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Iowa lawyer suspended for 4 months without possibility of reinstatement for misappropriating fees from his law firm

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

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2999 Alt. 19, Suite A

Palm Harbor, Florida

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670

jcorsmeier@jac-law.com

www.jac-law.com

Please note:  My office has moved and the new office address is 2999 Alt. 19, Palm Harbor, FL 34683.  All other contact information remains the same.

Joseph Corsmeier

about.me/corsmeierethicsblogs

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California ethics opinion addresses issues related to a lawyer accepting damaging document provided by a witness

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent California ethics opinion which addresses ethics issues related to accepting a damaging document provided by an individual (witness).  The ethics opinion is Los Angeles County Bar Association (LACBA) Ethics Opinion 531 (July 24, 2019) and is here: https://www.lacba.org/docs/default-source/ethics-opinions/archived-ethics-opinions/ethics-opinion-531.pdf

The detailed opinion sets forth the scenario when a lawyer is offered access, by a witness who is an unrepresented former employee of the opposing party, to potential documentary evidence and is advised that it will show the adverse party’s failure to comply with discovery obligations.  The opinion discusses whether the lawyer can and/or should ethically use the document and “the ethical risks and potential adverse consequences of taking possession or reviewing the material are significant” when there is “reasonable cause” to believe that the document contains protected or privileged information.

According to the opinion, the lawyer must first determine whether the individual violated the law by obtaining or possessing the materials.  If the lawyer does not have the competence to make that decision, he or she should consult with another lawyer who has knowledge of criminal law. If a law was violated and the lawyer obtains the document, he or she may be ethically required to turn over the document to the court or to the appropriate legal authorities.

The lawyer should also address whether the document or data includes material that is subject to protection under the attorney-client privilege, confidentiality, or the attorney work-product doctrine. If it becomes “reasonably apparent” to the lawyer that the documents are privileged, the lawyer would be ethically obligated to stop reviewing the document and provide notice to the privilege holder, the owner of the work product, or their counsel.

The lawyer should also keep the client informed when receiving the evidence is a significant development or if it limits the actions that the lawyer is able to take and the lawyer may be required to inform the client about the impact of any dispute over entitlement to the evidence, including the potential financial impact, including legal costs, and potential delay.  The lawyer should also consider other issues to be reviewed and discussed with the client, which would include the possibility of the lawyer being disqualified from the case and possible sanctions that could adversely affect the client’s case.

Bottom line: This California ethics opinion provides a good overview of the ethical issues (i.e. minefields) which are present when an individual tries to provide the lawyer with an alleged “smoking gun” document and discusses what the lawyer should do to protect him or herself ethically.

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

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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

 

 

 

 

 

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Ohio lawyer who passed $11.00 in cash to her jailed boyfriend faces six month stayed suspension

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent Ohio Board of Professional Conduct report which recommends that an Ohio lawyer be suspended for six (6) months for passing $11.00 in cash under the table to her incarcerated boyfriend.  The case is Cincinnati Bar Association v. Virginia Maria Riggs-Horton, Case No. 2018-1757.  The link with the report and other documents in the case is here:  http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/Clerk/ecms/#/caseinfo/2018/1757

The lawyer was convicted of the misdemeanor of promoting (passing) contraband and was given a suspended jail sentence. She then self-reported to the Cincinnati, Ohio, and Kentucky Bar Associations.

The Ohio Supreme Court Board of Professional Conduct recommended the stayed suspension after the lawyer admitted that she passed the money to her boyfriend at a Kentucky detention center in August 2017 after he asked for cash for vending machines. The detention center rules prohibited money from being provided to prisoners without first being given to guards.  The lawyer stated that she was unaware of the prohibition.

The Ohio Supreme Court initially rejected the six month stayed suspension and remanded the case for a formal hearing.  A formal hearing was held before a Board panel on April 25, 2019, which again recommended the six month stayed suspension with conditions.  According to the report, the lawyer had no prior discipline and displayed a cooperative attitude in ethics proceedings. She also had a good reputation in the community.  The Ohio Board of Professional Conduct than adopted that recommendation in its report, which was filed with the Ohio Supreme Court on June 14, 2019.

Bottom line:  This lawyer passed $11.00 to her boyfriend under the table while visiting him in the jail, which was a violation of the jail rules and constituted the illegal passing of contraband.  The lawyer was then prosecuted and plead guilty to a misdemeanor and self-reported.  This was a very unfortunate learning experience for the lawyer.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ABA issues Formal Opinion 487 providing guidance regarding fee divisions in contingency cases when a lawyer is replaced

Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert, which will discuss the recent American Bar Association Formal Opinion 487, which provides guidance regarding the requirements of fee divisions in contingency fee matters when the initial lawyer is replaced by a successor lawyer.  ABA Formal Opinion 487 is here:  https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/news/2019/06/FormalOpinion487.pdf

ABA Formal Opinion 487 clarifies that a lawyer, who is a successor counsel in a contingency-fee matter, must notify the client, in writing, that a portion of any fees recovered may be paid to the original counsel. The opinion addresses a common misunderstanding about which model rules apply to successor relationships in contingency fee agreements, and the duties of successor counsel.

The initial lawyer in a contingency fee matter will often assert a lien on the proceeds when the lawyer is terminated or is required to withdraw; however, if the client employs successor counsel, the client may not understand there is a continuing obligation to pay the original lawyer for the value that lawyer contributed or was entitled to under the original contract.

The opinion states that lawyers may erroneously believe that ABA Model Rule 1.5(e) (or its state equivalent) (division of a fee between lawyers who are not in the same firm) governs this situation; however, Rule 1.5(e) only applies when there is division of fees between lawyers from different firms who are simultaneously representing a client or maintaining responsibility for the matter, not when there is successive representation. Rule 1.5(e) specifically requires that lawyers who are simultaneously representing a client and dividing a fee in a matter either divide the fee in proportion to the services delivered or assume joint responsibility for the representation.

When a lawyer no longer represents the client and there is a successor lawyer, there is no joint responsibility since the initial lawyer has no further responsibility after the withdrawal or termination and, according to the opinion, Model Rule 1.5(b) and (c) would apply to the successor lawyer in the fee relationship with the client.

Comment 2 to 1.5 states that, “an understanding as to fees …must be established”; however, the rule provides no specific time frame in which that understanding must occur. The opinion notes that under 1.5(a), client consent must be obtained before the fee is divided, which can occur up to the time of the conclusion of the matter and prior to disbursement of any money.

The opinion states that the duty to disclose the original lawyer’s potential claim and entitlement to some portion of the recovery does not constitute an “unreasonable burden” on successor counsel since, although a client may discharge a lawyer at any time for any reason, the client may be unaware of obligations to pay both the successor lawyer and the initial lawyer.  The opinion states that the successor counsel must address and clarify any confusion and inform the client, in writing, that the original attorney may have a claim against the contingency fee.

In many jurisdictions (including Florida), the initial lawyer may or would be entitled to, at a minimum,  the quantum meruit value of the lawyer’s services and the exact recovery and division of fees may not be known until the end of the case; however, the successor lawyer still has a duty to inform the client about a potential fee split.

The opinion also observes that, in many instances, the fees paid to both attorneys will not affect the client’s recovery, since a client cannot be required to pay more than one contingency fee when switching attorneys; however, if the client’s original counsel was terminated for cause, the initial lawyer may not have any claim to fees on the recovery.

Finally, according to the opinion, if the successor lawyer is required to negotiate fees with the initial lawyer on the client’s behalf, the successor lawyer must advise the client and obtain a waiver to avoid issues with Rule 1.7 conflict of interest regarding the disbursement of the funds.  Also, if a dispute arises regarding the disbursement of the funds, the successor lawyer has the obligation under Rule 1.15(e) to retain the funds in the trust account pending resolution of the dispute (and, in many jurisdictions, including Florida, the lawyer may be required to place the disputed funds in the court registry if the dispute cannot be resolved).

Bottom line:  This ABA opinion provides clear guidance on the Model Bar rule requirements when there is division of fees after the initial lawyer withdraws or is terminated and the client hires a successor counsel in contingency matters; however, lawyers must be aware that ABA opinions provide guidance regarding the ABA Model Rules only and each lawyer must research his or her own jurisdiction’s Bar Rules before taking any action.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under ABA Formal Opinion 487- lawyer division of fees in contingency cases when lawyer is replaced, ABA Model Rules, Attorney Ethics, fee sharing, joe corsmeier, Joseph Corsmeier, Lawyer division of fees contingency matters, Lawyer ethics, Lawyer Ethics and Professionalism, lawyer fee splitting, Uncategorized