Category Archives: Excessive fee

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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Filed under Attorney Ethics, Excessive fee, Florida lawyer trust accounts, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer escrow accounts, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, lawyer excessive fee, Lawyer nonrefundable fees, Lawyer trust accounts, Lawyer unreasonable fee

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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Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney misrepresentation, deceit, dishonesty, Excessive fee, fraud, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer conduct adversely affecting fitness to practice, Lawyer conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, lawyer excessive fee, Lawyer improper fees, Lawyer misrepresentation, Lawyer sanctions

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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New York lawyer suspended for, inter alia, agreeing to assist a client in a malpractice claim against his own law firm

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent New York disciplinary opinion which imposed a one (1) year suspension on a lawyer who, along with other misconduct, entered into an agreement with a client to assist in a malpractice action against his own law firm. The opinion is Matter of Novins, 2014 NY Slip Op 03465 (NY Appellate First Division 5/13/14) and the disciplinary opinion is here: http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2014/2014_03465.htm

According to the opinion, the lawyer was hired by a New York law firm in 2006 and was assigned to work on a personal injury action filed in 1994 against the City of New York and an off duty New York City police officer on behalf of another off duty New York City police officer (the client), who had been shot and wounded in a bar by that off-duty police officer. Although the lawyer’s firm served the City with a summons and complaint, it never served the defendant police officer. In 2007, the City was granted summary judgment in the personal injury action on the ground that it had not negligently supervised the shooting police officer because it did not have notice of his dangerous propensities. The summary judgment was affirmed in 2008.

In January 2008, while the motion for leave to appeal was pending, the lawyer and the client met in a restaurant and signed a “Personal Services Agreement” under which the client agreed to “give” the lawyer 45% of any net recovery he received related to the shooting incident. This agreement included the personal injury action and a legal malpractice claim against the lawyer’s firm for “negligently failing to timely serve the defendant police officer, for neglecting to work on (the) case over the many years, for failing to take the deposition of the defendant police officer, for having failed to obtain a copy of the defendant police officer’s Personnel File in a timely manner and for failing to bring a Motion … for spoliation of this key evidence.” The agreement was drafted by the lawyer; however, it did not specifically state what services that the lawyer would provide. The lawyer acknowledged during the disciplinary proceedings that he agreed to serve as a witness for the client in the malpractice action against his employer.

During the disciplinary proceedings, the lawyer stated that the client brought up the subject of additional compensation and that the 45% fee was to compensate him for his extraordinary efforts in the personal injury action and for his willingness to assist the client in pursuing the malpractice claim, which would require him to leave his law firm (the putative legal malpractice defendant). The client denied this and stated that the lawyer produced the agreement at the meeting and asked him to sign it, telling him that he had notes and documents that would prove the legal malpractice claim. The lawyer provided the client with a list of legal malpractice attorneys and concealed the agreement from his law firm.

In May 2008 (while the lawyer was still employed with the law firm), a malpractice action was filed against the lawyer’s firm and principals and “(b)etween February and March 2009, (the lawyer) left a series of voice-mail messages for (the client) asking him to call him back. On April 28, 2009, (the lawyer) left (the client) a message in which he referred to risking his neck by putting certain notes back into the personal injury action file which (the client) would need for the malpractice action. In May 2009, respondent left a message stating that he would be leaving the (law) firm in 30 days and would be able to prove the malpractice and coverup.”

On May 28, 2009, the lawyer left a message with the client complaining that he had called him about 30 times but received only one call back. The lawyer falsely stated that he had left his law firm and said that he considered the agreement to be in full force and effect. He also threatened to throw away all the evidence in his possession unless the client called him back. Ten minutes later, the lawyer left another message stating he would take appropriate action to enforce the agreement as soon as he left his firm. The lawyer admitted during the disciplinary proceedings that the purpose of the calls was to compel the client to honor the agreement or at least renegotiate its terms so that he could have a financial recovery for the malpractice claim.

In April or May 2010, during the course of discovery, the lawyer’s law firm learned of the secret agreement with the client, but did not fire the lawyer. On or about August 17, 2010, the law firm learned of the messages that the lawyer left on the client’s voice mail and the lawyer was deposed in the malpractice action on August 20, 2010 and retracted his allegations of malpractice against the law firm.
The client filed a disciplinary complaint against the lawyer on August 26, 2010. The law firm fired the lawyer on August 31, 2010 and filed a disciplinary complaint against him on September 7, 2010. In 2012, the New York Disciplinary Committee brought six charges against the lawyer and a disciplinary panel conducted evidentiary proceedings.

The disciplinary panel found that the lawyer charged an excessive and unreasonable fee, engaged in conduct which reflected adversely on his fitness as a lawyer, acquiesced to the payment of compensation to himself as a witness which testimony was contingent on the outcome of a case, violated his duty of loyalty to both the client and his law firm by attempting to charge a client for information that both he and the firm were ethically obligated to provide and by concealing the agreement from his employer, and threatening to destroy evidence that was apparently essential to the client’s malpractice claim. The panel recommend that the lawyer be suspended from practice for one (1) year.

After considering mitigating and aggravating factors and relevant case law, the opinion granted the Disciplinary Committee’s Motion to approve the hearing panel’s recommendation that the lawyer be found guilty of all counts and suspended him from the practice of law for one (1) year.
Bottom line: This opinion tells a quite sordid tale of duplicity, false statements, disloyalty, attempted coercion, and greed as well as just plain dumb actions by a lawyer who was unbelievably disloyal to both his law firm and to a client. Sometimes you think you have seen it all…

Let’s be careful out there.

Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert blog 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

Leave a comment

Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney misrepresentation, deceit, dishonesty, Excessive fee, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer conduct adversely affecting fitness to practice, Lawyer conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, Lawyer conflict of interest, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer improper fees, Lawyer misrepresentation, Lawyer sanctions