Attorney Hal Erwin Wright settled Steve Isaacson’s personal injury lawsuit for pennies on the dollar without his knowledge, then forged his client’s and wife’s signatures on release forms and settlement checks to pocket the cash. He charged Isaacson hundreds of dollars for lawsuits he never filed.
“From the beginning of his representation of Isaacson in September 2010 until January 2013,” State Bar of California officials said, “he lied to his client on numerous occasions, saying he was working on his personal injury lawsuit when, in fact, he had never filed one.”
And, when Isaacson, vice president of the Davis Musical Theater Company, hired him in 2012 to handle a patron’s posthumous $15,000 donation to the company, the attorney walked away with all but $3,000 of it, then told him the spare change was a partial payment from the injury suit. After Isaacson fired his attorney, his new lawyer, Jason Ewing, uncovered the scheme in early 2013.
Wright was sentenced Aug. 12 in Yolo Superior Court to three years of felony probation and a six-month stretch in county jail for grand theft, and barred from practicing law in California. The State Bar, following its own investigation, stripped Wright, 60, of his law license in June for forgery and multiple thefts of client funds. Thebar also ordered Wright to pay $58,000 restitution.
An Oct. 7 court date has been set in Yolo Superior Court to determine how much more Wright must pay.
“It so devastated (Isaacson), what (Wright) put him through these 2 1/2 years,” said Jennifer McHugh, the Yolo County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case. “The impact is twofold: He relied on his attorney. He’s a person you’re supposed to trust. To see someone do this when the victim is so vulnerable, it destroys public trust in attorneys. It’s heartbreaking.”
For Isaacson, the show goes on even through the constant pain of a 2010 fall at a Sacramento theater (the production was titled “Death Trap,” Isaacson deadpanned) that he said injured his knee, compressed his spine and spurred the injury suit.
“It’s been four years of hell for me, I’m in excruciating pain 24 hours a day,” Isaacson said Wednesday from his Davis home.
After Isaacson’s injury, he said he didn’t have to go far to find legal help. Wright played bass guitar for Davis Musical Theater Company but also had been an attorney in Davis for more than 20 years, with an office on F Street.
Isaacson hired Wright later in 2010, seeking a settlement with the Big Idea Theatre, where the accident occurred, that would take care of his medical expenses and lost wages. Wright went to work, but Isaacson wouldn’t see a dime.
By April 1, 2011, Wright had settled his claim with the theater for $40,000, far less than the value of the suit, according to Yolo County District Attorney and State Bar officials. Isaacson and his wife never knew.
The same day, Wright forged the couple’s signatures on a release from the theater’s insurer. The insurance company mailed two checks days later. Two more forgeries, then Wright moved the checks into first a trust account, then his own.
For nearly two years after that April Fool’s Day, Wright managed to hold off Isaacson, citing court delays and postponed meetings, and even drawing up fake interrogatories – the formal list of questions sent to a party in a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Isaacson’s money and disability payments were running out and his pain and desperation were growing worse, according to a string of emailed correspondence between Isaacson and Wright that Isaacson supplied The Bee.
In an email dated Jan. 17, 2012, Isaacson pleads with Wright for an update on their case: “What are they waiting for my knee to rust away? I have been in do (sic) much pain lately. Please let me know.”
Wright reassured him two days later.
“It sickens me that you are still in pain and I’m trying best with these ‘suits,’ but thinking outside the box/bun is not their forte,” Wright wrote, adding that the case “is actually in better shape now than is (sic) was 6 months ago. Everybody’s in.”
By October 2012, Wright told Isaacson that he was “still working on getting you some jingle.”
There was no jingle. There was no case.
Isaacson wouldn’t learn that for several more months, tipped off first in November 2012 by a law firm’s congratulatory call on the posthumous donation Davis Musical Theater Company never received; then by the sleuthing of his new attorney Ewing.
When word came down from the State Bar of Wright’s pending disbarment this past May, Isaacson made sure he had a seat for the hearing.