Category Archives: Excessive fee

Louisiana lawyer suspended for submitting false billable hours because he believed his partnership status required them

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Louisiana Supreme Court Opinion suspending a lawyer for 30 months with all but one (1) year deferred for false billable hours that he believed were necessary to maintain his partnership position and “in an effort to make himself look better on paper each month.”   The disciplinary case is:  In re: Kenneth Todd Wallace, Case No. 2017-B-0525.  The disciplinary opinion is dated September 22, 2017 and is here:  http://www.lasc.org/opinions/2017/17B0525.OPN.pdf

According to the opinion, the lawyer “joined the law firm of Liskow & Lewis as an associate attorney in 1998. After his promotion to shareholder in 2005, he served as the firm’s hiring partner and head of recruiting. He also chaired the firm’s diversity committee as the firm’s first minority recruiting and retention partner. In 2012, respondent was elected to the firm’s board of directors and served as the board’s junior director through April 2015.”

The lawyer stated that he made the false billing entries because he was concerned that his correct billable hours (along with an insufficient number of clients) were not adequate for a partner with his status.  “When his practice began to decline, (the lawyer) gave in to his own internal pressures and began to submit false time on a dismissed contingency fee matter, and eventually other matters, in an effort to make himself look better on paper each month.”

After the law firm became aware of his false billing in some client matters, the lawyer assisted the firm in conducting a full investigation.  The firm’s investigation showed that, between 2012 through 2015, the lawyer submitted 428 billing entries that the firm believed were “certainly false” and another 220 entries that the firm believed could be false or inflated; however, the law firm concluded that none of the false billing entries adversely affected any of the firm’s clients.

The lawyer had received $85,000.00 in merit bonuses between 2012 through 2015 and the firm concluded he would have received some or all of the bonuses even if he had not inflated his billable hours. The lawyer had also spent significant time with his firm management and committee responsibilities and had also met or exceeded billable targets during the years in question.  The lawyer resigned from the firm in 2015 and gave up his available bonus.

The disciplinary opinion imposed a 30 month suspension with all but one-year deferred.  The suspension was also made retroactive to January 2016, when the lawyer had been suspended on an interim basis pending the outcome of the matter.

Bottom line:  This is a very clear and unfortunate example of a lawyer who most likely destroyed his legal career after succumbing to the stress and pressure of a law partner’s need for large billable hours and a large number of clients (book of business).  I would imagine that, if asked, this lawyer would tell you that it was not worth it.

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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West Virginia lawyer suspended for 2 years for, inter alia, twice billing over 24 hours in one day

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent West Virginia Supreme Court opinion which suspended a lawyer for 2 years for, inter alia, billing for over 24 hours in one day on two occasions.   The case is West Virginia Lawyer Disciplinary Board v. Michael P. Cooke, SC No. 15-1243 April 20, 2017).  The Supreme Court’s opinion is here:  http://www.courtswv.gov/supreme-court/docs/spring2017/15-1243.pdf

According to the opinion, “during the time period of January 21, 2014, through September 18, 2014, Cooke billed more than fifteen hours a day on thirty-seven different days. On five of those days, he billed in excess of twenty hours and on two of those days, he billed greater than twenty-four hours. Cooke maintains that during that period of time he was billing the time of the contract attorneys working for him, as well as his own.  However, per Cooke’s own testimony, this would have occurred for only some portion of the time period at issue inasmuch as his ‘full-time’ contract attorney quit in late-March, leaving only the part-time contract attorney, who likewise quit at some point later that year.”

“Moreover, during this time period, Cooke contends that he was suffering from diagnosed ‘low testosterone’ which caused him to sleep between ten and sixteen hours a day; medical records introduced into evidence do in fact support such a diagnosis in June, 2014. Cooke maintains that this fatigue continued throughout the time frame in which the guardian ad litem matter was ‘pending’ and continued until November, 2014.”

“Cooke’s extraordinary overbilling was not only intentional and pervasive within the time period at issue, but long-standing. Given the state of the public fisc, the actual injury to the taxpayers of the State of West Virginia is all too real. As the Supreme Court of Ohio stated, overbilling the state for representing indigent clients ‘exploit[s] an already overburdened system designed to aid the poorest members of our society and lessen[s] public confidence in the legal profession and compromise[s] its integrity.’ Holland, 835 N.E.2d at 366. Cooke’s misconduct in that regard, therefore, profoundly affects the public, the legal system, and the profession.

“Moreover, while the bulk of the foregoing discussion has been dedicated to Cooke’s overbilling to PDS, by no means does this Court intend to minimize the seriousness of Cooke’s other violations. In particular, Cooke’s failure to timely file a guardian ad litem brief with this Court in an abuse and neglect matter is not only violative of the Rules of Professional Conduct, but in complete disregard of the countless warnings issued by this Court regarding the appellate obligations of guardians ad litem…”

“Therefore, giving Cooke the benefit of every doubt, this purported fatigue and reduced working capacity would have existed from approximately February until November, 2014—the exact time period under scrutiny for overbilling. Per Cooke’s own testimony, therefore, during this time there would have been between only eight and fourteen hours of the day in which he could even be awake to perform work.”

After summarizing West Virginia cases and standards, the opinion stated the following:

“In view of the foregoing, we find that Cooke’s misconduct warrants a two-year suspension from the practice of law. Cooke’s defrauding of the State through overbilling, gross mishandling of a client matter and funds, his dereliction of duty to his infant clients as a guardian ad litem—all of which is compounded by his unrelenting pattern of unresponsiveness and empty reassurances of remediation—plainly justify this degree of discipline.”  The disciplinary hearing panel had recommended a three month suspension and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel recommended a suspension of 18 months.

Bottom line: This lawyer was found to have engaged in serious and excessive overbilling and the opinion found that the overbilling was “intentional and pervasive”.  Among other things, he claimed in mitigation that he had low testosterone “which caused him to sleep between ten and sixteen hours a day.”   The lawyer was suspended for 2 years for this serious misconduct.

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

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Florida Supreme Court adopts Bar Rules defining retainer, flat fee and advance fees and clarifying deposits of fees

 

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida which adopted Bar Rules which define retainer, flat fee and advance fees and clarifying deposit of fees.  The opinion is In Re: Amendments to Rules Regulating The Florida Bar 4-1.5—Fees and Costs for Legal Services, No. SC14-2112 (September 17, 2015) and the opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2015/sc14-2112.pdf  The amendments will become effective on October 1, 2015.

The opinion adopted amendments filed by The Florida Bar adding subdivision (2) to Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5, which defines the terms retainer, flat fee and advance fee.  The amendment also adds language to the Comment under “Terms of payment” stating that nonrefundable flat fees and nonrefundable retainers should not be deposited into the lawyer’s trust account; however, advance fees must be held in trust until earned.  The Comment also states that nonrefundable fees can still be excessive.

The amendment also moves the language in the Comment regarding contingent fees in criminal and domestic relations cases under the header “Prohibited contingent fees.”

Bottom line: these amendments to Rule 4-1.6 resulted from recommendations made by the ABA Ethics Commission 20/20.  As I pointed out in a previous Ethics Alert, the current amendments were drafted after an earlier attempt by The Florida Bar to place definitions in the Comment to Rule 4-1.5 was rejected by the Florida Supreme Court in an opinion stating that any definitions should be in the rule.

Be careful out there.

As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding these or any other 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.

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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Tennessee lawyer who, inter alia, billed clients for watching crime TV shows and was “doggedly unrepentant” is suspended for one year

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent Tennessee Supreme Court disciplinary opinion which suspended a lawyer for one year for, inter alia, billing clients for watching true-crime shows.  The opinion is Yarboro Sallee v. Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, No. E2014-01062-SC-R3-BP (July 23, 2015) and is online here:  http://www.tsc.state.tn.us/sites/default/files/salleeyarboro.opn_.pdf

According to the opinion, the underlying matter involved an accident which occurred on October 15, 2009.  The decedent, Lori Noll, fell down steps in her home and died five days later. Although a medical examiner found that the death was accidental, the Ms. Noll’s parents suspected that their daughter’s husband was motivated by a one-million dollar insurance policy on Ms. Noll’s life and was responsible for her death.

The lawyer was hired by the parents in September 2010 to file a wrongful death action.  The lawyer estimated that the litigation would cost no more than $100,000.00.  The parents agreed to pay the lawyer an hourly rate of $250.00 and paid her an initial retainer of $5,000.00.  The parents paid the lawyer an additional $15,000.00 and, within a month after the initial engagement, the parents paid an additional $19,000.00 in three separate checks: (1) $10,000.00 as a further retainer (2) $4,000.00 flat fee for the juvenile court proceeding, and (3) $5,000.00 to retain a forensics expert.

Less than three months later, the lawyer claimed that she had incurred hourly fees totaling over $140,000.00.  At that point, she had done “little more” than file the wrongful death complaint, file related pleadings in probate and juvenile court, and gather records.  When the lawyer insisted that the clients agree to pay her a contingency fees plus the hourly fees, they terminated her.

After the clients terminated the lawyer, she refused to return to them important evidence and documents related to the wrongful death litigation, including brain tissue slides from their daughter’s autopsy. The clients sued the lawyer to force her to return the withheld items and the lawyer threatened to file criminal charges against them. The clients then filed a complaint against the lawyer with the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility.

The Professional Responsibility Board investigated the lawyer, who argued that her conduct had been reasonable and ethical.  She provided the Board documentation of her hourly charges, which claimed that she had worked as many as 23 hours of billable time in a single day and included fees for tasks such as watching many hours of reality and fictional crime TV shows.

A hearing panel found that the lawyer had violated numerous the Bar by charging excessive fees, demanding that the clients agree to pay a contingency fee in addition to hourly fees, failing to communicate with the clients regarding the basis for the fees, improperly withholding items from the clients after they discharged her, and threatening to file criminal charges against the clients. The hearing panel found five aggravating factors: (1) a dishonest and selfish motive; (2) a pattern of misconduct; (3) multiple offenses; (4) refusal to acknowledge the wrongfulness of her conduct; and (5) indifference to making restitution and one mitigating factor: the absence of a prior disciplinary record and recommended a one year suspension.

The lawyer requested judicial review of the hearing panel’s recommendation, and the trial judge upheld the sanction. The lawyer then appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, claiming that there was no basis for finding ethical violations and that the one year suspension was too severe.  The opinion upheld the hearing panel’s findings that the lawyer violated multiple ethical rules and the one year suspension.  “At every turn in these proceedings, faced with findings at every level that her conduct breached numerous ethical rules, Attorney Sallee has been doggedly unrepentant. Indeed, her consistent response has bordered on righteous indignation.”

The opinion further stated:  “Assuming arguendo that the hourly rate of $250 per hour is reasonable for Attorney Sallee’s experience and ability, it is important under the Rules that the lawyer ensure that the work for which he or she seeks to charge the client is ‘reasonable.’ For example, a lawyer who represents criminal clients may be interested in watching Perry Mason or Breaking Bad on television, and may even pick up a useful tidbit or two from doing so. The lawyer may not, however, equate that to research for which he or she may charge a client. In this case, the Panel did not err in considering the many hours Attorney Sallee sought to charge the Claimants for watching television shows such as 48 Hours.

“Attorney Sallee also objected to the trial court’s comment that she ‘watched TV and charged her client for it.’ She characterized this statement as ‘ridiculous,’ adding, ‘since when is television not a respectable avenue for research anyway.’ Attorney Sallee pointed to a particular time entry on her ‘billing statement’ as legitimate billable time because it was spent watching a five-hour documentary on the Peterson ‘Stair Case Murder’ in North Carolina. Her motion did not address a 12.5-hour time entry on September 25, 2010, for watching ‘48 Hours’ episodes on similar spousal homicides, a 4.0-hour time entry on October 19, 2010 for watching four ‘48 Hours’ episodes on asphyxia, or a 3.5-hour time entry on October 20, 2010 for watching these same ‘48 Hours’ episodes a second time. At Attorney Sallee’s regular hourly rate, this would amount to over $5,000 for watching episodes of ‘48 Hours.’”

Bottom line: This is an egregious example of a lawyer seriously abusing billable time and charging an excessive fee, including charging as many as 23 billable hours in one day and charging multiple billable hours watching crime TV shows.  To compound her problems, the lawyer refused to turn over the clients’ evidence and information after they had terminated her and apparently completely failed to grasp that she had committed any misconduct.

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.

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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Ethics Alert – Iowa Supreme Court reprimands lawyer who billed corporate client for costs of sanctions which “resulted from his own lack of diligence and communication”

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Iowa Supreme Court opinion which adopted a disciplinary report and imposed a reprimand on a lawyer who billed his corporate client for costs of attorney’s fee sanctions which “resulted from his own lack of diligence and communication”. The disciplinary opinion is: Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Discipline Board v. Cameron Davidson, Case No. 14-0878 (August 18, 2014). The disciplinary opinion is online here: http://www.abajournal.com/images/main_images/Davidson.pdf and here: https://www.iacourtcommissions.org/ViewLawyer.do?id=2704

According to the court opinion and discipline report, the lawyer represented Deere & Co. as a defendant in defending an employment discrimination lawsuit filed in federal court. The plaintiff was a former Deere employee who was terminated for allegedly violating Deere’s employee travel expense policy; however, she claimed that the termination was a result of age discrimination.

The lawyer responded to the plaintiff’s interrogatories and request for production requesting the names of all Deere employees who were investigated during the same time period (2005-2012) for travel expense violations and identified 4 employees; however, he did not provide the requested birth dates. The plaintiff’s lawyer filed a motion to compel which was granted and attorney’s fees sanctions of $700.00 were imposed. The lawyer ultimately self-reported and stated that the client had informed him it wanted to object to the plaintiff’s discovery requests, which resulted in the initial discovery dispute and the $700.00 sanction. The lawyer stated “I believed that I had discussed this matter with my client, however, my file does not reflect that I sent the motion (to compel and for sanctions) or the order to the client.”

The plaintiff filed a second motion to compel and for sanctions on another discovery issue. The lawyer stated that he was unsure how to respond to the second motion and admitted that he “ultimately missed the deadline to file a resistance or a reply.” The court granted the second Motion to Compel and imposed a sanction of $1,750.00 in attorney’s fees. “I again failed to send the motion or the court’s order to the client, which was not aware of the seriousness of the discovery dispute.”

The plaintiff filed a third motion to compel and for sanctions, which was also granted and sanctions of $1,050.00 in attorney’s fees were imposed. The lawyer also failed to send the plaintiff’s third motion and the court order imposing sanctions to the client. According to the report: “Despite these Orders (the lawyer) continued to delay providing complete interrogatory answers (and) failed to arrange for two of the employees to be deposed, as requested by the plaintiff.”

The lawyer billed the client for the costs of all three sanctions. In the billings, the lawyer called the first $700.00 sanction “Miscellaneous; Penalty on Discovery; Doug Stephens Law Firm”, the billing for the second $1,750.00 sanction “Misc(ellaneous Costs)”, and the billing for the third $1,050.00 sanction “Miscellaneous; Attorneys’ Fees; B. Douglas Stephens.” According to the disciplinary report, “(o)nly after your former partners learned of the sanctions orders was the client fully informed.”

The lawyer was found to have violated Iowa disciplinary rules related to lack of communication, lack of diligence, and charging an unreasonable fee or expense and was reprimanded.

Bottom line: This lawyer was found to be negligent in timely responding to discovery related matters, which resulted in three separate attorney’s fee sanctions and, not only did he fail to tell the client about the negligence and the sanctions which resulted from his negligence, but he also had the audacity to bill the client for the costs of the sanctions. That certainly was not a good decision and it is somewhat surprising that the lawyer only received a reprimand.

Let’s 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
http://www.jac-law.com

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