Category Archives: Lawyer ethics opinion in providing file documents to former clients after termination

Lawyer’s ethical obligations in surrendering client papers and property after termination of the representation

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert will discuss American Bar Association Formal Ethics Opinion 471 which addresses the lawyer’s ethical obligations to surrender papers and property to which the former client is entitled after termination of the representation. The ABA opinion and provides a good overview of those obligations.  The advisory opinion was issued on July 1, 2015 and the opinion is here: http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/professional_responsibility/aba_formal_opinion_471.authcheckdam.pdf

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 Rule provides a definition of these terms.

The advisory 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.”  The lawyer must return documents which have legal significance in their original form, such as wills, trusts, stocks, bonds, and property deeds.

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 requirements before asserting a retaining lien on a client’s file after termination of the representation.

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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Recent ABA Formal Ethics Opinion examines obligations of lawyers in providing file documents to former clients after termination

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss recent American Bar Association Formal Ethics Opinion 471 which discusses the obligations of lawyers to return file/documents to former clients.  The opinion is Formal Opinion 471 (Ethical Obligations of Lawyer to Surrender Papers and Property to which Former Client is Entitled) (July 1, 2015) and is online here: http://www.abajournal.com/files/aba_formal_opinion_471(7-1-15).pdf

The opinion begins with the premise that lawyers must often return documents and materials to a client after the termination of the representation in order to protect client’s interests.  The opinion analyzed the following facts:  a lawyer had represented a governmental municipality for 10 years.  After the representation was terminated, the municipality requested that  the lawyer provide its new counsel with all files, including both open and closed files.

The opinion further states that lawyers’ obligations and responsibilities are generally outlined in ABA Model Rules 1.15 and 1.16.  Model Rule 1.15 provides that a lawyer must safeguard a client’s property and promptly return it to the client when requested. Model Rule 1.16(d) provides that lawyers take steps “reasonably practicable to protect a client’s interests.” These steps include “in providing file documents to former clients after termination.”  The Model Rules do not define what “papers and property to which the client is entitled.”

According to the opinion, most jurisdictions apply the “entire file” approach, wherein there is a presumption that lawyers must return all papers in the file unless a specific exception applies.  “In those jurisdictions, at the termination of a representation, a lawyer must surrender papers and property related to the representation in the lawyer’s possession unless the lawyer establishes that a specific exception applies and that certain papers or property may be properly withheld.  Commonly recognized exceptions to surrender include: materials that would violate a duty of non-disclosure 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;16 and documents reflecting only internal firm communications and assignments. The entire file approach assumes that the client has an expansive general right to materials related to the representation and retains that right when the representation ends.”

Other jurisdictions use the “end product” approach.  Under this approach, lawyers must provide all finished products in the file, such as pleadings and expert and investigative reports, but not work product, such as memoranda about conflicts of interest or ethics, drafts of legal instruments, and legal research and memoranda.  According to the opinion, “(a)dministrative materials related to the representation, such as memoranda concerning potential conflicts of interest, the client’s creditworthiness, time and expense records, or personnel matters, are not considered materials to which the client is entitled under the end product approach. Additionally, the lawyer’s personal notes, drafts of legal instruments or documents to be filed with a tribunal, other internal memoranda, and legal research are viewed as generated primarily for the lawyer’s own purpose in working on a client’s matter, and, therefore, need not be surrendered to the client under the end product approach.” Florida follows this approach.

The opinion states that lawyers should always return end product materials; however, “there may be circumstances in individual representations that require the lawyer to provide additional materials related to the representation.”  Also, any documents and/or materials which would likely prejudice the client’s interests if they are not provided must be returned to the client. The opinion also noted that if a filing deadline is imminent, a lawyer must timely provide “the most recent draft and relevant supporting research” to avoid causing prejudice to the client.

Bottom line: this opinion provides important guidance from the ABA regarding a lawyer’s duties and obligations when providing file documents and/or materials to a client after the representation is terminated.  Of course, lawyers must determine which rule their jurisdiction applies before acting.

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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