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Local Immigration Attorney Forced to Refund Money to Former Clients

Christopher Macaraeg is on probation after discipline by the State Bar of California for failing to perform legal services

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    Former clients of local immigration attorney Christopher Macaraeg claim his failure to properly handle their cases has caused them significant problems with the immigration system. NBC 7 Investigates' Mari Payton reports. (Published Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015)

    Former clients of a local immigration attorney claim his failure to properly handle their cases has caused them significant problems with the immigration system, in some cases forcing their families to remain separated by the U.S.-Mexico border.

    Two former clients of attorney Christopher Macaraeg have filed lawsuits against the him. He ultimately was required to refund them a total of almost $10,000 in legal fees. One of those clients told NBC 7 Investigates Macaraeg has not kept up with those court-ordered payments.

    Public documents also reveal Macaraeg has been disciplined twice by the California State Bar Association, the state agency that licenses and disciplines attorneys.

    Macaraeg declined our request for an interview, but in a written statement, his attorney Michael Hernandez described Macaraeg as a “trusted and knowledgeable lawyer” who has “fully resolved” his problems with former clients who complained about his work.

    Hernandez also said Macaraeg “fully resolved” his discipline issues with the State Bar and “has resumed his standing a respected member of the legal community.”

    Click here to read the complete statement.

    Macaraeg has appeared in several NBC 7 news stories as a “legal expert.”

    India Henretta told NBC 7 Investigates that is how she found Macaraeg in 2013. Henretta called him for help in getting her brother the proper immigration papers to allow him to enter the U.S. legally from Mexico.

    Henretta said she paid Macaraeg $1,400 plus court filing fees. After a year, Henretta said she became concerned Macaraeg wasn’t making any progress on her brother’s case. That’s when she said she did her own research and learned that Macaraeg had failed to file important documents on her brother’s behalf.

    She told NBC 7 Investigates Macaraeg continually evaded her questions and would stall when asked about her brother’s case.

    “He was playing with our emotions,” Henretta said. “We were waiting and waiting and hoping and hoping for two years.”

    Henretta said she finally told Macaraeg she would contact NBC 7 about her problem if he didn’t refund the $1,400 she paid him. She said Macaraeg paid her $500 after that conversation, but at the time she couldn’t get more money than that from him.

    Henretta contacted NBC 7 on June 26.

    NBC 7 Investigates began to research her allegations and contacted Macaraeg and his attorney.
    Henretta said a month later, in late July, Macaraeg paid her the remaining $900.

    Gracie Lopez hasn’t been as fortunate.

    She sued Macaraeg for $2,400 in San Diego County Small Claims Court, alleging "non-completion and multiple mistakes" on her husband's immigration case. The January dispute was settled without a trial because Macaraeg agreed to pay Lopez $1,890, according to court documents.

    Lopez told NBC 7 Investigates Macaraeg paid her an initial payment of $390, required by that April 30 settlement. But she said that was the only payment she received, until NBC 7 Investigates called Macaraeg and his attorney to discuss the complaints and lawsuits lodged by Macaraeg’s former employees.

    Just a few days after our calls, Lopez told us she got two checks from Macaraeg totaling $500.
    Those checks covered the payments due on June 1 and July 1. But as of early August, Lopez said she had not received the $250 payment from Macaraeg, due Aug. 1st.

    San Diegian Rigo Aguilar said he had a similar problem with Macaraeg. More than 10 years ago, Aguilar sought legal help for his Mexican-born wife, who lives in Tijuana and can’t enter the U.S. legally.

    Aguilar says he paid Macaraeg $1,500 for assistance.

    “We waited and we waited, but the call from the consulate never came,” Aguilar told NBC 7 Investigates.

    Ten years passed, severely testing Aguilar’s patience.

    “I would call him and I would text him,” Aguilar told NBC 7. “Actually, I would call him several times. I would have to email him about five times before he answered.”

    Last year, Aguilar called U.S. Immigration and learned Macaraeg had essentially done nothing on his case since 2006.

    Aguilar said his patience finally ran out. He demanded -- and received – a partial refund of his legal fees. He recently hired another local immigration attorney to handle his wife’s case, but he laments he’s “back to ‘ground-zero’” in that legal process.

    Other court documents obtained by NBC 7 Investigates reveal another former client, Rigoberto Olea, claimed he lost his job because Macaraeg mishandled his immigration case.

    A judge heard the evidence in that case in October 2011 and ordered Macaraeg to pay Olea $7,400. That award included repayment of a $1,200 retainer fee and $6,300 in “consequential damages (loss of job).”

    Documents on file with the State Bar of California confirm Macaraeg was disciplined in 2012 for "failing to perform legal service with competence.”

    He was placed on probation, but the Bar Court handled the matter as a “private reproval,” meaning it did not post any information about any disciplinary action on its public website.

    That discipline case became public last year, when the Bar Court again disciplined Macaraeg, this time for failing to complete the terms of his 2012 probation.

    On June 18, 2014, the Bar Court suspended Macaraeg from the practice of law for 60 days and placed him on two years’ probation. The Bar Court also ordered Macaraeg to pass exams in ethics and professional responsibility.

    Before hiring an attorney, the California State Bar Association suggests you get recommendations from friends or coworkers. The San Diego County Bar Association also has a “Lawyer Referral and Information Service” that connects potential clients with experienced lawyers who offer up to 30 minutes of free consultation.

    Click here for more tips on how to hire and maintain a good relationship with an attorney.

    NBC 7 Investigates is working for you. If you have more information about this or other story tips, contact us: (619) 578-0393, NBC7Investigates@nbcuni.com. To receive the latest NBC 7 Investigates stories subscribe to our newsletter.