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Injury lawyer Michael Sawaya chided by judge for ethics lapse (Local Tips & Reviews)

Denver judge declines to hide Michael Sawaya sex crimes lawsuit

A former client accused retired Denver attorney Michael Sawaya of sexual assault last year. Sawaya then sued the accuser. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

The personal injury lawyer Michael Sawaya was admonished by a judge for loaning money to a client who he was sleeping with and is now being sued by.

Disciplinary Judge Bryon Large, who presides over complaints against attorneys in Colorado, publicly censured Sawaya on Monday and ordered him to pay $224 in fines.

The disciplinary case against Sawaya involved many of the same facts as a lawsuit filed last spring that accused Sawaya of financial improprieties, but didn’t include accusations of sexual violence as the lawsuit did. Sawaya, who is now retired, has repeatedly denied the violence claims and sued the accuser for what he called an “atrocious” shakedown.

As part of an agreement with the Colorado Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, which investigates wrongdoing by lawyers, Sawaya admitted to having a sexual relationship in 2019 with real estate investor Francisco Jaramillo, who Sawaya was representing in a dispute over interior design work at La Mansion, an event venue in Cap Hill that Jaramillo owned.

“Both men say they felt an immediate connection and for a time were in love,” according to the agreement that Sawaya signed last week.

At the time, Jaramillo was in dire financial straits and at risk of losing La Mansion, 1439 Franklin St., to foreclosure. So, Sawaya loaned Jaramillo $280,000 in exchange for a 30-percent stake in that property and another house that Jaramillo owned. Jaramillo contends that he didn’t understand what he was signing and that Sawaya promised he wouldn’t have to repay.

Jaramillo and Sawaya broke up in November 2019 but Sawaya continued representing him, including at a court hearing in 2020 after Jaramillo was accused of running an unlicensed business at La Mansion. He also loaned Jaramillo an additional $64,000.

When Jaramillo failed to repay him early last year, Sawaya tried to foreclose on the properties and asked a judge to appoint a receiver. That case was settled through arbitration.

Then, in May of last year, Jaramillo sued Sawaya, accusing him of sexual assault and sexual battery on five occasions over two years after they broke up. He also accused him of using their relationship to trick Jaramillo into giving Sawaya a stake in his properties. The judge in that case appointed a receiver for the properties and sent the case to arbitration.

Sawaya 3

The former Sawaya Law Firm, founded in 1977, is at 600 Ogden St. in Denver. (Matthew Geiger photo)

Finally, in January 2023, Sawaya sued Jaramillo. The lawyer accused his ex of an “attempted shakedown” to “extract large cash settlements by threats and intimidation” from Sawaya, who was “easy prey because of his professional and personal reputation” in Colorado.

According to that lawsuit, Jaramillo lawyer Parker Semler threatened to speak with reporters about the assault allegations unless Sawaya “reached an immediate settlement” with Jaramillo. A settlement was not reached and BusinessDen published the first article in June.

Around that same time, Jaramillo tried to recruit another man to make false allegations against Sawaya and a 38-page lawsuit was drafted that accused Sawaya of human trafficking, sexual assault, organized crime and more, Sawaya alleges. Semler threatened to file the lawsuit unless Sawaya settled the Jaramillo case, according to Sawaya. It was never filed.

“Jaramillo (said) that he was ‘selling’ Mr. Sawaya, that Mr. Sawaya had a lot of money and that Jaramillo intended to get a lot of Mr. Sawaya’s money,” Sawaya’s lawsuit alleges.

“(Jaramillo’s) conduct is so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, that a reasonable member of the community would regard that conduct as atrocious, going beyond all possible bounds of decency and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” it added.

Reached by phone, Semler said that Jaramillo has been wronged by Sawaya and deserves to sue him. Semler said there was nothing untoward about him reaching out to Sawaya’s attorney and inquiring about a settlement before filing a lawsuit.

“When you’ve got a lawyer who has now been publicly censured by Attorney Regulation for their conduct pertaining to his client, there’s nothing groundless or frivolous about the nature of those claims,” Semler said.

On Tuesday, Sawaya dropped his allegations against Jaramillo and he was dismissed from the case. Sawaya is now suing only the other accuser, an Oklahoma man.

Sawaya retired from law last year and The Sawaya Law Firm changed its name to the Wilhite Law Firm at the start of this year. Robert Wilhite is the company’s majority owner. The firm said accusations against Sawaya played no role in its decision to rename.

Meanwhile, in the disciplinary case, the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel urged Judge Large to censure rather than suspend Sawaya, noting his long career, his many public service awards, the scholarships he has funded and the remorse he feels for his lapse in ethics.

Large agreed and issued the minor reprimand Monday.

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