Richard M. Greenberg, Office of the Appellate Defender, New York (Sara Gurwitch of counsel), for appellant.
Ronald R. Benjamin, Binghamton, for appellant.
Eric T. Schneiderman, Attorney General, New York (Jodi A. Danzig of counsel), for respondent.
Mazzarelli, J.P., Renwick, Manzanet-Daniels, Gische, Clark, JJ.
Judgment, Supreme Court, New York County (Lewis Bart Stone, J.), rendered June 24, 2004, as amended July 29, 2004, convicting defendant, after a jury trial, of scheme to defraud in the first degree, grand larceny in the third degree (10 counts), grand larceny in the fourth degree, and practicing or appearing as an attorney-at-law without being admitted and registered (12 counts), and sentencing her to an aggregate term of 5 to 15 years, unanimously affirmed.
Defendant is an attorney licensed in Canada who founded and operated a law firm called Codina Partners International (CPI). In 1996, defendant opened an office in Manhattan to handle immigration matters. Defendant has never been a member of the bar of New York or of any other state of the United States. The complainants are former clients of CPI who visited CPI's New York office, and subsequently retained the firm, between January 4, 1996 and February 28, 1999, in connection with their efforts to obtain documents necessary for them to legally live and work in the United States or Canada. The clients all testified at trial that they retained CPI based on their belief that defendant was licensed to practice law in New York. They further testified that they never received the services they paid for and did not receive the refunds that they demanded. After several of the complainants reported defendant to the police and the Departmental Disciplinary Committee, the New York Attorney General (AG) opened an investigation.
The AG executed a search warrant and seized defendant's office files. Defendant was subsequently charged in three indictments, covering crimes including grand larceny, scheme to defraud, and the unlicensed practice of law (28 counts in total). Although the AG acted on the matter as early as March 1998, it was not until February 4, 1999, that the New York State Police formally requested the AG to act, which gave the latter jurisdiction pursuant to Executive Law § 63(3). Thereafter, the AG presented its case to a grand jury, which returned indictments against defendant.
At her first trial, defendant conceded that she was not admitted to practice law in New York or in any other state and that although she had been admitted as a barrister and solicitor in Ontario, Canada, she had been suspended after she was convicted in Ontario in 1997 of fraud and falsification of books. A jury convicted her of all but a single grand larceny count, and she was sentenced to an aggregate term of 9-⅓ to 28 years. This Court reversed the judgment, finding that the AG had executed the search warrant at defendant's office prior to obtaining jurisdiction under Executive Law § 63(3). The evidence seized pursuant to the warrant was suppressed and a new trial ordered (297 A.D.2d 539 [1st Dept 2002], lv dismissed 98 N.Y.2d 767 ). However, this Court rejected defendant's argument that she was entitled to dismissal of the indictment (id. at 540-541). This finding was based on the grand jury's having heard testimony from former clients of CPI who appeared voluntarily.
The AG presented 15 witnesses at the retrial, all of whom had retained CPI to assist them in obtaining legal immigration status. None of the witnesses testified that defendant ever explicitly represented that she was licensed to practice law in New York, or in the United States for that matter. However, many of the witnesses testified to having learned about CPI through a newspaper advertisement bearing defendant's image and promoting her as an immigration attorney who could assist clients seeking legal status in the United States and Canada. Most of the witnesses further stated that when they first appeared for their appointments at CPI they saw a sign on the door of the office, which they variably described as identifying the office as belonging to "Codina Partners International, attorney-at-law, " "Angie Codina, attorney-at-law, Codina Partners International, " "Codina, attorney-at-law, law services, " or "Codina Partnership, Law Office." Most of the witnesses claimed that defendant assured them that she would achieve the result they desired and then refused to refund their money when they demanded it. They all testified that they would not have retained CPI if they had known Codina was not licensed in New York.
Also testifying for the AG was Richard Friedman, an investigator, who stated that defendant first came to his attention in November of 1997 when one of CPI's clients filed a complaint with the AG. Friedman testified that he visited CPI's office, where the sign read, "Codina Partners International Limited, Attorneys At Law." During his investigation, he learned that defendant was not admitted to practice law in the United States, but that two or three of her employees were members of the New York bar. He stated that in March 1998 he executed a search warrant at CPI's office and seized computers and boxes of client files. Friedman reviewed the materials and found no evidence that the United States or Canada had approved any of the immigration applications of defendant's clients. One of the advertisements in the materials contained a photograph of defendant, indicated that she was licensed to practice law in Canada, and provided a "generic reference" to attorneys at defendant's firm and where they were admitted.
Defendant testified that she was a Canadian immigration attorney who built an international practice under the CPI name, including opening a New York office in 1996 with 20 employees. She stated that the New York office handled immigration cases exclusively, for clients seeking legal status in either the United States or Canada, although the vast majority of the applications were for Canadian immigration. Defendant conceded that she was not admitted to practice in New York, and did not practice in the New York State courts, but stated that the office in New York employed four attorneys admitted to practice in New York.
Defendant testified that the sign on her office front door read, "Codina Partners International, attorneys at law, " and that she used a "standard" advertisement to promote CPI's services that was translated into various languages and placed in a number of publications. The ad stated that the firm specialized in immigration to the United States and Canada, listed the specific areas of CPI's immigration practice, identified CPI's various offices, and contained a photograph of defendant, which included a statement identifying her as a "barrister, solicitor, or attorney at law in Canada." The ad also described her work in Canada, and stated that she was licensed to practice in Canada. Defendant stated that the ad said nothing "about the practice of law in New York." She acknowledged that the ad did not contain a disclaimer that she was unlicensed in New York or that she was admitted only in Canada, but noted that her profile mentioned her experience and credentials in Canada.
Defendant acknowledged that nothing in the CPI retainer agreement indicated that the client understood that defendant was not an attorney admitted to practice in New York. However, she testified that she never "expressly misrepresented" that she was licensed to practice in New York, and claimed that her status in New York was "irrelevant" to her immigration practice.
Trial evidence is legally sufficient to support a conviction if, viewed in the light most favorable to the People, it could lead a rational jury to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (see People v Danielson, 9 N.Y.3d 342, 349 ). A jury's verdict is supported by sufficient evidence if the evidence presented supports "any valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences which could lead a rational person to the conclusion reached by the jury" (People v Bleakley, 69 N.Y.2d 490, 495 ). A weight of the evidence review requires a court "first to determine whether an acquittal would not have been unreasonable" (see Danielson, 9 N.Y.3d at 348). If such a determination is made, the court "must weigh conflicting testimony, review any rational inferences that may be drawn from the evidence and evaluate the strength of such conclusions" (id.). The court then decides based on the weight of the credible evidence whether the jury was justified in finding defendant ...