State bar accuses Dublin attorney of taking money from incarcerated clients

The California State Bar is accusing a Dublin attorney of overcharging and taking money from incarcerated clients while being both his trustee and criminal attorney, which is a conflict he allegedly never revealed to his client. 

The bar announced Monday a 22-count notice of disciplinary charges, or NDC, against David Jonathan Cohen, relating to his representation of incarcerated clients.    

Among other allegations of wrongdoing, Cohen is accused of misappropriating no less than $276,000 from an incarcerated client, charging him what the bar said in a statement of "an unconscionable" fee of $632,000. 

It also accuses Cohen of moving funds out of a client trust account without notice and draining most of the client's $562,000 living trust account as a successor trustee, while also representing him in a criminal matter. 

"The Special Deputy Trial Counsel's duty is to pursue the facts of an investigation and (a notice of disciplinary charges) when warranted," said Stacia Laguna, Special Deputy Trial Counsel Administrator. "These are serious allegations, and while the respondent is presumed innocent until a judgment is reached, we believe significant discipline is warranted, given the severity of the alleged misconduct."  

Laguna oversees the bar's SDTC rule 2201 program, involving outside counsel investigating and prosecuting California State Bar attorney discipline cases when there is a conflict identified within the Office of Chief Trial Counsel.  

The NDC alleges Cohen collected more than $632,000 in fees from his client, which the bar alleges to be excessive because it was collected without the client's express consent, prior to services being performed and contrary to the express terms of the fee agreement.  

Cohen also allegedly failed to promptly refund any unearned fees after his services were terminated.   

Other allegations include improperly depositing $200,000 and $320,000 in client fees into Cohen's own operating account without notifying the client in writing or obtaining a signed agreement allowing him to do so.   

The filing also alleges Cohen paid himself the entire $562,000 from the living trust without consent. 

Cohen is also accused in another case involving an incarcerated client's habeas corpus petition.

The NDC alleges from July 2019 to April 2020, Cohen failed to deposit into a client trust account more than $14,000 in fees from his client or the client's sister, instead putting the funds into his business operating account without his client's written consent.   

Cohen is a criminal defense attorney who once served as chair of the State Bar's criminal law advisory commission, an entity that assisted the California Board of Legal Specialization. 

Attorney discipline matters are investigated and prosecuted by the bar's OCTC or, if a bar conflict is identified, the SDTC, acting on behalf of the public. An NDC contains only allegations of professional misconduct.  

If a state bar court finds the attorney culpable of professional misconduct by clear and convincing evidence, the attorney may be suspended or disbarred.   

The bar's recommendation is transmitted to the California Supreme Court, which determines whether to impose the recommended discipline.