A San Diego immigration attorney is failing to perform important legal work for his clients and putting them at immediate risk of deportation, according to the State Bar of California.
Christopher Macaraeg is accused of repeatedly missing court deadlines, prompting judges to dismiss his clients' cases, State Bar trial attorneys say in a 13-page Notice of Disciplinary Charges filed Aug. 31.
According to the charges, Macaraeg also failed to inform clients about those dismissals, disobeying court orders and practicing law without a license after the state bar suspended his license for 60 days in December 2014.
Macaraeg has an office in San Diego’s Gaslamp District.
The Notice of Disciplinary Charges was filed three weeks after NBC 7 Investigates revealed several of Macaraeg’s former clients sued him in small claims court for mishandling their immigration cases. Click here to see that complete investigation.
"This is a big investigation," said attorney Ray Ryan, an expert in legal malpractice and attorney discipline.
He said the sheer number of serious charges against Macaraeg, the number of alleged victims, and the fact he's been disciplined twice before make Macaraeg a target for tough action by the State Bar.
"Either this lawyer is looking at a three-year suspension or permanent revocation," Ryan said.
The Notice of Disciplinary Charges lists 11 alleged victims, including Reyna Tello, who said she paid Macaraeg $2,500 to get her the “green card” she needs to live legally in the United States.
Tello, a native of Guatemala, now lives in Fallbrook. She told NBC 7 Investigates it took her four years to realize Macaraeg had done little, if any, work on her case. State Bar attorneys say Macaraeg failed to file important paperwork in Tello’s case in December 2013, causing a judge to dismiss her appeal.
“Yes, I feel anger,” Tello said. “Anger towards him because he did nothing more than steal my money. Nothing more. And he did nothing for me."
Tello’s sister, Christina Rodriguez Tello, said she is just as angry.
Macaraeg lied to her in February 2014, she said, when she asked him about Tello’s case.
Macaraeg allegedly told Rodriguez that her sister’s appeal was going well. But in a response filed with the State Bar, Macaraeg now admits he in fact knew Tello’s case had been dismissed two months earlier.
State Bar attorneys say Macaraeg never told Rodriguez, who learned the truth only when her sister received a letter from Homeland Security, telling her to report for deportation.
"I said, ‘It’s not fair. I can't take my sister to immigration because she'll be deported, and I signed for her $5,000 immigration bond,'" Rodriguez said.
Jonathan Montag, another attorney who specializes in immigration law, told NBC 7 Investigates the allegations against Macaraeg are very serious.
“If you promise to do a case, you've got to do it,” he said. “Otherwise, you're breaking the law, you're hurting somebody, you're tarnishing your profession, and you're tarnishing the legal system."
Montag said missing court deadlines and failing to follow a judge's orders can have a devastating impact on a client's life.
"In this situation, it could lead to a person's deportation and their permanent banishment from the United States because (your lawyer) is not doing what (he was ) hired to do," he said.
Macaraeg did not return phone calls or emails from NBC 7 Investigates.
In his Sept. 21 response to the State Bar’s complaint, Macaraeg denied many of the allegations, saying he did meet court deadlines and tried to keep his clients informed, even though some owed him money.
Macaraeg also said he was not responsible for the alleged malpractice because he was " ... suffering from anxiety and family crisis due to severe financial problems."
In his response, Macaraeg does admit he mishandled Tello's case and has tried to help Tello’s new attorney reopen her case.
"I had so many plans for my future and my family,” another former client Enrique Castillo said. “I was very sad for some many days, very sad."
He learned Macaraeg didn't do the necessary work for Castillo and his son to get their green cards. Castillo's case is not among those cited by state bar attorneys, but he contacted NBC 7 Investigates after seeing our first story about Macaraeg.
"He told me my case was easy,” Castillo said. “One hundred percent assured. A guarantee that I would get my green card."
Castillo told NBC 7 Investigates he paid Macaraeg $7,000 and waited two years for a green card that never came. He now has a new attorney, but worries constantly about being deported.
"I just feel like crying all the time,” Castillo said. “I'm worried I'll be sent back to Mexico and can't stay here with my family. So much sadness, so much depression."
Tello said she wants more than an apology from Macaraeg.
"I'd say, 'Give me my money back' because he didn't do anything. I'm one of his victims," she said.