Area attorney’s law license suspended

MARTINSBURG — A Martinsburg attorney will lose his license to practice law for a year, following a ruling from the state Supreme Court, which sided with a state disciplinary board over a challenge by the lawyer.

The 23-page opinion, filed Thursday, orders Michael S. Santa Barbara to undergo psychological counseling or psychiatric care for depression and alcohol abuse and take eight hours of legal education courses following a recommendation by a committee of the Lawyer Disciplinary Board. Upon reinstatement of his license, Santa Barbara must also agree to his practice being supervised for one year, and must also reimburse the board for costs.

The recommendation for suspension came in the wake of a four-count statement of charges issued in December 2010 against him, both by former clients as well as the Office of Disciplinary Counsel that alleged Santa Barbara had mishandled a number of cases the board maintained he had agreed to take on, resulting in violations of the state’s Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys.

According to the board’s findings, Santa Barbara failed in more than one instance to meet filing deadlines for personal injury claims, and in another complaint brought by the disciplinary board, failed to be able to account for $15,000 of a $50,000 settlement fund for a client that had been awarded by Wal-Mart as a result of a fall. Santa Barbara has since repaid that fund, according to the opinion.

In arguing against the sanction, which he called “severe,” Santa Barbara said the board failed to fully weigh the impact his depression and the effect a disruptive office worker was having on his work. That employee was later prosecuted on federal charges for defrauding Santa Barbara and his wife’s firm out of tens of thousands of dollars, the opinion noted.

Santa Barbara also contested the board’s conclusion in one case, alleging one of the complainants was not a client, despite the client’s having signed a retainer agreement, according to the opinion.

Santa Barbara, who was admitted to the state Bar in 1991 before beginning his own practice in 2003, pleaded no contest to a handgun violation earlier this year after being accused of pointing a handgun during a confrontation with partygoers at a boat dock last August.

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