Jan 14, 2014 1:41 PM
Becoming an attorney in Kentucky requires years of law school, passing the bar exam, and pledging to follow the rules and regulations of the Kentucky Bar Association.
But a Lexington woman who has been accused repeatedly of ignoring those regulations is again facing allegations of practicing law without a license, and it's causing headaches for her clients and the court system, according to court documents uncovered by LEX 18 Investigates.
Sandra Brooks is the owner of Legal Self-Help, a walk-in clinic in the Walmart shopping center on West New Circle Road.
She is not an attorney, but her business is aimed at helping people file for "uncontested divorce," meaning the husband and wife agree on how their assets, debts and childcare obligations should be divided.
Brooks advertises the business as a place where divorcees can fill out all the necessary papers for $75 to $150 - generally less than it costs to hire an attorney. Uncontested divorces are typically quicker and easier than contested ones, but clients of Legal Self-Help have found their cases are anything but quick or easy.
Last week, LEX 18 Investigates noticed six uncontested divorces that have been stalled for months in Fayette County Family Court. We dug deeper and found the common thread - all were prepared by Legal Self Help, and all were plagued by faulty paperwork and questions over whether Brooks, who is not an attorney, gave legal advice to her clients or otherwise led them to think she was an attorney.
According to court documents, Brooks has a history of acting as a lawyer. In 1997, she was directed by the Kentucky Bar Association to stop practicing law without a license, and in 2004, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky ruled she had "engaged in the unauthorized practice of law" by advising people how to fill out bankruptcy petitions.
In 2005, she was fined $1,500 by the Kentucky Supreme Court, which ruled she had violated the 1997 order. The Supreme Court fined her again in 2010 for advertising in the Yellow Pages in the attorneys section.
Brooks declined to speak with LEX 18 Investigative Reporter Richard Essex when he stopped by her Lexington office last week. And, again, declined to speak following a court hearing Friday, covering her face with papers and heading straight for the elevator.
"Oh, we are not doing no news story," she said at her office last week.
However, her attorney, Peter Ostermiller, said Brooks is not practicing law, and she does not plan to shut down her business - despite the fact that court clerks will no longer accept papers prepared at Legal Self-Help.
"She is operating a legitimate business, and she's not engaging in the practice of law," Ostermiller said.
Her clients say otherwise. According to court documents, some of Brooks' customers have testified she is doing more than providing forms - they say she gave them legal advice, which is against the law for non-attorneys.
Lexington resident Amanda McHatton, who used Legal Self-Help to fill out paperwork for her recent divorce, said the case should have been settled quickly. The only thing she and her former husband disagreed on was how much of his pension she was entitled to.
"She gave my husband legal advice without being an attorney," McHatton said.
She told LEX 18 Investigates her husband relied on advice from Brooks that McHatton was entitled to 25 percent of his pension, based on a case Brooks found on the Internet.
"She pulled off papers from the Internet, printed them and gave them to my husband," she said.
However, McHatton was actually entitled to 50 percent of the pension because she and her husband had been married the entire time he paid into his retirement account.
Brooks' alleged advice "is both bad legal reasoning and bad arithmetic, and is precisely the reason why one must be a lawyer to practice law," family court Judge Tim Philpot said in a ruling.
According to court documents, McHatton was not the only person to whom Legal Self-Help gave legal advice. In another divorce case, which was finalized at Friday's court hearing, a couple testified Brooks told them to "falsely state on the petition there were no children, which raises the distinct possibility that the parties were counseled to commit perjury," according to court documents.
The couple actually had one minor child together.
In another case, a Hispanic woman who barely spoke English was told she could file her divorce "in forma pauperis," meaning she wouldn't have to pay any filing fees, because she didn't have a job. When she got a job "Ms. Brooks told her she could not file in forma pauperis," the document said.
Even in cases in which there are no allegations that Brooks gave legal advice, the cases have stalled because the paperwork is lacking information and doesn't meet formatting guidelines. The divorce petitions prepared by Brooks use "a chaotic array of different fonts, cases, spacings and indentations," according to another document signed by Philpot, ordering the circuit court clerk not to accept Legal Self-Help documents.
Philpot has consolidated all of the pending divorce cases prepared by Legal Self-Help into his courtroom, and has required Brooks to attend every hearing to explain why she shouldn't be charged with contempt of court. Brooks has argued there is a pending action against her by the Kentucky Bar Association, which should be completed before any action is taken against her.
On Friday, Ostermiller, Brooks' attorney, filed a motion asking Philpot to remove himself from the case due to an appearance of bias against Brooks.
Philpot overruled the motion and responded directly.
"This is not about appearances. If you're asking me if I'm trying to create a record to put Ms. Brooks out of business, let's put the appearances out of this," he told Ostermiller. "The answer is yes. There does not need to be any appearances that the judge might be trying to put Ms. Brooks out of business. This judge is trying to put Ms. Brooks out of business."
After Friday's hearing, Legal Self-Help was closed for the rest of the day. However, on Monday, it was open to customers again.
When LEX 18 Investigates opened the door and asked Brooks one last time if she wanted to share her side of the story, she declined, locked the door and turned off the lights.