A St. Paul attorney who misappropriated thousands of dollars from Hmong clients with limited English has been banned from practicing law in Minnesota, according to a ruling from the state's Supreme Court.

The high court's opinion rendered Wednesday upheld a referee's decision, which found Fong E. Lee misappropriated more than $18,000 and caused three clients "permanent financial harm." The opinion also upheld the referee's finding that Lee failed to return unearned fees, did not keep required bank accounts holding clients' money and did not adequately communicate with clients.

The ruling also found Lee did not cooperate with investigators after charges were brought by the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility and committed "numerous other disciplinary rule violations."

"For this misconduct, the referee recommended that Lee be disbarred. We agree," the Supreme Court's ruling said. "Lee's misconduct, and the absence of mitigating factors, we disbar Lee from the practice of law."

Lee was also ordered to pay $900 in costs related to the case, the court's opinion said.

Attempts to reach Lee for comment were unsuccessful. A phone number for his St. Paul office was no longer in service and an online search found his office was "temporarily closed."

Lee, who started practicing law in 2007, has been disciplined in three other cases. He was placed on two years probation in 2009 for failing to properly handle funds and keep proper records. In 2016, he was placed on probation again for commingling earned fees with client funds and improperly using his trust account. In 2020, he was admonished for charging unreasonable fees, collecting additional fees and failing to document a cash payment with a receipt countersigned by the payor, court records show.

The director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility filed a petition for disciplinary action against Lee in January 2023. The charges said Lee failed to give the clients their full amount due when their cases were settled. He also failed to provide an accounting of withdrawals from client funds when it was requested and did not return a client file upon request, the charges contended.

The referee found no mitigating circumstances. Lee did not file a brief contesting the findings nor the referee's recommendation that he be disbarred. He also failed to appear for oral arguments, the Supreme Court's opinion said.

Those reasons led the Supreme Court to disbar Fong from practicing law in Minnesota, effective Wednesday.