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The State

Court Rules Against 'Legal Aid' Business

March 02, 2003|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

A state appellate court has upheld a judgment against a Modesto businessman who used the term "legal aid" in advertisements, but is not an attorney and charged his low-income clients hefty fees for typing simple forms.

The case against Walter Moore, who also used the name Jeff Simmons, sparked a consumer alert by the state attorney general's office, which warned against businesses that use the term but provide costly and shoddy services that may hurt clients in court.

Legal aid services are provided by publicly funded, nonprofit organizations that assist low-income people. Some court forms refer poor people to legal aid services.

Four plaintiffs filed suit against Moore. All four had been facing eviction, and had called Moore's business because of his use of the term "legal aid" in advertising.

A jury found Moore guilty of violating the Unlawful Detainer Assistance Act, practicing law without a license and acting with fraud, malice or oppression. The trial judge determined that Moore had violated the state's unfair business practices and false advertising laws.

The judge ordered Moore to pay restitution and issued a statewide injunction prohibiting Moore and his associates from using the term legal aid and similar terms.

Moore also was ordered to advertise the verdict in 22 cities. The injunction had been stayed while the case was being appealed.

"This injunction directly stops what is the state's largest and most egregious fake legal aid group," said Gary Rhoades, litigation director for the Housing Rights Center, who was lead counsel in the case.

"That group's phone will stop ringing, and the hundreds of people that called this outfit each week in the past can now get their money back."

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