Local Lawyer Accused Of Mishandling Clients' Cases

Perched high at a prominent corner of Pearl Street and La Jolla Boulevard, Steven R. Liss promotes himself as an attorney who handles divorces and adoptions.

But former clients said their cases were mishandled by Liss.

10News asked one of Liss' alleged victims, "What did he do with your case?"

The person responded, "Nothing!"

Another person said, "He should absolutely be disbarred."

"I think his licensing needs to be taken away," said another alleged victim.

In 1998, the 10News investigations team profiled a couple that claimed Liss took their money and then botched their adoption of a baby girl. The couple had to give the child back after six weeks.

Liss refused to speak to 10News then.

10News wanted to speak to him now because of newer complaints.

In checking his history, 10News learned that Liss' official record is unimpressive.

His license to practice law was suspended but stayed. Liss is still permitted to handle client cases while he is on probation for 2 years.

It's not just his clients that have issues with him. The labor board which handles employee complaints reports that Liss has 16 cases filed against him.

But 10News' major concern are his clients.

Erica Ambuelh regrets hiring Liss for her divorce, paying him $5,000 that she had borrowed from her mother.

According to Ambuelh, Liss never filed paperwork and also lied to her.

"He didn't show up in court, didn't tell me about it. There was a default judgment, I never got child support or alimony, it was a horrendous experience," said Ambuelh.

She only found out about her divorce when her ex-husband told her.

Ambuelh's complaint to the state bar led to Liss' probation because he "intentionally, recklessly or repeatedly failed to perform legal services with competence."

It did not do her much good because Liss has never paid her back.

"He seemed like he was up for the job," said Anne Munday Vuzzo.

Vuzzo said she is owed money by Liss. She said she paid him a $12,500 retainer for her divorce but decided to fire him within weeks because he had not done any of the work he had promised.

Liss left a voicemail for Vuzzo, saying, "It's Steve Liss calling, trying to touch base with you..."

Vuzzo wanted her money back and in three weeks, Liss left voicemail after voicemail, each one with another excuse.

"I'm out of the office, out of town actually."

"I do have limited email access."

"Actually, I tried to get a hold of my bookkeeper, think she might be out of town also."

Liss eventually paid half of the money back but in the process he bounced a check. According to Vuzzo, Liss still owes her $5,000.

"He put me in a big hole, financially, I know I'll never recover from it," said Brenda Lacy.

Lacy is another unsatisfied customer of Liss. She said she paid him a $6,000 retainer.

"He asked for another $400 for a filing and he needed it right then. Within 30 minutes he had it in his hands, but nothing was filed," said Lacy.

After Liss missed 3 of her court dates, Lacy dumped him. However, she had to picket outside of his La Jolla office and embarrass him into giving the money back.

"He should absolutely be disbarred, without question; he should not be practicing any type of law, anywhere," said Lacy.

10News investigative reporter Lauren Reynolds paid a visit to Liss' La Jolla office.

Reynolds said, "I'm Lauren Reynolds for Channel 10 News. I need to talk to you about your client, taking their money, not defending them… Brenda Lacy had to picket to get her $6,000 back. Erica Ambuelh, you owe her $5,000. She's even won an arbitration award. Do you think you deserve her money more than she does?"

Liss said all those cases have been resolved and backed Reynolds out.

"Do you take their money and not do work for them? What do you have to say for yourself?" asked Reynolds.

Right after leaving, Liss appeared amused by 10News' questions.

"I think bad attorneys number in the thousands, not in the hundreds," said Bob Fellmeth.

Fellmeth, a professor of Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego, is not familiar with Liss but he is familiar with the law regarding retainers paid to attorneys. He said the retainer should go into a trust account and not into somebody's pocket.

"That could be criminal embezzlement and can result in disbarment of the attorney," said Fellmeth.

The California State Bar, Fellmeth said, is supposed to vigilantly police attorneys but it often isn't tough enough.

Vuzzo said she hopes with Liss that will change now that she has also filed a complaint.

"I hope this complaint protects other people from having to go through what I've gone through," Vuzzo said.

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