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Attorney general files 'notario publico' civil suits

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The Indiana Attorney General’s Office filed a pair of civil consumer deception lawsuits Wednesday against two non-attorneys for offering immigration services that constitute the unauthorized practice of law.

Both defendants offered immigration-related services normally done by attorneys to their Spanish-speaking clients, but neither is a licensed attorney and Attorney General Greg Zoeller alleges that neither is legally certified or trained to provide advice to clients on immigration law.

One suit was filed in Allen Circuit Court against Evelyne O. Casiano, who has been doing business as United Hispanic Caring Hearts in Fort Wayne. The second suit is in Marion Superior Court against The Mexican Civic Association of Indiana Inc. and M. Esther Barber, doing business as Asociacion Civica Mexicana De Indiana Inc. in Indianapolis.

The Fort Wayne suit alleges that Casiano operated as a “notario publico” since 2008, and two consumers paid her for services such as selecting, completing, and filing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services forms for them. Although Casiano claimed to be an “assistant to an attorney,” the suit says that no such relationship existed. One customer who complained of paying thousands of dollars in fees for legal assistance now faces deportation proceedings as a result of Casiano’s actions, according to AG spokesman Bryan Corbin.

In the Indianapolis case, the lawsuit alleges that Barber has advertised herself to the Spanish-speaking community as someone who can assist with immigration issues and since 2006 she has allegedly done similar selection, preparation, and completion of USCIS immigration forms for a fee.

The lawsuits both allege the defendants knowingly violated the Deceptive Consumer Sales Act by providing services without the required license and training, and the suits seek injunctions against Barber and Casiano to prevent them from advising consumers about immigration policies or doing that type of work without first obtaining a license to practice law.

Each lawsuit also seeks consumer restitution for unlawfully obtained funds, civil penalties of up to $5,000 for each knowing violation and up to $500 for each intentional violation of the Deceptive Consumer Sales Act, as well as attorneys’ fees.

Separate from the civil consumer suit, the AG also used the office’s limited criminal jurisdiction to have a search warrant issued Wednesday on Barber’s business and residence in Indianapolis as part of an investigation into possible tax offenses. Authorities seized records from the residence and business and those documents are still being reviewed. No charges have been filed at this point for any tax violations that may have occurred.

Zoeller is trying to raise awareness about the larger issue of non-English speakers seeking immigration assistance from individuals called “notarios” who aren’t licensed to practice law but who might be assumed to be attorneys by the immigrant population. In the U.S., a notary public is a person certified to serve as a state-authorized witness for the notarization of documents. But in Spanish-speaking nations, the term “notario publico” can refer to an attorney with specialized training. Language barriers or misunderstandings might make immigrant clients more trusting of advice they receive from notaries here.

These suits are the first actions filed against “public notaries” since the December 2005 decision by the Indiana Supreme Court in State of Indiana ex rel. Indiana State Bar Assoc., et al. v. Ludy Diaz, 838 N.E.2d 433 (Ind. 2005), which specifically focused on this type of activity and determined it constituted the unauthorized practice of law.

While this isn’t a UPL action specifically, Corbin says that possibility is still available and could happen against one or both of these individuals. The AG, Indiana Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Commission, and Indiana State Bar Association are the three entities with power to file UPL actions. Corbin said this civil litigation was chosen because it can be addressed immediately and an injunction can be issued more quickly than what is typical through the UPL investigation and litigation process.

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