An Ocean Springs woman who represented 42 clients in at least five immigration courts has been sentenced for practicing law without a license.
Marina Arendo Rojas Zayed, 34, was given three years' probation, fined $500 and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service at her Jan. 7 sentencing in U.S. District Court in New Orleans. She faced up to five years in prison on a charge of making false statements to an agency of the United States.
Zayed is a native of Spain and has worked several years for law firms in Ocean Springs.
Federal prosecutors charged her July 22 after the Alabama Bar Association and Homeland Security Investigations reviewed complaints.
Zayed waived indictment and pleaded guilty Sept. 24.
The charging document said Zayed fraudulently presented herself as a licensed attorney in immigration cases in several courts and in New Orleans from July 2012 until August 2013. The U.S. Immigration Court handles citizenship issues that could lead to removal from the U.S.
Federal prosecutors, in court papers, said Zayed identified herself in legal documents as licensed to practice law in Alabama and was using a false bar number. Licensed attorneys are assigned a bar number that must be used on legal documents.
She had graduated from a law school accredited in Spain, but not in the U.S., records show. She later obtained a law degree in Louisiana. The American Bar Association doesn't accept that degree as a substitute for a juris doctorate degree.
Failed ethics exam
Zayed had passed the academic portion of her state bar exam in Alabama but failed to pass the ethics portion twice in 2008 and once in March 2010, a court document said.
Zayed had moved from Madrid, Spain, to St. Louis, Mo., in 2005. She joined The Hein Law Firm in St. Louis as a law clerk in 2006, and in recent years worked for the law firms of Ocean Springs attorneys Stephen Mullins and Michael Cabrera.
The state bar in Alabama notified Zayed of a complaint against her in June 2012, a prosecutor's court filing said. A month later, Zayed sent the bar a letter saying she'd learned she wasn't licensed to practice law.
In July 2012, she represented an immigrations client in New Orleans and claimed she was licensed by the Supreme Court of Alabama.
In September 2012, she used a false bar number while representing a client in Lumpkin, Ga.
In January 2013, the Alabama bar sent her a cease-and-desist letter but she failed to respond, and she represented two different clients in New Orleans in August 2013 while still using false credentials, the prosecutor said.
After the charge was filed, professional associates of Zayed said they were shocked and saddened to hear allegations about a woman they described as a diligent legal worker and divorced single mother of two children.
"I held her in highest regard," said longtime legal secretary Linda Scott. Zayed had worked under Scott several years.