Michael Sawaya censured after romantic, business relationship with client

Longtime Denver personal injury attorney Michael Sawaya was publicly censured this week over professional misconduct connected to a business deal he made with a client with whom he had a romantic relationship, according to state disciplinary records.

Sawaya was publicly disciplined for failing to give his client a written cost estimate and for entering into a business deal with the client while representing him in the same matter, according to a summary of the case published by the Office of Presiding Disciplinary Judge, which handles professional discipline for attorneys in Colorado.

“From time to time lawyers just don’t quite realize what would be considered an unethical activity,” Sawaya said Thursday. “I’d been practicing for 45 years. I just didn’t realize how this would appear to someone. It’s a very technical ethical issue about when, if there is an arguable interest that you’ve taken in someone’s case, that you have to specifically have them sign off on that.”

The presiding disciplinary judge found Sawaya violated an ethical rule that generally prohibits attorneys from acquiring “a proprietary interest in the cause of action or subject matter of litigation the lawyer is conducting for a client,” according to state records.

The public discipline is the latest turn in an ongoing dispute between Sawaya and his former client, Francisco Jaramillo, who are suing each other in separate civil claims.

Starting in 2019, the pair were involved not only in a romantic relationship but also a business relationship after Sawaya loaned Jaramillo $280,000 in exchange for 30% of his company and some rights to Jaramillo’s properties, according to court records.

Jaramillo sued Sawaya in May 2022 and claimed not only that Sawaya deceived him into agreeing to the “unfair” business deal, but also that Sawaya sexually assaulted him after the pair ended their consensual romantic relationship.

Sawaya then sued Jamarillo in January, claiming that the man’s lawsuit was an attempted “shakedown” in which Jamarillo and his attorney used the threat of bad publicity to try to push Sawaya into paying “large cash settlements” over untrue allegations.

In Jaramillo’s lawsuit, Denver District Court Judge Stephanie Scoville found that neither Sawaya nor Jaramillo offered “fully credible” testimony about the dispute, and took issue with various aspects of each man’s claims. She noted that their business, romantic and attorney-client relationships were closely tied to each other.

“It suffices that their attorney-client relationship, sexual relationship and the business relationship described below were all formed very close in time and that the nature of the relationships were closely — and inextricably — intertwined,” she wrote in an October order.

She sent the lawsuit to arbitration and that process is ongoing, Sawaya said Thursday. He said the public censure “sounds a lot worse than it really is,” and that since he is now retired, it won’t have much practical effect.

“I don’t think it should have gone to a public censure necessarily,” he said. “But it’s not to me to argue with them. We stipulated that this was a fair resolution, and I think it is.”

Sawaya headed The Sawaya Firm, one of the state’s largest personal injury firms, for years, until June 2021, when he sold his shares in the company and stopped representing clients. In January, the law firm changed its name to the Wilhite Law Firm.

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