Monthly Archives: January 2019

Florida Bar Supreme Court opinion provides guidance regarding ethical payments to fact witnesses in litigation

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent (December 28, 2018) Florida Supreme Court opinion which discusses the ethical requirements surrounding witness fees and guidance lawyers regarding Florida Bar Rule 4-3.4(b) which prohibits inducements to fact witnesses to testify.  The case is: Trial Practices, Inc. v. Hahn Loeser & Parks, LLP etc. No. SC17-2058 and the opinion is here: https://www.floridasupremecourt.org/content/download/425462/4585484/file/sc17-2058.pdf

The underlying case involved a dispute between two business partners.  One of the partners hired Trial Practices, Inc. (TPI) for consulting services in the litigation, which ended in a mistrial and was later settled.  After the settlement, TPI claimed the 5% fee based on the value of certain transferred property and the settlement of related litigation involving the partners.

The partner denied owing TPI the 5% fee and claimed that the settlement agreement was a “walk away” agreement with no “gross recovery” to either side.  TPI then sued the partner for breach of the consulting agreement and, in the trial that followed, the jury found for the partner on all issues.  The partner then pursued attorney’s fees and costs from TPI, which challenged the costs, including approximately $236,000.00 paid to “seven fact witnesses’ professional firms,” some of which helped prepare the settlement agreement in the original litigation.

The Second District Court of Appeal upheld most of the trial court’s award of costs and fees to the partner, but certified a question to the Supreme Court as to whether Bar Rule 4-3.4(b) allows payments to witnesses for case and discovery preparation.  The court slightly rephrased the certified question as: 

Whether under the Bar rule a fact witness could be paid for “case and discovery preparation that is not directly related to the witness preparing for, attending, or testifying at proceedings.” 

The opinion (written by Justice Charles Canady) answers that question in the negative and cautioned lawyers to be careful when compensating witnesses to avoid any perception they are trying to influence the testimony in violation of Florida Bar Rule 4-3.4(b).  That rule prohibits offering inducements to witnesses except for expenses related to testifying, a reasonable fee for expert witnesses, and the language in the pre-2014 version at issue in the case, “reasonable compensation to reimburse a witness for the loss of compensation incurred by reason of preparing for, attending, or testifying at proceedings…”.  Bar Rule 4-3.4 was amended in 2014 to remove “reimburse” and “loss of compensation” from the language since that language arguably prohibited lawyers from compensating witnesses who have no income.

The opinion states that Rule 4-3.4(b) involves the balancing of concerns over offering or paying inducements for testimony and recognizing the value of the time expended by the witness and providing an incentive to assist with the “truth-seeking function of the trial process.”

“Athough we conclude that ‘preparing for, attending, or testifying at proceedings’ can reasonably be interpreted to include certain ‘assistance with case and discovery preparation,’ we also reiterate the importance of rule 4-3.4(b) and the prohibition against improperly influencing witnesses…(o)ur disciplinary cases have repeatedly noted – both in the context of rule 4-3.4(b) and otherwise – the importance of avoiding even the appearance of improper influence. Although we do not find these disciplinary cases to be on point, we emphasize the narrow nature of the issue we address here.”

Further:

“permitting payments for any type of ‘assistance with case and discovery preparation’ would not only be inconsistent with the rule’s plain language but could open the door to purchasing testimony under the pretext of such ‘assistance’ and compromise the integrity of the fact-finding process – the very thing rule 4-3.4(b) is designed to prevent. We thus decline to broadly conclude that ‘assistance with case and discovery preparation’ is subsumed within ‘preparing for, attending, or testifying at proceedings…(h)owever, we also recognize – as this case demonstrates – that there is room for overlap between the two categories. We therefore also decline to adopt a view that effectively treats the two categories as mutually exclusive.

“We think the more appropriate inquiry is whether the witness’s ‘assistance with case and discovery preparation’ is directly related to the witness ‘preparing, attending, or testifying at proceedings.’ Although less than perfectly precise, viewing the payments through that narrower lens is consistent with the language of the rule and avoids prejudicing parties in highly complex cases such as this where they are dependent upon professionals.”

The opinion remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the decision.

Bottom line:  This opinion attempts to clarify the rule regarding ethical payments to fact witnesses in litigation which are not improper inducements and concludes that payments to fact witnesses are permitted only when the assistance of the witness with the case and discovery preparation is directly related to the witness preparing, attending, or testifying at proceedings.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

 

 

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Florida Bar Board of Governors approves Ethics Opinion addressing lawyer fee arrangements with qualifying providers

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the Florida Bar Board of Governor’s (BOG) unanimous approval of Ethics Advisory Opinion 18-1 addressing fee arrangements between qualifying providers and participating lawyers to comply with amended Florida Bar Rule 4-7.22, which substantially revises the requirements for qualifying providers.  Ethics Opinion 18-1 is here: https://www-media.floridabar.org/uploads/2018/10/Proposed-Advisory-Op-18-1-website-10-12-18.pdf

At its December 14, 2018 meeting in Naples, the BOG approved Advisory Ethics Opinion 18-1, “Payments to Qualifying Providers/Lawyer Referral Services.” regarding for-profit qualifying providers, previously known as lawyer referral services, and related payment methods.  The BOG approved the Ethics Opinion unanimously without debate.

Under amended Bar Rule 4-7.22, which became effective in April 2018, a qualifying provider is, “any person, group, or persons, associations, organizations, or entities that receive any benefit or consideration, monetary or otherwise, for the direct or indirect referral of respective clients to the lawyers or law firm.”

The Comment to Rule 4-7.22 states:

“A lawyer may not participate with a qualifying provider that receives any legal fee that constitutes a division of legal fees with a non-lawyer unless the qualifying provider is The Florida Bar Lawyer Referral Service or a lawyer referral service approved by The Florida Bar pursuant to Chapter 8 of these rules,” the comment states. “A fee calculated as a percentage of the fee received by a lawyer, or based on the success or perceived value of the case, would be an improper division of legal fees…(a)dditionally, a fee that constitutes an improper division of fees occurs when the qualifying provider directs, regulates, or influences the lawyer’s professional judgement in rendering legal services to the client.”

Ethics Advisory Opinion 18-1 lists the following factors which “mitigate in favor of a conclusion that the charge is permissible”:

  1. The charge is reasonably based on the qualifying provider’s costs for marketing and administration plus a reasonable profit; and
  2. the charge is imposed regardless of whether the lawyer is hired by the prospective client.

The opinion lists the following factors which would “mitigate in favor of a conclusion that the charge is impermissible”:

  1. The charge is based on the perceived value of the individual matter.
  2. The qualifying provider collects the lawyers’ fees directly from the consumer, takes a portion of the fee as the charge for the referral or match, then remits the remainder to the lawyer.
  3. The qualifying provider interferes with the lawyer’s independent professional judgment in representing clients or directs the lawyer’s activities in representing clients.
  4. There is sufficient incentive for the qualifying provider to improperly solicit prospective clients or improperly market the service.

The opinion states that: “the board believes the following would be permissible:”

  1. A reasonable, pre-arranged fixed charge per time period such as weekly, monthly, or yearly;
  2. A reasonable, pre-arranged fixed charge for each time a consumer views information about a specific lawyer, commonly referred to as “pay-per-click.”
  3. A reasonable, pre-arranged fixed charge per matter referred to the lawyer that is not contingent on the outcome of the matter and does not vary based on the amount at issue in the matter.
  4. A reasonable, pre-arranged fixed charge per matter referred to the lawyer that varies based on the type of matter only if the varying charge is based on demonstrably different marketing and administrative costs rather than the perceived value of the case.

The opinion states that: “the board believes the following would generally be impermissible”:

  1. A charge calculated as a percentage of the fee received by a lawyer.
  2. A charge calculated as a percentage of the client’s recovery in the matter.
  3. A charge based on the perceived value of the case referred to or accepted by a participating lawyer.
  4. A flat charge that differs based on the perceived value of the case referred to or accepted by a participating lawyer.
  5. A flat charge per case accepted by a participating lawyer.
  6. A flat charge per case accepted by a participating lawyer that differs based on the type of matter (e.g., personal injury versus family law).

The opinion states that it is designed solely to address what constitutes impermissible fee splitting, and that lawyers should not “assume that a lawyer may participate with a particular qualifying provider solely because the qualifying provider’s method of charging for its services falls within one of the methods the board concludes generally would be found to be permissible.”

Bottom line:  The Ethics Opinion identifies various fee arrangements between lawyers and qualifying providers which may or may not comply with the new rule.  Any lawyers who participate in (or are considering participating in) referrals from a private entity should carefully review this ethics opinion and the amended rule, since lawyers can be disciplined if the referral service (qualifying provider) fails to comply with the Florida Bar rules.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19, N., Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 2018 Florida lawyer referral qualifying provider rule revisions, 2018 Florida lawyer referral service matching service rule revisions, Attorney Ethics, Florida Bar, Florida Bar 2016 Lawyer referral rule revisions, Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 18-1 lawyer referral qualifying provider fees, Florida Bar ethics opinion qualifying provider- lawyer fees, Florida Bar lawyer referral rule revisions, Florida Bar matching services, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer Referral Services

Florida Supreme Court approves amended rule permitting lawyers to charge clients for actual merchant credit costs

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent (1/4/19) Florida Supreme Court opinion approving a revision to Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(h), which will permit lawyers to charge a client the actual cost of accepting a credit payment. The amended rule(s) become effective March 5, 2019.

The Florida Supreme Court issued the opinion after The Florida Bar filed an omnibus petition proposing amendments to various Rules Regulating The Florida Bar.  The opinion approved the proposed amendment to Bar Rule 4-1.5(h) as follows:

“to replace the provision that “[n]o higher fee shall be charged and no additional charge shall be imposed by reason of a lawyer’s or law firm’s participation in a credit plan” with a statement that “[l]awyers may charge clients the actual charge the credit plan imposes on the lawyer for the client’s transaction.” By so doing, we hereby allow lawyers to pass on the actual costs resulting directly from a client’s choice to pay a bill or invoice with a credit card, or make payments under a credit plan, to that client.”

Bottom line:  When it becomes effective on March 5, 2019, Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(h) will permit lawyers to charge the client the actual credit merchant charges.  This reverses the prior rule, which specifically prohibited charging the client for such merchant costs.

Be careful out there.

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

 

 

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Filed under Attorney Ethics, Florida Bar, Florida Bar rule permitting lawyers to charge clients with credit card merchant fees, Florida Bar rule permitting lawyers to charge credit card fees to clients, Florida Lawyers charging clients with merchant credit card charges, Florida Supreme Court, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer charging credit card fees to client

Louisiana Supreme Court disbars former Assistant U.S. Attorney for making anonymous improper internet comments

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Louisiana Supreme Court disciplinary opinion which disbarred a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for making numerous anonymous improper and inflammatory comments on the internet related to pending criminal cases.  The disciplinary case is: Supreme Court of Louisiana v. In Re: Salvador R. Perricone, NO. 2018-B-1233 (12/5/18) and the link to the case is here:  https://www.ladb.org/DR/Default.aspx?DocID=9113&TAB=SC

According to the opinion, the underlying facts in the case were mostly undisputed.  The lawyer began employment as an Assistant United States Attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana in 1991. At all times relevant to these proceedings, the lawyer was a Senior Litigation Counsel and the USAO’s training officer.

During the time period of the allegations in the Complaint, The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper maintained an Internet website called nola.com which permitted readers to post comments to news stories using pseudonyms and anonymous identities.

Beginning in November 2007 through March 14, 2012, the lawyer posted numerous comments on various subjects on nola.com, including statements about pending criminal cases to which he and other prosecutors were assigned. “Of the more than 2,600 comments respondent posted, between one hundred and two hundred – less than one percent – related to matters being prosecuted by (the U.S. Attorney’s Office). None of the comments identified respondent by name or as an employee of the USAO. Rather, respondent posted on nola.com using at least five online identities: ‘campstblue’, ‘legacyusa’, ‘dramatis personae’, “Henry L. Mencken1951’, and ‘fed up.’”

The anonymous comments included, inter alia, statements such as:

“Heebe’s (the defendant) goose is cooked.”

“I read the indictment…there is no legitimate reason for this type of behavior in such a short period of time and for a limited purpose. GUILTY!!!”

“Looks like Fazzio got a lemon. That book you refer to Mr. Rioux is about all of his losses. The guy is a clown and Fazzio is going down.”

The allegations were reported to the presiding judge who found the lawyer’s conduct improper and reversed the criminal convictions against the defendants and ordered a new trial.  The judge also found that the lawyer “viewed posting of highly-opinionated comments as a ‘public service.”  A disciplinary complaint was opened against the lawyer and, after disciplinary proceedings were completed, the Louisiana Disciplinary Board recommended that the lawyer be found guilty of the Bar Rule violations and disbarred.

The Louisiana Supreme Court opinion rejected post-traumatic stress as mitigation and stated that “the focus of the inquiry in the instant case is on the second factor – namely, whether respondent’s PTSD caused the misconduct at issue. Based on our review of the record, we find no clear and convincing support for the conclusion that respondent’s mental condition may have caused his misconduct.”  After reviewing aggravating and mitigating factors and case law, the opinion further stated:

“In this age of social media, it is important for all attorneys to bear in mind that “[t]he vigorous advocacy we demand of the legal profession is accepted because it takes place under the neutral, dispassionate control of the judicial system.” Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada, 501 U.S. 1030, 1058 (1991). As the Court in Gentile wisely explained, “[a] profession which takes just pride in these traditions may consider them disserved if lawyers use their skills and insight to make untested allegations in the press instead of in the courtroom.” Id. Respondent’s conscious decision to vent his anger by posting caustic, extrajudicial comments about pending cases strikes at the heart of the neutral dispassionate control which is the foundation of our system. Our decision today must send a strong message to respondent and to all the members of the bar that a lawyer’s ethical obligations are not diminished by the mask of anonymity provided by the Internet.

In summary, considering respondent’s position of public trust as a prosecutor, his knowing and intentional decision to post these comments despite his acknowledgment that it was improper to do so, and the serious harm respondent’s conduct has caused both to individual litigants and to the legal profession as a whole, we must conclude he has failed to comply with the high ethical standards we require of lawyers who are granted the privilege to practice law in this state. The only appropriate sanction under these facts is disbarment.”

Bottom line:  This is another disciplinary case involving a criminal prosecutor improperly using the internet, this time it is a federal prosecutor who made biased and inflammatory comments.  The Louisiana Supreme Court (and other courts) have made it very clear that it will not tolerate lawyers, especially those in a position of “public trust”, who anonymously (or otherwise) make biased, improper, and inflammatory comments on the internet.

Be careful out there.

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.

My law firm focuses on review, analysis, and interpretation of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, advice and representation of lawyers in Bar disciplinary matters, defense of applicants for admission to The Florida Bar before the Board of Bar Examiners, defense of all Florida licensed professionals in discipline and admission matters before all state agencies and boards, expert ethics opinions, and practice management for lawyers and law firms.  If there is a lawyer or other Florida professional license involved, I can defend the complaint or help you get your license. 

If you have any questions or comments, please call me at (727) 799-1688 or e-mail me at jcorsmeier@jac-law.com.  You can find my law firm on the web at www.jac-law.com. In addition to handling individual cases, matters, problems and issues for my clients, I also am on retainer to provide ethics advice to numerous lawyers and law firms throughout the state of Florida.  I also provide legal assistance and advice to numerous individuals and non-legal entities to help insure compliance with the law and rules related to UPL and other issues.

You are receiving this ETHICS ALERT since you are a current or former client or you have requested that this Update be sent to you.  Please note that you may opt in or out of receiving this ETHICS ALERT any time.  If you would like to discontinue receipt of this ETHICS ALERT or if you would like to begin receiving it, simply send me an e-mail to me advising of your request.

If there are others at your firm who would like to be included on the distribution list, please feel free to forward this update to them or let us know in an email.  If you would like to forward this Ethics Alert to any person or entity please feel free do so as long as it is not for personal gain and you forward the entire email, including all contact information and disclaimers. 

Disclaimer:  this e-mail is not an advertisement, does not contain any legal advice, and does not create an attorney/client relationship and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N. Suite 150

Clearwater, Florida 33761

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, Lawyer disbarment, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer inflammatory comments on internet about pending cases disbarment, Lawyer misconduct improper social media access, Lawyer sanctions, lawyer suspension social media misconduct, Lawyers and social media, Prosecutor disbarred for inflammatory anonymous comments on pending cases, Prosecutor misconduct discipline, Prosecutorial misconduct ethics