Category Archives: Lawyer improper fees

Tennessee lawyer disbarred for, inter alia, false and exaggerated time entries and making false statements in court under oath

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Tennessee Supreme Court opinion disbarring a lawyer for, inter alia, giving a false statement under oath, knowingly testifying falsely in a court proceeding, and seeking an unreasonable fee  The case is Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility v. Loring Edward Justice, Case No. E2017-01334-SC-R3-BP.  The link with the July 2, 2019 SC opinion is here: https://docs.tbpr.org/justice-2254-sc-decision.pdf.

According to the opinion, the lawyer made false and exaggerated time entries when he submitted a request for more than $103,000 in legal fees for the time that he spent fighting Lowe’s Home Centers over a discovery violation.  The lawyer also claimed his paralegal’s work as his own and falsely stated that he had kept “contemporaneous records” of the time he spent in the underlying discovery dispute.  The lawyer also submitted a “grossly exaggerated” fee itemization that included work for which he was not supposed to be paid.

A federal district judge had ordered that the lawyer be paid for the time that he spent locating and deposing a store human resources manager as a sanction for the store’s failure to disclose the name in discovery.  After questions arose about Justice’s legal billings, including seventeen items described as attorney time which were identical or nearly identical to invoices submitted by the lawyer’s paralegal, the judge declined to award fees to the lawyer..  In addition, other billings in the lawyer’s fee itemization were found to be for tasks that were “completely unrelated” to the issues in the dispute.

A Board of Professional Responsibility hearing panel had recommended a one-year suspension rather than a disbarment and the lawyer, and the Board of Professional Responsibility appealed.  The hearing panel’s Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law are here:  https://docs.tbpr.org/justice-2254-hp-judgment.pdf.

A judge assigned to hear the case later modified the suspension recommendation to disbarment, stating that the lawyer’s “intentional deceit” and “total lack of remorse” required disbarment.

The lengthy Supreme Court opinion stated that the evidence “furnishes an eminently sound factual basis for the hearing panel’s decision” and the judge’s modification of the sanction to disbarment.  In a footnote, the opinion stated that some of the lawyer’s arguments were “too outlandish to dignify with discussion”, including the argument that the trial judge’s given name illustrates bias. The footnote states: “Not only is this argument without merit, it is absurd.”  The opinion disbarred the lawyer.

Bottom line:  According to the very lengthy opinion, this lawyer apparently decided to fabricate his time, make false statements, and then continue to argue and claim that the fee was appropriate throughout the proceedings.  He and his lawyers also made arguments that were “too outlandish to dignify with discussion.”

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

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, dishonesty, Excessive fee, false statements, fraud, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer conduct adversely affecting fitness to practice, Lawyer conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, Lawyer disbarment excessive fee and false statements to court, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, lawyer excessive fee, Lawyer excessive fees, Lawyer false statements, Lawyer false testimony, Lawyer improper fees, Lawyer overbilling excessive fees, Lawyer sanctions, Lawyer sanctions lying in court document, Uncategorized

Illinois Bar Complaint alleges that former large firm lawyer inflated hours because of perceived billing expectations

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent (January 11, 2019) Illinois Bar Complaint which alleges that an Illinois lawyer inflated his billable hours because of perceived expectations from his law firm.  The case is: In the Matter of Christopher Craig Anderson. No. 6304580 and the disciplinary Complaint is here: https://www.iardc.org/19PR0003CM.html

According to the Complaint filed by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, the lawyer had worked as an associate at Kirkland & Ellis before leaving to join Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, where he was promoted to nonequity partner. The lawyer started working for Kirkland & Ellis in 2011 and Neal Gerber in 2015 and both are large law firms.

According to the Complaint:

During his time at both firms, in an attempt to meet what he perceived to be the firms’ billing expectations, Respondent recorded time beyond what he had actually spent in handling client matters, knowing that the time he recorded would be billed to his clients and that they would be asked to pay fees based on the records he created. For the days that Respondent felt he had not recorded sufficient time on client matters, he increased the time he claimed to have spent on those matters based on a number of factors, including his assessment of the likelihood that the client would object to the time he recorded. As an example, if Respondent spent 0.3 hours on a client matter, he would record that he had actually spent 0.5 hours, or he would bill 2.1 hours for work that actually took him 1.7 hours to complete.

In August 2018, Respondent reported his conduct to one of the leaders of his practice group at Neal Gerber Eisenberg. The firm then conducted an inquiry into Respondent’s billing practices, at the conclusion of which it determined to offer a refund or credit to more than 100 clients who may have been affected by Respondent’s conduct. As a result, the firm offered to return funds that amounted to 20% of Respondent’s recorded time that was actually billed to and paid by the firm’s clients, which totaled more than $150,000. The Kirkland & Ellis firm, which also had not been aware of Respondent’s conduct at the time it was occurring, similarly determined to offer refunds or credits to clients affected by Respondent’s conduct.

A Kirkland & Ellis spokesperson provided a statement to the ABA Journal: “We recently learned that a former associate during the 2011-2015 timeframe may have rounded up his billable hours to certain clients.  We take these situations very seriously and are in the process of preparing refunds or credits for all potentially impacted time that was billed to any client.”

Bottom line:  This case is another unfortunate example of a lawyer inflating billable time to meet the expectations of his law firm(s), which are both considered to be large “BigLaw” firms; however, in this case, the lawyer self-reported his misconduct to his law firm and was terminated.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, lawyer excessive fee, Lawyer excessive fees, Lawyer improper fees, Lawyer inflating fees improper billing, Lawyer misrepresentations to law firm re billings

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

Leave a comment

Filed under and fraud, Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney misrepresentation, dishonesty, Excessive fee, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, lawyer excessive fee, Lawyer excessive fees, Lawyer false statements, Lawyer improper fees, Lawyer misrepresentation, Lawyer misrepresentations to law firm re billings, Lawyer overbilling excessive fees, Lawyer sanctions, Lawyer unreasonable fee, Lawyers false billings discipline, Uncategorized

Potential Florida Bar ethics advisory opinion 17-2 will address lawyer referral fees and private client matching services

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss recent decision by the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors (BOG) to consider a potential ethics advisory opinion to address the ethics issues surrounding lawyer referral fees and private client matching services.  The advisory opinion has not been drafted; however, the draft opinion will be identified as Proposed Advisory Opinion 17-2.

The Bar review began after a lawyer sent an ethics inquiry to The Florida Bar asking whether lawyers could participate with a private lawyer referral service which planned to charge a different set fee depending upon the type of case referred.  The lawyer referred to the system “as a ‘pay-per-lead’ structure.”

The lawyer’s inquiry was referred to the BOG and, at its July 21, 2017 meeting in Miami, the BOG unanimously approved the recommendation of the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics (BRCPE) that it be directed to prepare an advisory opinion on the inquiry, specifically whether lawyer referral services can charge a fee per referral and impose different fees for different types of cases.  The BRCPE has authority to decline drafting an opinion and the BOG could also decide not to issue the opinion if it is drafted.

If an ethics advisory opinion is drafted, it will address the ethics issues created when online entities (such as AVVO) rolled out programs which attempt to match potential clients with lawyers and which make different payments depending on the type of case.  The opinion would also address the Bar rules related to advertising and referral services.  Lawyers and others will be able to comment on the issues before any opinion is drafted and/or approved.

The Florida Bar Rules have long prohibited lawyers from sharing fees with private referral services.  The Bar’s Standing Committee on Advertising (SCA) also rejected “pay-per-lead” plans on previous appeals and the BOG rejected an appeal from a referral service that proposed a payment of $300.00 to participating lawyers for each referred and accepted case in 2012.

Other jurisdictions have published ethics opinions addressing these issues or are in the process of reviewing them.  As I reported in a recent Ethics Alert blog, New York Ethics Opinion 1132 (published August 8, 2017) found that New York lawyers are prohibited from participating in AVVO’s client referral services.  The opinion found that lawyers who participate in AVVO’s client referral services (and any similar services) would violate the New York Bar rules since they involve AVVO’s improper “vouching” for (recommendation of) the lawyer, improper lawyer referral fees, and improper fee sharing with a non-lawyer.

As background, The Florida Bar filed a petition with proposed Bar rule amendments with the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 addressing, inter alia, referral services that offer both legal and medical or other non-legal services. Those proposed rules would have allowed lawyers to participate in those services, as long as clients were informed about potential conflicts, there was no quid pro quo requiring the lawyer to send a referred client for medical or other services offered by the referral agency, and the lawyer’s independent judgment was not affected.

The Florida Supreme Court published an opinion on September 24, 2015 which declined to implement the rule revisions and instructed the Bar to draft rules that “preclude Florida lawyers from accepting referrals from any lawyer referral service that is not owned or operated by a member of the Bar.”    That opinion is here: 9/24/15 SC Opinion

The Florida Bar then filed revised rule amendments designating private entities which match lawyers with potential clients as “qualified providers” and requiring those entities to comply with the Bar rules, including a required review of the advertisements. Participating lawyers would not have been required to carry malpractice insurance.

The Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument in April 2017 and then published an order dismissing the petition on May 3, 2017. That order is here: 5/3/17 SC Order.  The order stated: “In this case, the Bar proposes amendments to rule 4-7.22 that do not comply with the Court’s direction concerning lawyer referral services that are not owned or operated by a member of the Bar and that seek to expand the scope of the rule to include “matching services” and other similar services not currently regulated by the Bar.

The May 3, 2017 Order also stated that the dismissal was without prejudice “to allow the members of this Court to engage in informed discussions with the Bar and those who are in favor or against the proposed regulation of matching and other similar services. The Court lacks sufficient background information on such services and their regulation at this time.”  A meeting was held at the June 2017 Bar Annual Convention in Boca Raton to discuss the issues and was attended by Justices, Bar officials, and representatives of private referral services.

The Bar’s Notice of the proposed ethics advisory opinion was published in the August 15, 2017 issue of the Florida Bar News.  The Bar’s Notice is here: 8/15/17 Notice of Proposed advisory opinion 17-2.

According to the Notice:  “The Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics will consider adopting a proposed advisory opinion at the direction of The Florida Bar Board of Governors based on an inquiry by a member of The Florida Bar, at a meeting to be held on Thursday, December 7, 2017, from 1-3 p.m. at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island.” and “comments from Florida Bar members are solicited on the issues presented. Comments must contain Proposed Advisory Opinion number 17-2, must clearly state the issues for the committee to consider, may offer suggestions for additional fee arrangements to be addressed by the proposed advisory opinion, and may include a proposed conclusion. Comments should be submitted to Elizabeth Clark Tarbert, Ethics Counsel, The Florida Bar, 651 E. Jefferson Street, Tallahassee 32399-2300, and must be postmarked no later than 30 days from the date of this publication.”

Bottom line:  If the ethics opinion is drafted and approved, Florida will join the growing list of jurisdictions addressing “marketing fees” taken from fees paid by private online entities to lawyers participating in client generation services.  This ethics opinion (like all ethics opinions) would be advisory and for guidance only.

Stay tuned and 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

1 Comment

Filed under Attorney Ethics, er ethics opinion Avvo lawyer matching services improper fee splitting and referral fees, Florida Bar, Florida Bar 2016 Lawyer referral rule revisions, Florida Bar lawyer referral rule revisions, Florida Bar matching services, Florida ethics opinion 17-2- lawyer referrals by private referral matching services, Florida Lawyer Referral Services, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer ethics opinions, Lawyer improper fees, Lawyer improper referral fees and fee splitting, Lawyer referral fees, Lawyer responsibilities AVVO and Linkedin

Florida Supreme Court disbars 3 lawyers for misconduct in the settlement of multiple PIP and bad faith claims

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert which will discuss the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida which disbarred 3 Florida lawyers for misconduct in settling multiple PIP and bad faith claims.  The opinion is The Florida Bar v. Charles Jay Kane, The Florida Bar v. Harley Nathan Kane, The Florida Bar v. Darin James Lentner, No. SC13-388 (October 6, 2016) and the opinion is here:  http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2016/sc13-388.pdf.

The lengthy opinion outlines and discusses the complicated underlying facts, including the involvement of the lawyers in settling the PIP claims and failing to inform and misleading both the clients and the lawyers who were handling separate bad faith claims against Progressive Insurance.   Although this is a fairly lengthy Ethics Alert, the relatively short format of my Ethics Alerts do not permit a full discussion of the case, and readers are urged to read the case for more information and clarification.

According to the opinion, the lawyers took on the representation of 441 PIP claims on behalf of various medical providers.  Two other lawyers were retained to file bad faith claims.  The claims were filed in a matter called the “Goldcoast” litigation, in which only 37 of the PIP clients were involved.  Each of the PIP law firms (Kane & Kane, Watson & Lentner, and Marks & Fleischer) and each of the bad faith attorneys executed a contract agreeing to jointly represent all thirty-seven plaintiffs.

During the bad faith litigation, the bad faith lawyers were able to compel disclosure of documents which strengthened the bad faith claims.  At mediation on the bad faith claims, Progressive offered only $3.5 million, which offer was rejected.

The disclosure of the documents apparently caused Progressive to consider settlement.  Progressive’s counsel later initiated settlement negotiations with the PIP lawyers only and the bad faith lawyers were not part of those negotiations.  Progressive  offered an aggregate amount of $14.5 million, to settle all of the claims, including both the PIP and bad faith claims, and attorney fees.  On May 16, 2004, all six of the PIP lawyers (including the disbarred lawyers) met with lawyers from Progressive to put the agreement in writing.  The bad faith lawyers were not told of Progressive’s offers, and they were not asked to attend the meeting.

“As a result of the meeting, the PIP lawyers signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MOU) settling all cases and claims, subject to client agreement.  Pursuant to the MOU, the clients were required to release all claims against Progressive, including both PIP claims and bad faith claims. The MOU did not specify how the settlement funds would be allocated and it was left to the PIP lawyers to divide the funds between the claims and the costs and fees.”

“The only requirement to trigger the $14.5 million payment was a certain number of signed client releases: 100 percent of the named Goldcoast case plaintiffs and 80 percent of the remaining PIP clients of all three PIP firms. Also as a part of the MOU, the PIP lawyers agreed to defend, indemnify, and hold the Progressive entities harmless from any claims of their clients.  Several days later, the PIP lawyers, including the disbarred lawyers, met with one of the bad faith lawyers, Larry Stewart, and offered him $300,000 to compensate all three bad faith attorneys for their work on the bad faith case. The PIP lawyers did not disclose the terms of the settlement with Progressive, stating only that the cases and claims had been settled.”

According to the opinion, “the bad faith attorneys then wrote a letter to each of the named plaintiffs in the Goldcoast case, explaining their efforts to compel production of Progressive’s internal documents and the April 2004 mediation. The letter asserted that as a result of the PIP lawyers’ secret settlement with Progressive, the clients’ bad faith claims may have been ‘compromised or even sacrificed.’”

“The bad faith attorneys sent a copy of their letter to each of the PIP law firms and asked the PIP lawyers to forward the letter to their clients who were not named in the Goldcoast case; however, the lawyers did not forward the letter as requested. Instead, Respondent Charles Kane drafted a letter, titled ‘Notice of Disagreement Between Counsel’ (disagreement letter), for the PIP law firms to send to clients who were named as plaintiffs in the Goldcoast case.  The letter contained misleading statements regarding the bad faith attorneys and their efforts to pursue the bad faith claims on behalf of the clients.”

An Amended Memorandum of Understanding (AMOU) was later drafted and, after the law firm contacted the clients and obtained the releases, the settlement funds were paid by Progressive.  Kane & Kane received $5.25 million. The firm paid $672,742 to its PIP clients, $433,202 in costs, and took $4,144,055 in attorney fees. Watson & Lentner received $3,075,000, and the firm paid $361,470 to its PIP clients, $190,736 in costs, and took $2,522,792 in attorney fees. Once the firms received the settlement money, the bad faith attorneys were discharged, and a notice of voluntary dismissal with prejudice was filed, ending the Goldcoast case.

The bad faith lawyers then sued the PIP lawyers and, in April 2008, Judge David F. Crow entered a final judgment in favor of the bad faith attorneys on their quantum meruit and/or unjust enrichment claims. The final judgment included extensive findings as to the PIP lawyers’ actions, noting that the matter “could be a case study for a course on professional conduct involving multi-party joint representation agreements and the ethical pitfalls surrounding such agreements.”

The Supreme Court opinion upheld the finding of guilt and rule violations made by the referee and disbarred all three lawyers.  “We agree with the referee that the PIP lawyers’ most egregious violation occurred when they abandoned their clients’ bad faith claims in favor of a greater fee for themselves.”  The opinion states that the “considerable violation of (the lawyers’) ethical responsibilities to their clients and the legal system, entirely for their own financial interests and at the expense of their clients, warrants disbarment.

Bottom line:  The 3 lawyers were disbarred for the misconduct which is briefly described above and is further detailed in the opinion.

The opinion also addressed a very important practice point for lawyers who handle PIP claims on behalf of medical providers since it upheld the referee’s findings that all three lawyers failed to provide their clients with closing statements in the PIP cases in violation of Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(f).  “Although there was testimony presented to the referee that a closing statement is not typically provided in a PIP case because the attorney fee is not taken as a portion of the client’s overall recovery, the referee found, and we agree, that there is no specific exception in the Bar Rules authorizing this practice.”  The Court found that lawyers must provide closing statements to clients in PIP first party claims, even though the fees and costs are typically paid by the insurance company and not taken out of the client’s settlement funds.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this Ethics Alert 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Attorney discipline, Attorney Ethics, Attorney misrepresentation, deceit, dishonesty, Florida Bar, Florida Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer conduct adversely affecting fitness to practice, Lawyer conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, Lawyer conflict of interest, Lawyer disbarment, Lawyer discipline, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer improper fees, Lawyer misrepresentation, Lawyer sanctions, Lawyer violation of Florida Bar Rule 4-1.5(f) failure to provide closing statement

ABA Formal Opinion 475 addresses when lawyers from different law firms are permitted to share a referral fee

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent American Bar Association Formal ethics Opinion which addresses when lawyers may share a fee in a referral arrangement.  The opinion is ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 475 and was issued on April 21, 2016.  The formal opinion is here: http://www.abajournal.com/files/FO_474.pdf

Under ABA Model Rule 1.5(3) (and the Bar Rules of most jurisdictions), lawyers may refer cases to lawyers in other firms and receive a fee as long as the referring lawyer performs legal services or assumes joint responsibility for the case. Comment 7 to Model Rule 1.5 explains that these arrangements most often occur between a referring lawyer and a trial lawyer.  ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 474 discusses the propriety of referral fees between lawyers, explains that clients must consent in writing to such arrangements, and provides examples of when a lawyer does and does not have a conflict of interest.

The opinion notes that state rules related to referral fees vary widely.  Some states only require client consent and a total reasonable fee and some states prohibit referral fees altogether.  Other states (including Florida) require that the referring lawyer either perform legal services of assume joint responsibility for the case (which would include potential legal malpractice liability) and limit the amount of the fee without court approval.

The client must consent to the referral arrangement and be fully informed of the agreement regarding the division of fees before or within a reasonable time after the representation begins.  A lawyer cannot be involved in the case (or receive a referral fee) if there is a conflict of interest unless the lawyer obtains a waiver which meets the requirements of ABA Model Rule 1.7(b), which includes the requirement that each affected client give informed consent in writing (if the conflict is waivable).  A lawyer cannot perform legal services or assume responsibility for the case, however, if he or she has a conflict of interest.

The opinion also states that “(t)he agreement must describe in sufficient detail the division of the fee between the lawyers including the share each lawyer will receive.”  In addition, a referral agreement should not be entered into toward the end of the attorney-client relationship but must be disclosed and agreed to by the client “either before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation.”

Bottom line:  Lawyers should be aware that, although most jurisdictions (including Florida) permit referral fees, the Bar rules typically impose the requirement that the client provide informed consent in writing to the referral fee and the fee is also subject to limitations in the amount without court approval (25% in Florida without court approval).  In addition, if a lawyer is unable to represent a client outright because of a conflict of interest that is not waived or waivable, the lawyer will not be able to accept a referral fee since, in Florida and most jurisdictions, the referring lawyer must either perform legal services or assume joint responsibility for the matter (which includes potential legal malpractice liability).  Lawyers should consult the Bar Rules in his or her jurisdiction before participating in a referral fee.

Be careful out there.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail 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

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under ABA Formal Ethics Opinion referral fees, ABA Formal Opinion referral fees and conflict of interest, ABA formal opinions, Attorney Ethics, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, Lawyer improper fees, Lawyer referral fees

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

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