Category Archives: Ethics and lawyer withdrawal

Arizona lawyer disbarred upon consent for disparaging book about his client Jodi Arias which violated client confidentiality

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent disbarment of an Arizona lawyer who represented notorious murder defendant Jodi Arias and published a book with disparaging details about the representation and revealing attorney/client confidential information without the consent of the client.  The case is In the Matter of Laurence K. Nurmi, Case No. PDJ-2016-9115.

The lawyer began representing Jodi Arias as an assistant public defender.  She was charged in the lurid and violent murder of her boyfriend in Arizona in 2008 and was found guilty of first degree murder in May 2013; however, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on whether to sentence her to death.

Another sentencing hearing was held in the fall of 2014 and that jury voted 11-1 to sentence Arias to death.  The death penalty vote must be unanimous in Arizona and Arias was subsequently sentenced to life in prison in April 2015.  She has appealed the verdict and sentence.

Sometime in 2015, the lawyer began writing a book detailing his representation of Arias without written/oral permission or authority from Arias to publish or disseminate any information related to the representation.  According to the allegations, the book presents a negative view of Arias and the case.  The lawyer’s self-published book, Trapped with Ms. Arias: Part 1 of 3 From Getting the File to Being Ready for Trial (Volume 1), was released in 2015.

The book includes multiple confidential discussions between the lawyer, Arias, and her family. The book also provides details of the case, makes disparaging remarks, and makes several statements regarding the substance of witness interviews and inadmissible exhibits.  The lawyer also continued to disclose and explain certain facts and circumstances in the book related to his representation of Arias in promotional radio interviews.

In October 2016, the State Bar of Arizona filed a formal complaint against the lawyer for revealing attorney-client confidential information about Arias and her case in the book.  The lawyer attempted to settle the case with a 4 year suspension; however, Jodi Arias objected to that sanction.

Immediately after the announcement of the consent agreement, the Maricopa County public defender, James Haas, objected to the Arizona Bar because the agreement did not specifically order the lawyer to stop violating ethical rules with regard to the Arias case, including revealing confidential information, since the book was listed as one of 3 volumes.

The lawyer filed a request for disbarment on November 14, 2016.  The presiding disciplinary judge accepted the lawyer’s request on November 21, 2016 and issued an order making the disbarment effective the same day.

Bottom line:  This lawyer chose to write a book in a highly publicized and lurid case which disparaged his client and revealed attorney/client confidential information, including conversations with her and her family and disparaging comments.  Aria’s conviction is currently on appeal and it has been alleged that information in the book may jeopardize that appeal.

All lawyers should be aware that, unless the client provides informed consent, a lawyer is strictly prohibited from revealing attorney/client confidential information, even after the representation has been concluded.

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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Lawyer’s ethical obligations in surrendering client papers and property after termination of representation and asserting retaining liens

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert will discuss the lawyer’s ethical obligations to surrender papers and property to which the former client is entitled after termination of the representation and asserting retaining liens.  American Bar Association Formal Ethics Opinion 471 provides a good overview of these ethical obligations.  The July 1, 2015 ABA formal ethics opinion is here: ABA Ethics Opinion 471.

ABA Model Rule 1.16, Declining or Terminating Representation is substantially similar to Florida Bar Rule 4-1.16 and requires lawyers to surrender “papers and property to which the client is entitled.”  Neither the Model Rule of the Florida Bar Rules provide a definition of these terms.

The ABA opinion discusses the approaches taken in various jurisdictions and notes that the majority (including Florida) use the “entire file” analysis, wherein clients are entitled to receive all items in the file unless the lawyer can show that the item would fall under one of the generally accepted exceptions, which include the following:

“ materials that would violate a duty of nondisclosure to another person; materials containing a lawyer’s assessment of the client; materials containing information which, if released, could endanger the health, safety or welfare of the client or others; and documents reflecting only internal firm communications and assignments.”

In Florida, the client file is the property of the lawyer and the lawyer may assert a retaining lien on the client file after the representation is terminated; however, Florida Bar Rule 4-1.16(d) states that, upon termination, the lawyer must surrender papers and property to which the client is entitled, take all steps to mitigate the consequences of the termination to the client, and “may retain papers and other property as security only to the extent permitted by law.”

Florida Ethics Opinion 88-11 (Reconsideration) states:

“Many attorneys are unaware that in Florida a case file is considered to be the property of the attorney rather than the client. Dowda and Fields, P.A. v. Cobb , 452 So.2d 1140, 1142 (Fla. 5th DCA 1984); Florida Ethics Opinion 71-37 [since withdrawn]. Under normal circumstances, an attorney should make available to the client, at the client’s expense, copies of information in the file where such information would serve a useful purpose to the client. Opinion 71-37 [since withdrawn].

In appropriate situations, however, an attorney is entitled to refuse to provide copies of material in the file and instead may assert an attorney’s lien. Such situations include a client’s refusal to reimburse a discharged attorney for the attorney’s incurred costs or to provide a reasonable guarantee to the attorney that the costs will be repaid at the conclusion of the case. See Florida Ethics Opinion 71-57. While in such a situation it may be ethically permissible for an attorney to assert a lien with respect to materials in a case file, the validity and extent of the lien is a question of law to be decided by the courts.

Florida common law recognizes two types of attorney’s liens: the charging lien and the retaining lien. The charging lien may be asserted when a client owes the attorney for fees or costs in connection with a specific matter in which a suit has been filed. To impose a charging lien, the attorney must show: (1) a contract between attorney and client; (2) an understanding for payment of attorney’s fees out of the recovery; (3) either an avoidance of payment or a dispute regarding the amount of fees; and (4) timely notice. Daniel Mones, P.A. v. Smith , 486 So.2d 559, 561 (Fla. 1986). The attorney should give timely notice of the asserted charging lien by either filing a notice of lien or otherwise pursuing the lien in the underlying suit. The latter approach is preferred.

Unlike a charging lien, a retaining lien may be asserted with respect to amounts owed by a client for all legal work done on the client’s behalf regardless of whether the materials upon which the retaining lien is asserted are related to the matter in which the outstanding charges were incurred. A retaining lien may be asserted on file materials as well as client funds or property in the attorney’s possession, and may be asserted whether or not a suit has been filed. Mones , 486 So.2d at 561.  Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 88-11 (Reconsideration is here: http://www.floridabar.org/TFB/TFBETOpin.nsf/SMTGT/ETHICS,%20OPINION%2088-11%20(Reconsideration).

An attorney’s right to assert a lien may be limited, however, by the ethical obligation to avoid foreseeable prejudice to the client’s interests. What papers or documents must be furnished to a client in a particular case in order to avoid prejudicing the client’s interest therein will necessarily depend on the specific facts and circumstances involved.

Some  jurisdictions follow the “end product” analysis. Under this analysis, clients are entitled only to those items that are the end product of the representation, and may not be entitled to receive the documents or other materials that led up to the end product.

“…Under these variations of the end product approach, the lawyer must surrender: correspondence by the lawyer for the benefit of the client; investigative reports and other discovery for which the client has paid; and pleadings and other papers filed with a tribunal. The client is also entitled to copies of contracts, wills, corporate records and other similar documents prepared by the lawyer for the client. These items are generally considered the lawyer’s “end product.”

Under this alternative analysis, administrative documents, internal memoranda and preliminary drafts of documents do not have to be returned; however, internal notes and memos may need to be turned over if the final product of the representation has not yet emerged and nondisclosure could harm the client.

Bottom line:  Lawyers must be aware of the requirements of their jurisdictions regarding the return of a client’s file after termination of the representation and before contemplating the assertion of a retaining lien on the client’s file.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Please note:  Effective June 27, 2016, my new office address is:

29605 U.S. Highway 19 N., Suite 150, Clearwater, Florida 33761

E-mail addresses and telephone numbers below will remain the same. 

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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Eighth Circuit Appeals Court reverses trial court and permits law firm to withdraw for client’s failure to pay fees and fulfill obligations to lawyer

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent opinion of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversing a trial court order and permitting a law firm to withdraw because of the client’s failure to pay the firm’s fees and to provide the firm with information “critical for its defense.”  The case is Sanford v. Maid-Rite Corporation, Case No. 15-2424, and the opinion is here:  http://media.ca8.uscourts.gov/opndir/16/03/152424P.pdf

According to the opinion, the underlying matter involved a class action filed by current and former franchisees against Maid-Rite. The allegations were that Maid-Rite made false representations regarding the company’s profitability that induced them into purchasing the franchises.  In September 2014, Maid-Rite and the other defendants retained the law firm as counsel. The engagement letter provided that the law firm would bill on an hourly basis and the firm “reserved the right to withdraw from this representation for good cause.”  “Good cause” included the failure to make timely payments and the failure to follow the firm’s advice on a “material matter.”

The opinion states that the client paid one invoice but failed to pay any more invoices and the firm “repeatedly advised them that the firm would seek to withdraw unless their outstanding bills were paid. Although defendants promised several times to pay the invoices, they did not and a significant unpaid balance resulted. Defendants also repeatedly failed to provide Larkin with information critical for its defense.”  On January 28, 2015, the firm moved to withdraw and, on April 16, 2015, the magistrate judge stayed discovery while the district court considered the motion. The district court affirmed on June 5, 2015 and the firm filed an interlocutory appeal with the federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The opinion applied the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which permit a lawyer to withdraw if:

(5) the client fails substantially to fulfill an obligation to the lawyer regarding the lawyer’s services and has been given reasonable warning that the lawyer will withdraw unless the obligation is fulfilled;

(6) the representation will result in an unreasonable financial burden on the lawyer or has been rendered unreasonably difficult by the client; or

(7) other good cause for withdrawal exists.

The Minnesota Bar Rule also requires the lawyer to show good cause and notify the client of the motion to withdraw.  The opinion found that the firm met all the requirements to file a motion to withdraw and; therefore, a presumption arose that the firm would be permitted to withdraw. The opinion also stated that “there was no rebuttal to the presumption that withdrawal was appropriate since there was no evidence that the firm waited too long to withdraw and the discovery period was still open. There was also no prejudice to any third parties.”  The opinion reversed the trial court’s order as an abuse of discretion. And permitted the firm to withdraw.  The opinion followed Fid. Nat’l Title Ins. Co. v. Intercounty Nat’l Title Ins. Co., 310 F.3d 537 (7th Cir. 2002), which held that a law firm could file an interlocutory appeal to challenge the denial of a motion to withdraw.

Bottom line:  Lawyers who would like to withdraw from representing a client must be prepared to cite a proper basis for the withdrawal under the Bar rules, whether it is permissive or mandatory.  This law firm’s motion to withdraw in the federal case was denied by the trial court; however, the firm was permitted to file an interlocutory appeal challenging the denial, and the appeals court granted the withdrawal.  Not all jurisdictions may permit interlocutory appeals of such an order and, in most jurisdictions (including Florida), if the court does not permit the withdrawal (and any appeals are exhausted), the lawyer is required to continue the representation, notwithstanding any financial burden and/or the failure of the client to fulfill his or her obligations.

Be careful out there!

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice 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.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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