Ex-lawyer gets prison time after staging sham depositions, creating bogus documents to claim court wins
A former California lawyer has been sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for collecting legal fees from clients and then using phony legal documents to persuade them that he was winning their cases.
Matthew Charles Elstein, 52, of Redondo Beach, California, was sentenced Oct. 3, according to an Oct. 4 press release from the Department of Justice. He had pleaded guilty to wire fraud in November 2021.
U.S. District Judge Mark C. Scarsi of the Central District of California imposed the sentence and ordered Elstein to pay more than $254,000 in restitution.
In some cases, Elstein collected fees, even though he never initiated legal action. In others, he billed for motions and pleadings that were never filed, according to a plea agreement excerpted last year by the Volokh Conspiracy. In one case, he staged sham depositions.
The press release provided examples, and the plea agreement has more details.
In one case, Elstein informed a corporate client in June 2016 that he had won a $52 million default judgment and emailed the client a phony court order to back up the claim. The document included a forged signature of U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg of the Northern District of California, the plea agreement said.
To explain why the case was not on PACER, Elstein told the client that the case was sealed because the DOJ was investigating the defendant.
He also presented the client with a fake settlement agreement in which the client would receive money from a “court of claims recovery fund” established by the government. The client discovered the scheme after contacting the U.S. attorney’s office to confirm the settlement.
In a second example, Elstein staged fake depositions in a federal case in Washington in September 2015, according to the press release. Elstein hired a court stenographer for the phony depositions and made a record of nonappearance when no one showed up to testify. The clients traveled to Seattle to attend the depositions, and Elstein billed the client for his travel.
Elstein also claimed that he obtained a $4.25 million judgment for his client and provided a fake court order with the forged signature of U.S. District Judge James L. Robart of the Western District of Washington. The client discovered the deceit after traveling to Washington to collect the nonexistent judgment.
According to Courthouse News Service, Elstein said during his sentencing hearing he had a degenerative condition of his brain’s frontal lobe. Elstein’s lawyer said the condition contributed to his behavior.