A Langley lawyer who misappropriated client funds and missed a court date with a client while abusing cocaine and alcohol has been suspended from practicing law for seven months.
The Law Society of B.C. released its ruling into the misconduct discipline of Sumit Ahuja, which goes back to incidents in 2016 and 2017.
Ahuja, who practiced criminal, family, and immigration law, had been working for a local law firm for several years, while also struggling with a drug problem that went back a decade.
After several incidents in March of 2017, Ahuja checked himself into a treatment facility and voluntarily withdrew from the practice of law until December of that year, when he joined a new law firm.
He has admitted his responsibility and made restitution to the clients whose money he misappropriated, the Law Society discipline case says.
Between June of 2016 and early 2017, Ahuja accepted retainers from criminal and family law clients, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 each, and instead of putting the money into trust as he should have, he either improperly deposited the money, or simply spent it himself.
“The nature of the conduct here is extremely grave,” the judgement of the Law Society’s review panel said. “The Respondent [Ahuja] took money from his clients on four separate occasions totalling $16,000, and used that money for his own ends.”
Another major incident took place on the eve of a March 2, 2017 court appearance scheduled for a client of Ahuja.
That evening, Ahuja’s wife told him their marriage was over. He checked into a hotel and began to consume alcohol and cocaine, a binge that continued into the next day. He missed the hearing before a judge, and the judge levied costs against his client. Ahuja has since paid back $12,500 to the client in restitution.
Ahuja testified at a hearing before the Law Society that he had begun drinking at the age of 13 after the death of his father, but that it intensified when he was studying at university in Australia in 2008, after the death of a friend in a traffic accident.
His alcohol abuse and eventually drug use continued and worsened even as he kept working as a lawyer over nearly a decade. Ahuja testified that his drug use eventually became unmanageable, and things began to spiral out of control
At one point in 2016, he testified that he was held at gunpoint and forced to pay a $10,000 drug debt incurred by a family friend.
This is not Ahuja’s first incident of discipline by the Law Society. He had previously been disciplined in 2016 after a night of heavy drinking caused him to miss a flight to Kelowna for a court hearing, and he lied to the court about why he had not appeared. Also in 2016, he failed to properly advise a client. He was suspended for one month for each incident.
The review panel considering Ahuja’s conduct took into account the efforts he has made to seek treatment for his addiction, including participating in Alcoholics Anonymous and being in a monitoring program since 2017, and the fact that he has acknowledged and apologized for his conduct.
He has been practicing since 2017 under the supervision of a senior lawyer and has had no more complaints.
However, Ahuja’s conduct was very serious, the panel noted.
“Without the context of his active addiction and his subsequent efforts at rehabilitation, the normal outcome of this matter would be disbarment,” the ruling said.
In addition to the seven-month suspension, Ahuja is to pay costs of $21,046 for the discipline review’s expenses.
Have a story tip? Email: email@example.com