Twin Cities immigration lawyer facing possible disciplinary action

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 25, 2013 - 12:48 PM

He claims racism is behind “unholy and unjust” allegations.

A prominent Twin Cities immigration lawyer is in trouble with a state professional responsibility board that alleges he engaged in unethical conduct dating back nearly a decade.

Herbert Igbanugo, 54, is accused of inadequate communication with clients, charging unreasonable fees, making false statements to the court, improperly disclosing confidential information and harassing clients to collect fees, according to a petition filed last week by the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility.

He has 20 days to respond to the petition.

The Minnesota Supreme Court will make the final decision on any discipline. Final action could range from dismissal of the petition to disbarment.

Igbanugo, who founded his law firm in 2006, took the unusual step of sending an e-mail regarding the petition to the media. He claimed “a legitimate system” has been unfairly applied to him because he is black and African, but didn’t offer further explanation. “This is as personal as it is unholy and unjust, and cries to the heavens for redress,” he wrote. “The allegations are false, mean-spirited and deliberately stated out of context with evil intent and to inflict the highest damage to my reputation for reasons I know quite well.”

In his release, Igbanugo singled out Cassie Hanson, the office’s senior assistant director, for unfair treatment. She and Martin Cole, the office’s director, signed the petition against him.

“Our office denies any improper actions or biases against Mr. Igbanugo,” Cole said.

Igbanugo, of Plymouth, was born in Nigeria. He has been practicing law since the late 1980s in Minnesota, and in 2000 was a founding partner in what he described as one of the largest black-owned law firms in the United States. He was named a “Super Lawyer” in 2006, 2007 and 2008, selected by his peers for attaining a high degree of professional achievement.

He has been an adjunct professor of law at Hamline University and a guest lecturer at William Mitchell College of Law, both in St. Paul.

Several of his cases have been covered extensively by the media, including that of a young immigrant client who made his home squatting in Apple Valley High School.

Clients allege harassment

Cole’s petition against Igbanugo detailed alleged misconduct in three cases involving immigrants. It also listed three previous warnings from Cole’s office for unprofessional conduct in 2004, 2007 and 2009.

The first case cited in the petition started in 2002 with Nikolay Ivanov and Nora Ivanova and their son, who came from Russia and were seeking asylum. Igbanugo and his associates represented them on a variety of issues over the years. In 2007, the family received asylum, but Igbanugo later sued the family to collect more than $12,000 in unpaid fees.

In affidavits to support his claims, Igbanugo wrote that “he was deeply disturbed by the Ivanovs’ unholy efforts to steal my services without paying just compensation of which they were contractually bound.” The court ruled in his favor, but the family complained to the Professional Responsibility office. The office found that Igbanugo brought frivolous litigation against the family and charged unreasonable fees.

The second case in the petition involved Emeka Abosi, a Nigerian immigrant who retained Igbanugo when the government challenged the validity of his marriage. Although Igbanugo helped Abosi through other legal challenges, another attorney replaced him and won Abosi’s citizenship case. When Abosi’s family challenged Igbanugo’s billing fees, however, the lawyer responded with letters that became increasingly harassing.

“You have mistaken my kindness for weakness,” he wrote in May 2010. “I did not get where I am today, allowing people, like you, to punk me. Perhaps you need to be taught a lesson in life.”

Igbanugo’s firm again sued to recover fees, but the district court rejected the effort. The Professional Responsibility office said he made improper disclosures about Abosi, failed to keep him properly informed and filed frivolous claims for fees.

The last complaint, involving clients Rustam Rozhko and Katsiaryna Radziuk, alleged that Igbanugo and an associate failed to file key documents in a timely manner for an asylum hearing. More than two years later, the couple hired a new attorney and is awaiting a court ruling on asylum.

In his e-mail to the media, Igbanugo wrote “that the truth will come out eventually and I will be exonerated.” He said he has practiced immigration law for 25 years ethically and with very good results for a majority of his clients.

“In that period of time,” he wrote, “during which I served between 15,000 to 20,000 individual clients, many of these clients have failed to pay me well over $1 million even after I have obtained favorable results.”

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