While the State Bar of Texas is normally responsible for stopping lawyers from defrauding the public, in an unusual move, the Harris County Attorney's Office has stepped in to stop the practice of a Houston immigration attorney who allegedly took $140,000 from over 50 clients and offered them no legal work in return.
The prosecutor's office recently filed the deceptive trade practice and fraud action in Harris County District Court against Prince Uchechi Nwakanma and The Prince Law Group and obtained a temporary restraining order that prevents Nwakanma from practicing as a lawyer and freezes the assets of his firm.
According to the petition in Texas v. Nwakanma, Nwakanma graduated from Texas Southern University Law School in 2002 but failed the Texas bar exam twice and has never been licensed in the state. Instead, he obtained a law license in Kansas and set up an immigration practice in Houston in 2003. Lawyers are permitted to use out-of-state licenses to practice in federal immigration courts.
Nwakanma ran advertising on Spanish language radio to target people seeking assistance with immigration matters. For years he took thousands of dollars from Texas clients, often promising to perform legal tasks that were not completed and refusing the clients' demands for refunds, according to the Jan. 26 petition.
Over 50 of Nwakanma's Texas clients have complained of his conduct to the Kansas Bar and after a three-year investigation, they recommended his disbarment in 2016 — an action that is still pending, according to the petition.
Rosemarie Donnelly, an assistant Harris County attorney, said her office believed it had to file a lawsuit to stop Nwakanma because the Texas Bar couldn't.
"This case has several different factors that make it unique. First of all, this lawyer has practiced his whole career in Houston but he's never been licensed by the State of Texas — he's licensed in Kansas. And so when folks would complain to the State Bar of Texas, they were told there is nothing you can do to him because he's licensed in Kansas," Donnelly said, "which you could imagine is incredibly frustrating to Texas consumers."
Nwakanma denies the allegations in the lawsuit and said he has stopped practicing law.
"I am an owner of a law firm that employs several other lawyers, paralegals and legal secretaries. So if there is a problem with the law firm, and am the person that is going to be sued even though I was not the person that represented the clients," Nwakanma said. "Because I'm the owner, that's why I'm being sued.''
He adamantly denies that he defrauded any of his clients.
"When the clients come to you and they tell you their problems, they think you will do magic,'' Nwakanma said."If they do not get the results it's like you are taking their money. If you don't get the results for them it's as if you lied to them.''
Nwakanma also alleges that he never took money from the clients who sued him.
"There are no records whatsoever that would tie me to collecting any money myself. I never touched funds," he said. "To say they even paid me was a lie. They dealt with other lawyers."
The volume of complaints from immigration clients who did not have the means to hire malpractice attorneys was another reason the Harris County Attorney's Office filed the fraud case against Nwakanma, Donnelly said.
The petition also seeks the disgorgement of the fees Nwakanma collected.
"These are vulnerable people who and are trying to do the right thing by complying with the law," Donnelly said. "He's not only hurting them financially but, in many respects, their legal position is worse than when they first met him.''