Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Iowa Supreme Court opinion which suspended a lawyer for 4 months without the possibility of reinstatement for misappropriating fees from his law firm and stated that “(w)e think the time has come to ratchet up the disciplinary sanctions for nonclient theft.” The case is Iowa Supreme Court Disciplinary Board v. Curtis Den Beste, No 19-0360. The September 13, 2019 Iowa Supreme Court opinion is here: https://www.iowacourts.gov/courtcases/7209/embed/SupremeCourtOpinion.
The lawyer began practicing law in Iowa in 2000. He received an offer in 2007 to practice with a law firm and entered into an agreement with the law firm regarding fees. The agreement required him to deposit all earned client fees into the firm trust account or the general/operating account and he would be paid fifty percent of the earned fees and the firm would keep the remainder.
Beginning in 2015, the lawyer accepted cash payments for fees from some clients and kept the fees instead of depositing them as required by his agreement with the firm. According to the opinion, after his misconduct was discovered, “(the lawyer) agreed to self-report his misconduct to the disciplinary board and to provide an accounting of the diverted funds as well as a repayment plan.”
The lawyer’s accounting (which was confirmed by the Iowa Bar/Disciplinary Board) showed that he received a total of $18,200.00 and, after for the fifty-percent split and other tax and reimbursement considerations, the lawyer wrongfully misappropriated $9,200.00 from the law firm.
“It is certainly true that, in many cases, fee disputes between a lawyer and his or her current or former law firm might simply be contract disputes and nothing more. For example, a lawyer with a good-faith claim to fees should not be sanctioned merely for exercising or asserting such a claim. But not all fee disputes between a lawyer and a law firm are garden variety contract disputes. Some involve outright and undisputed theft. In such cases, the imposition of discipline is clearly appropriate.”
“The question then arises whether theft from a client is more serious than theft from a law firm or other third party. In our prior cases, the difference has often been dramatic. Theft of any amount by a lawyer from a client ordinarily results in revocation. Iowa Supreme Ct. Att’y Disciplinary Bd. v. Parrish, 925 N.W.2d 163, 170–71 (Iowa 2019); Iowa Supreme Ct. Att’y Disciplinary Bd. v. Guthrie, 901 N.W.2d 493, 500–01 (Iowa 2017). But theft of funds from a law firm can result in much lesser sanctions. Henrichsen, 825 N.W.2d at 529–30.”
“There are, perhaps, some reasons for the distinction between client theft and law firm theft. For instance, many clients have little power against a lawyer in whom the client places trust. A lawyer who steals from a client is preying on those often in an extremely vulnerable position who have placed trust in the lawyer and advanced funds to the lawyer to protect their interests. The relationship between a law firm and a lawyer ordinarily will have less of a power imbalance. The firm is in a better position, perhaps, than a client to monitor the proper handling of fees.”
“Yet, a lawyer who acts dishonestly toward an employer raises serious questions of whether the lawyer has the necessary integrity to practice law.”
“(W)e think the time has come to ratchet up the disciplinary sanctions for nonclient theft. That said, this case may not be the appropriate case to do so. In particular, given our caselaw, Den Beste was not on notice that he faced a possible revocation when he entered into the stipulation in this case. Cf. Iowa Supreme Ct. Att’y Disciplinary Bd. v. Cepican, 861 N.W.2d 841, 845 (Iowa 2015) (finding the attorney did not waive his right to contest a complaint of theft-based misconduct by failing to respond because he did not receive adequate notice of the allegation of theft). Thus, we rely on our precedent and impose a sanction in this case consistent with our prior cases. At the same time, we use this case as a vehicle to put the bar on notice that an attorney who steals from a law firm without a colorable claim may well incur stiffer disciplinary sanctions than have been imposed in our past cases.”
Thus, we rely on our precedent and impose a sanction in this case consistent with our prior cases. At the same time, we use this case as a vehicle to put the bar on notice that an attorney who steals from a law firm without a colorable claim may well incur stiffer disciplinary sanctions than have been imposed in our past cases.
“Upon full consideration of this matter, we order that the license of Curtis W. Den Beste to practice law in Iowa be suspended indefinitely with no possibility of reinstatement for a period not less than four months, effective with the filing of this opinion.”
A dissenting justice would have revoked the lawyer’s license to practice law.
“On multiple occasions, Den Beste knowingly embezzled money from his law firm and then attempted to conceal what he had done. He had no colorable claim to nor was there any fee dispute regarding that money. “[I]t is almost axiomatic that the licenses of lawyers who convert funds entrusted to them should be revoked.” Iowa Supreme Ct. Bd. of Prof’l Ethics & Conduct v. Irwin, 679 N.W.2d 641, 644 (Iowa 2004). Accordingly, I would revoke Den Beste’s license to practice law.”
Bottom line: The opinion discusses the differences between law firm theft and theft from the client and others. The Iowa Supreme Court has provided notice to lawyers that future law firm theft will result in stiffer disciplinary sanctions than in the past.
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
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