha to shift responsibility for his own criminal act and alleviate the consequences of his conduct.

Thus, only if a client is factually innocent of the crime charged and of any degree of that crime should the client be able to collect monetary damages.  Because Sangha cannot show actual innocence of any criminal conduct, summary judgment was proper.

Comment: This case extends the actual innocence requirement to lesser included offenses, furthering the public policy of not allowing criminal defendants to shift responsibility for their crimes to their counsel.

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