Complaints, Lawyer Discipline and Public Hearings

Summary of Rule 3-7.1 Consent Agreement

Sonia S. Hayer

Vancouver

Called to the bar: December 1, 2012

Consent agreement accepted: March 5, 2021

FACTS

Sonia S. Hayer practises primarily in the areas of family law and real estate law through her firm, which employed a designated paralegal and two assistants.

Hayer was the unwitting victim of a fake bank draft scam. She received an email purportedly from the president/CEO of a company in the Netherlands, who asked her to help draft a purchase and sale agreement involving the sale of equipment to another company. The email said that a deposit of $150,000 would be made and disbursed within three to four business days. Hayer checked both companies, found that they did exist and proceeded with the matter.

An Asian male with a Chinese passport attended at her Richmond office for the meeting. He completed a client identification form and indicated he was a sales manager with a business address in the Netherlands, with an email address for the company. Hayer sent a retainer agreement to the purported president/CEO’s email address and was signed and accepted. The photograph was of a Caucasian man and not the same as the man who attended her firm’s office. Hayer did not see the photo at the time.

Her firm received a bank draft in the amount of $150,000 from the company’s purported broker and she deposited it into her trust account. She received phone calls from the man who came to her office and encouraged her to wire the money within three days. She waited five days to allow the bank draft to clear, and later learned that 10 days are required to clear out-of-jurisdiction drafts.

She arranged for $144,299.25 to be sent to a bank in Japan and transferred an additional amount to her general account for payment of legal fees. The next day, she noticed the bank draft had been returned. She notified the bank of the fraud and borrowed money to fully cover the shortage within seven days. She did not report the trust shortage to the Law Society’s Executive Director.

Hayer admitted she did not follow the client identification and verification rules. She ought to have seen several red flags:

  • there was no apparent connection between the two companies and British Columbia;
  • the email was from a company in Netherlands but she met with a man with a Chinese passport in Richmond;
  • the man she met with did not show any government-issued documents that matched the name of the person who emailed her;
  • the man she met identified himself as a sales manager when the email described the sender as President and CEO;
  • the photograph attached to the retainer agreement was of a different person;
  • she received phone calls from the man she met pressuring her to send the money;
  • the funds were wired to a company in Japan with no apparent connection to the company; and
  • she was required to perform minimal legal services on the file.

Hayer also permitted her assistant and paralegal to use her Juricert certificates to digitally sign letters and submit documents to the land title office over the course of several years. Juricert certificate holders are required to keep the passwords confidential and lawyers must use their own Juricert certificates.

Hayer initially explained her assistant brought documents to the courthouse so she could review them prior to affixing her digital signature and confirmed that only she had access to her Juricert. The Law Society subsequently obtained log sheets for her trials and the exact times the court was sitting and when breaks were taken. The documents indicated that, on several occasions, the digital signature was affixed while the court was in session.

Her written signature on various documents were also different from the signature on her firms’ trust cheques. She was asked to explain the different signatures and she initially said she used different hands to execute documents. The Law Society obtained a form from the land title office which showed a document signed by the paralegal. The paralegal’s signature was the same as those on the trust cheques. Hayer admitted she allowed the paralegal to sign trust cheques on her behalf and to apply her Juricert digital signature while she was in trial.

When asked to produce client files during the course of the Law Society’s investigation, Hayer also admitted to electronically applying the paralegal’s signature to electronic documents of three pleadings.

CONSENT AGREEMENT

Hayer admitted she committed professional misconduct by disbursing funds from her trust account without making reasonable inquiries about her client and the circumstances of the retainer, failing to properly verify and obtain client identification information, and failing to report a trust shortage of $150,000 to the Law Society.

She also admitted she permitted someone else to use her Juricert password and affix her digital signature to electronic documents, improperly handled client trust funds by permitting someone else to sign trust cheques on her behalf and made false representations to the Law Society during the course of the investigation.

The Discipline Committee chair considered the agreed statement of facts and that she did not have a prior professional conduct record. The chair accepted the agreement that Hayer:

  1. be suspended from the practice of law for six months; and
  2. provide an undertaking she would cease working with her designated paralegal and never work with him again.

Rule 3-7.1 Consent Agreement