A Mississauga, Ont., lawyer has failed in an attempt to have disciplinary proceedings against him dropped after he alleged the Law Society of Upper Canada was harassing and discriminating against him.
In an application filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, Ravinder Sawhney, a lawyer of South Asian descent, alleged the law society had discriminated against him by failing to properly investigate complaints about white lawyers on the other side of the matter that landed him in regulatory trouble.
He also claimed the law society harassed him by sending fake clients to his office and using its lawyer referral service to pepper him with technical questions, allegations the LSUC says are groundless.
“The society is unconscionable in its stand that I need and deserve to be disciplined whereas the white lawyers who remain privileged must not be questioned for wrongdoing. This is discrimination,” Sawhney wrote in his application.
Sawhney wanted his disciplinary hearing that was due to start on April 11 stayed, but in an interim decision released on April 5, HRTO vice chairwoman Sherry Liang said the evidence he presented fell well short of the high threshold required for an immediate remedy. Instead, she asked both sides for submissions on whether the matter should be deferred until after Sawhney’s hearing.
“Interim remedies are extraordinary in that they constitute an order to do or refrain from doing something in the absence of a finding that the code has been violated,” Liang wrote in the decision, adding she wasn’t even sure whether the HRTO had the authority to intervene in a case before another administrative body.
At the outset of his hearing on April 11, Sawhney, representing himself, returned to the issue of discrimination and urged the law society to stay his hearing until the HRTO can make a final determination.
That motion was ultimately unsuccessful, and the hearing on the merits of Sawhney’s alleged misconduct is ongoing.
Jan Parnega-Welch, counsel for the law society, said Sawhney had produced no evidence to back up his discrimination claims and argued the allegations against the lawyer stand alone regardless of the complaints about colleagues involved in the matter.
Sawhney allegedly failed to serve his client in a wrongful dismissal action against Telus Communications Co. by spending “unnecessary and excessive amounts of time on legal education and research” and taking inadequate notes of research and client meetings.
The law society also alleges he charged fees that were “not fair or reasonable.” The client complained about Sawhney after switching lawyers in 2007.
An assessment reduced six accounts rendered by Sawhney, totalling almost $140,000, to $6,500 in early 2008. A Superior Court judge upheld the assessment in October 2008. The Court of Appeal dismissed a further challenge of it in April 2009.
Sawhney tells Law Times he was simply preparing himself properly for each stage of the action and never expected his client to pay his bill. “It was not my expectation ever that the bill was affordable to her since the bill was for payment by the billion-dollar company from whom justice was being sought,” he says.
Instead, he traces the roots of the dispute back to 2005, when he made an application for case management of the Telus matter on the grounds that the lawyer on the other side was being unco-operative by, for example, ignoring his communications. He also accused his opponents of sending out documents, including a counterclaim, without having them issued by the court.
Master Calum MacLeod dismissed the initial application on June 2, 2005, and rebuked Sawhney for basing his argument on complaints about opposing counsel.
“If a party has a serious issue concerning the conduct of a party or of opposing counsel, particularly if there are contested facts, it is not proper to try to address this in submissions to the court unsupported by an evidentiary record,” MacLeod wrote. “It is certainly not proper to write a letter to the court accusing the other side of misconduct and asking for case management.”
Sawhney was eventually successful in his application for case management but he told the law society hearing panel the decision dealt a serious blow to his credibility with the court and his client and argued the opposing lawyer had misled MacLeod.
Sawhney launched a complaint of his own about the other lawyer’s conduct but he learned three weeks before his own hearing that the investigation had been closed. Further complaints by Sawhney about other opposing lawyers in the case have been dismissed.
“Where the integrity of two lawyers is in question, the law society has an obligation to even-handedly investigate and reach a decision,” Sawhney told the panel. “Then, after three years, they simply ignore it and say we are only interested in you.”
In evidence given to the panel, Sawhney also accused the law society of harassing him by bombarding him with calls from fake clients to test his knowledge. The investigation against him was paused in 2007 while assessment proceedings were underway but it resumed in the summer of 2009 after the final determination in the Court of Appeal.
Around the same time, Sawhney claims he began getting unusual calls through the law society’s lawyer referral service from people he suspected weren’t real potential clients.
“In 16 years of practice, I have found callers are typically people in some kind of distress, and they have some issue they want resolved,” Sawhney said at the hearing. “These people would ask very technical questions in a lawyer-type way. They were testing me.”
According to Sawhney, one family wanted to meet him in person and gave him a grilling on the law in his office. “They started looking and examining what was around my office,” he said. “It was obviously someone trying to investigate me. I knew the law society was setting me up and was going to make my life miserable. Nobody else has that vendetta against me.”
Sawhney claims the calls kept coming for six months, with the volume peaking at the beginning of 2010 at the same time the law society authorized the proceedings against him. He alleges the calls stopped only after he asked the director of the Ontario Lawyers’ Assistance Program to intervene.
But Parnega-Welch told the panel there was no evidence the law society had any involvement in the alleged phone calls or visit. “The present motion is really another attempt to put off a hearing on the merits, and there is a lengthy history,” she said, pointing to numerous adjournment requests by Sawhney at the pre-hearing stage.