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In re Application of Harlin

Supreme Court of Oklahoma

March 28, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF THE APPLICATION OF CALEB ALEXANDER HARLIN FOR ADMISSION BY EXAMINATION TO THE OKLAHOMA BAR ASSOCIATION.

         THIS OPINION HAS NOT BEEN RELEASED FOR PUBLICATION. UNTIL RELEASED, IT IS SUBJECT TO REVISION OR WITHDRAWAL.

         BAR ADMISSION PROCEEDING

         ¶0 Applicant Caleb Alexander Harlin appeals from a decision of the Oklahoma Board of Bar Examiners denying his application for admission to the practice of law in Oklahoma by examination. As an attorney of a non-reciprocal jurisdiction who is not eligible for admission upon motion, the Applicant seeks admission to the practice of law in Oklahoma by examination under Rule 4 of the Rules Governing Admission to the Practice of Law in the State of Oklahoma. Upon review, we conclude Mr. Harlin has satisfied the requirements of Rule 4 and no issues remain outstanding. Mr. Harlin shall be allowed to take the Oklahoma bar exam.

          Drew Neville, Charles E. Geister, III, & Emily S. Eleftherakis, Hartzog Conger Cason & Neville, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Petitioner Caleb Harlin.

          Patrick H. Kernan, Newton, O'Connor, Turner & Ketchum, P.C., Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Oklahoma Board of Bar Examiners.

          GURICH, V.C.J.

         ¶1 Rule 4 of the Rules Governing Admission to the Practice of Law in the State of Oklahoma (RGAP) allows for admission to the practice of law in Oklahoma by examination. [1] The issue in this case is whether an attorney licensed in a non-reciprocal jurisdiction who applies to take the bar exam under § 1 of Rule 4 must meet the same requirements as a law student applying to take the bar exam under § 2 of Rule 4, specifically the undergraduate degree requirement found in § 2(a) of Rule 4.

         Facts & Procedural History

         ¶2 Mr. Harlin graduated from homeschool high school in Muskogee in July of 2003. After working for approximately a year, he applied for admission to the Juris Doctor program at Oak Brook College of Law and Public Policy in California. Oak Brook is a four-year program recognized by the State Bar of California, but is not accredited by the American Bar Association. [2] In California, students who attend non-accredited ABA institutions are required, after their first year of study, to sit for and pass a bar exam called the First Year Law Students' Exam. The exam is a seven-hour test that consists of four essay questions and 100 multiple choice questions styled after the Multi-State Bar Examination. Mr. Harlin took California's First Year Law Students' Exam in October of 2006 and passed on his first attempt.

         ¶3 In December of 2009, he graduated cum laude from Oak Brook with a Juris Doctor degree. In February of 2010, Mr. Harlin sat for the California bar exam and passed on his first attempt. In June of 2010, he was sworn into the State Bar of California where he remains in good standing. Upon admission to the State Bar of California, Mr. Harlin began doing contract work with two different firms in the San Francisco area while living in Muskogee. His practice included assisting with several jury trials, arbitrations, mediations, appeals, and depositions primarily in the areas of personal injury and employment law. Mr. Harlin is also admitted to practice before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. District Courts for the Northern and Central Districts of California, and the U.S. District Courts for the Western and Eastern Districts of Oklahoma.

         ¶4 After practicing for a year in California, Mr. Harlin contacted the Oklahoma Board of Bar Examiners (Board) and inquired about admission to practice law in Oklahoma. [3] Mr. Harlin spoke with the Administrative Director of the Board, who informed him that under the RGAP he could not be admitted to practice in Oklahoma unless he obtained a law degree from an ABA accredited law school. [4] During this conversation, there was no discussion regarding Mr. Harlin's lack of an undergraduate degree and whether such would be an impediment to seeking admission to the practice of law in Oklahoma. Pursuant to his discussion with the Administrative Director, and his understanding of the RGAP, Mr. Harlin applied to and was accepted to Oklahoma City University School of Law and began attending classes in the fall of 2012. [5]

         ¶5 Oklahoma City University School of Law was aware that Mr. Harlin did not have an undergraduate degree. However, Oklahoma City University School of Law admitted Mr. Harlin pursuant to Standard 502(b) of the ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools, which allows a law school to admit an applicant who does not have a "bachelor's degree, or successful completion of three-fourths of the work acceptable for a bachelor's degree" in "an extraordinary case." [6]

         ¶6 During his time at Oklahoma City University School of Law, Mr. Harlin sought to perform licensed legal intern work under the supervision of an Oklahoma attorney. Thus, on October 15, 2013, he registered with the Board as a law student to become a Licensed Legal Intern. [7] On November 19, 2013, the Administrative Director contacted Mr. Harlin by e-mail and advised him that "[o]ne of the requirements to register as a law student and for taking a bar exam is that an applicant has a certificate of graduation with a Bachelor's degree from a college whose credit hours are transferable to an Oklahoma law school." [8] On November 20, 2013, Mr. Harlin replied to the Administrative Director and confirmed he did not have an undergraduate degree and that his degree was from the Oak Brook College of Law and Public Policy. The Administrative Director replied to Mr. Harlin that same day and notified him that she had not yet processed his application but that he could submit a statement to the Board explaining how he met the admission requirements of Rule 4.

         ¶7 On March 5, 2014, Mr. Harlin submitted a statement to the Administrative Director via e-mail wherein he set forth why he believed he satisfied the requirements of Rule 4 of the RGAP. On April 9, 2014, Mr. Harlin received a letter from the Board, notifying him that the "Board has determined that you do not meet the necessary filing requirements for a Law Student Registration application." [9] The letter also advised Mr. Harlin that if he wished to apply and take the bar exam, he could "submit an Exam Application by Attorney prior to February 1, 2015." [10]

         ¶8 On December 2, 2014, Mr. Harlin submitted an Exam Application by Attorney along with the $1, 000.00 application fee. Unlike Mr. Harlin's law student registration application, the Board processed the Exam Application by Attorney and accepted the fee. On March 31, 2015, Mr. Harlin received a letter from Patrick Kernan, general counsel for the Board, notifying him of the Board's denial of his Exam Application by Attorney and his right to appeal such decision under Rule 11 of the RGAP. [11] On April 15, 2015, Mr. Harlin timely requested a hearing under Rule 11 of the RGAP.

         ¶9 The Rule 11 hearing was held before the Board on November 4, 2015. At the hearing, Mr. Harlin argued that the Board had erred in denying his Exam Application by Attorney because under Rule 4, § 1 he was not required to satisfy the law student registration requirements of Rule 4, § 2, specifically the requirement that he obtain an undergraduate degree. [12] On November 19, 2015, Mr. Harlin received a letter from the Board notifying him that the Board had again denied his application. The letter advised him that the Board had found that even as an attorney applying under § 1 of Rule 4, Mr. Harlin had to comply with all of the requirements of law student registration found in § 2, including obtaining an undergraduate degree.

         ¶10 Mr. Harlin timely appealed the decision of the Board to this Court on December 18, 2015. Briefing was completed on April 25, 2016, and the cause was assigned to this office on April 26, 2016. We note that during the pendency of the proceedings before the Board, Mr. Harlin graduated summa cum laude from Oklahoma City University School of Law in May of 2015 where he served on the Oklahoma City University Law Review and was voted by the faculty as the Most Outstanding Graduate of the Class of 2015.

         Standard of Review

         ¶11 In a proceeding to review the Board's decision denying an application for admission by examination, this Court reviews de novo the entire record tendered. Application of Sanger, 1993 OK 158, ¶ 12, 865 P.2d 338, 344. The "findings of fact made by the Board are neither binding nor persuasive, " and this Court "must pass on the sufficiency and weight of the evidence as a tribunal of first instance." Id., ΒΆ 13, 865 P.2d at ...


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