Dennis M. McGrath represented hundreds of clients who could not afford to hire an attorney during the 13 years he worked for an assigned counsel program in Erie County.
But after learning that McGrath was not allowed to practice law in New York, only a small percentage of those clients want their cases reviewed, according to McGrath’s attorney, Mark R. Uba.
Uba said he understands that the assigned counsel program sent letters to between 300 and 400 individuals who McGrath represented from 2001 through 2013.
“Of that number, only 15 advised the program that they would like their cases reviewed,” the attorney said.
The program has retained attorney Michael Marion to consult with those individuals and review their cases, Uba said.
“Although Mr. Marion has not yet consulted with all those individuals, it appears so far that hardly anyone will wish to undo the favorable result obtained,” he said.
McGrath mainly handled cases for indigent clients in town and village courts in Erie County and a much smaller number of cases in Buffalo City Court, Uba said.
From Jan. 1, 2001, through December 2013, prosecutors said, McGrath was paid nearly $165,000 to represent indigent clients for the Erie County Bar Association Aid to Indigent Prisoners’ Society, even though he was not authorized to practice law in New York’s court system.
McGrath has a law degree from the University of Toledo and is admitted to practice law in Ohio as well as in federal courts in Ohio, Kentucky and Western New York.
“He handled no felony indictments,” Uba said of McGrath, and he was not involved in cases in Erie County Court or State Supreme Court.
McGrath, 57, of Hamburg, pleaded guilty in Erie County Court last week to unauthorized practice of law and second-degree grand larceny. He could face up to 15 years in prison when Judge Kenneth F. Case sentences him March 27.
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said McGrath told the assigned counsel program that he was in the process of being admitted to practice law in New York, “but nobody asked for proof.”
The shortcoming came to light when one of McGrath’s clients complained about his conduct in a case and filed a grievance against him with the Erie County Bar Association’s attorney disciplinary committee earlier this year, Sedita said.
The committee checked the roll of attorneys authorized to practice in New York and found that McGrath was not on the list, the district attorney said.
Asked this week about the letters the assigned counsel program sent to McGrath’s indigent clients offering to review their cases, Sedita said he was not aware of that.
“If and when motions are filed to set aside” the disposition of any of the cases “for the purportedly aggrieved parties, we will respond then,” he said.
“We’re not going to automatically agree to set aside convictions just because the assigned counsel program was not properly supervising one of it purported attorneys,” he added.
Robert D. Lonski, administrator of the assigned counsel program here, said McGrath indicated in a sworn statement on the program’s application form, which attorneys must submit every year, that he was authorized to practice law in New York.
Lonski said that when McGrath started working for the program, Lonski was aware he had worked for a number of area legal service organizations, including the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo’s public defender program. He said his agency has tightened up its application process and now requires much more documentation from lawyers to indicate that they are authorized to practice in New York.
Lonski confirmed this week that the program has contacted the indigent clients McGrath represented.
“Upon learning that Mr. McGrath had misrepresented himself as being a lawyer licensed to practice in New York, we immediately took steps to protect the interests of the clients on whose cases he had worked through our program,” he said.
“We identified and wrote to each of them in order to advise them of the situation. We also ran several notices in The Buffalo News. An experienced attorney was assigned to each former client who contacted us to discuss with them their rights and options.”
He added that the review of those cases is continuing. “Because communications between an attorney and client are privileged, neither we nor the reviewing attorney is able to comment on the status of the review at this time,” he said.
Lonski also said he expects that any costs associated with “remedial activities” in those cases “will be covered by monies recovered from Mr. McGrath.”
“We are continuing to pursue the return of the public funds paid to Mr. McGrath through our program, and regret any trouble caused by his untrue certification that he was licensed in New York,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney Candace K. Vogel said McGrath has signed a confession of judgment to repay the money to the assigned counsel program.
McGrath has been admitted to practice law in Ohio for more than 30 years and is admitted to the federal courts for the Southern District of Ohio, the Eastern District of Kentucky and the Western District of New York, based in Buffalo, as well as the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, according to his attorney.
In addition, Uba said, McGrath was provisionally admitted to practice law in New York for a time to accommodate his employment with Neighborhood Legal Services in Buffalo, under a Jan. 12, 1989, order issued by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court.
Uba said McGrath served as co-lead counsel, along with counsel for four other legal service organizations, in a federal class action lawsuit against 40 entities, principally government agencies, across Erie County. The suit alleged racial discrimination and bias in Section 8 and public housing and led to a settlement, he said.