Billing troubles abound

Inflating the fees

BigLaw firm gets caught in mocking a client about the fees the firm is charging, and get sued. DLA Piper, the world’s largest law firm was representing a client, Mr. Victor, in a potential bankruptcy of one of his companies.  The fees started and never quit.  Victor asked about the size of the bills, and  the number of new lawyers working on the case, the lead lawyers working the case started mocking him. “I hear we are 200k over our estimate – that’s Team DLA Piper” and “churn that bill, baby” emails made their way around the office.

Once DLA Piper filed suit for $675,000 in past due fees, Victor counter-sued for the “sweeping practice of overbilling.”  He got the emails described in his discovery request, along with 250,000 pages of other stuff created in the case. Victor amended his complaint, added fraud and punitive damages request of $22.5M.

Don’t mock your clients, or overbill. And be careful even joking about billing in an email or other discoverable method.
****
Losing Half the Billing on a Big Case

The plaintiffs lawyers had a good deal, they thought.  12 law firms came together to file a class action suit against LivingSocial, a daily deal online marketing group.  The issue was expired deals, a customer buys a deal, pays for it and the deal expires before it is used. The question is who gets the money?

46 lawyers worked on the case, and the lawyers and their paralegals racked up over 4,000 hours.  The fee request was $3M.  That is only $750 per hour across the board.  LivingSocial did not object, but Federal Judge Ellen Huvelle in DC did the math, asked a bunch of questions and wrote a 39 page opinion that decided that the lawyers should not get that much money, and criticized lots of what they did and did not do.

Judgge Huvelle said they would have to make due with only $1.35M and leave the other $2.65M in the pot for the class members.

***

How much is a name worth?

For Stan Chesley, he thought his name as a “the godfather of the modern class-action lawsuit” ought to get  him something extra.  His fee was only $20M on a $200M case. The phen-fen cases in KY are now notorious, and Chesley’s matter is not the worst.  He got disbarred in KY (his home is Ohio, and what they do is yet to be determined) for an unreasonable fee in the case.

The Court said “his professed ignorance and lack of responsibility for any aspect of the litigation except showing up…” argued against a large fee. Also, the clients signed up for a 1/3 contingency, but the lawyers had charged 49%.  Chesley was to get about $14M if he deserved any fee, but he still charged $20M.

Two lawyers in the case have gone to prison for swindling their clients out of $94M of the settlement funds. Their sentences – 20-25 years.

H/T John Conlon

Neglect gets 3 years; Lawyer arrested for fraud?; Report your Sex Offender Client? NY says no!

There must have been neglect, statement of proof in the opinion would be nice.

Louis Denney eventually had four DI cases filed, one for each year of 2008, 2009, 2010, and finally one in 2011 that did him in. Unfortunately the Order reads more like a CCS entry, so it is hard to tell what all Denney did. We are told that the Hearing Officer, Judge Jeff Todd issued a 56 page report, Denney appealed and was heard by the Supreme Court, and the court adopted that Report, but we just get a snippet of info on Counts 2,5,7 and 9. The court found violations of Rules 1.2(a), 1.3, 1.4(a) & (b), 1.5(a), 1.15(d), 1.16(a)(3) & (d), 3.1, 3.2, 3.4(c), 4.4(a), 5.4(a), 8.1(b) and 8.4(b).  Denney was a busy guy, and apparently  neglected many of his cases. He did fight the allegations and the Hearing Officer report, but the final order does not offer many details.

There is no link to the 56 page report, so what we know is that Denney: charged unreasonable fees, neglected client cases, failed to do the work for which he was hired, failed to communicate, refused to return unearned fees, disobeyed court orders for accountings, and made scandalous and irrelevant accusations against a judge when the judge refused a continuance, in an attempt to remove the judge from the case.

As a result he is suspended from the practice for three years without automatic reinstatement, and we know  that Justice Rucker would have approved a one year suspension, and Justice David would have disbarred Denney.

What we don’t know that would be educational for lawyers who review disciplinary matters is: How many total counts were found against the respondent; were any counts found for the respondent; what time frame was Denney committing violations, and did he continue to violate the duty to clients after the 2008 complaint (which resulted from his failure to respond to grievance), and was the 2008 issue (or the ’09 or ’10 issues) wrapped into the 2011 matters? Were any clients made whole during this matter or will the ISBA’s Client’s Financial Assistance Fund be involved, if the clients are aware of this benefit?

I imagine writing disciplinary opinions is difficult, but we could learn more if more information and judicial reasoning was put on display in the opinions that are issued. Especially after a well fought hearing.

***

Lawyer Arrested for Benefits Fraud…

Shawn Donahue pleaded not guilty to fraud in Harrison County recently.  The Louisville Courier Journal’s story called it welfare fraud, but it appears to be unemployment compensation benefits at issue.

The allegations are that Donahue received UE benefits while still working for a couple local entities that were paying him for legal work. It is alleged that he failed to disclose the earnings. Donahue’s lawyer, Bart Betteau predicted that his client would be cleared of the charges.

***

NY Opinion, Lawyer not required to Report Inaccurate reports by Sex Offender

Legal services lawyer is contacted by potential client PC, who is a registered sex offender.  Lawyer is asked to review an administrative filing, made under penalty of perjury, to a state agency. She does, and in confirming the information submitted determines that the allegation of being a felon is inadequate, because pc did not disclose the sex offender status of Level Three Rapist, and pc did not register as required by law, under his properly spelled name.  PC  did not appear for appointment, so Agency decided not to represent him further, but did not report the evidence it found to the agency.

Should lawyer have reported the findings to the state agency? NY Ethics Committee says No! (see Opinion 963) Rules of Professional Conduct # 1.6 deals with confidentiality of client communications, and if PC had not become a client, Rule 1.18 carries duties to prospective clients. The rub is that Rule 3.3 “Conduct before a Tribunal” puts duties to disclose confidential information on lawyers, if the situation meets the standards. Here it is a close call, but since the lawyer did not appear before the tribunal, but only reviewed information submitted to it, and the submission was not by the lawyer, the committee finds that “It would not make sense to require a lawyer to take reasonable remedial measures regarding proceedings before a tribunal in which the lawyer has never appeared on behalf of the client.”

But does the lawyer have to report the failure to register properly with the police?  Rule 1.6(b)(2) in NY and in Indiana, is a permissive rule.  “A lawyer may reveal information relating to the representation of a client to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes necessary: (2) to prevent the client from committing a crime… and in furtherance of which the client has used or is using the lawyer’s services” (Ind. Rule).  NY’s Rule 1.6 does not have the “and in furtherance” language.  Indiana’s does which makes it even less likely that a disclosure would be appropriate even with the permissive disclosure language.

In NY the committee previously opined that past crimes cannot be revealed under this provision, only future crimes. Either way there is no mandatory disclosure, but a permissive disclosure in NY looks to be less risky than in Indiana, where there was no use of the lawyer’s services in furtherance of the misreporting.

***

Jeffersonville INNS of Court meeting

Thursday March 21, Ted Waggoner will attend the Jeffersonville IN Inns of Court meeting at the invitation of Judge Terry Cody to speak on the Indiana Attorney Surrogate Rule, and its application to lawyers and law firms.  Ted chairs the Attorney Surrogate Rule Special Committee of the ISBA. 

Contact me for more information about this important rule.

IOLTA UPDATE if you accept Credit Cards: Circular 230 Disclosure: CBS Radio v. Emmis = DQ:

Credit Cards and IOLTA – New Problem

If you have been innovative over the past few years and started to accept credit card payments, and then posted them when required, directly to your IOLTA trust account (thanks Dan Reed and LawPay – a great ISBA member benefit) you better check your merchant account now.

Congress added Section 6050W to the code effective Jan 1, 2013.  As reported in LawBizzCoo, a legal business blog, there is a new requirement that if the credit card processor’s information is not exactly as contained in the IRS’s file (i.e. name change of firm, new address) the processor must withhold 28% of each deposit processed by the credit card company, including funds deposited in IOLTA.

The Disciplinary Commission may start getting notices of bounced checks from banks (required under the rules allowing banks to hold IOLTA funds) and lawyers may start getting certified letters from the Commission.  Those funds are not being mis-deposited, so you cannot just move them, they are held for potential taxes. You have to come up with the funds, and answer the grievance, in short order. Take a moment now and check your EIN letter and your Merchant Account Agreement. Fix it ASAP.

The same will happen to your general account, but that will not automatically involve the DC. It may later, but your landlord will not appreciate the rent check bouncing.

I discussed this with my office manager and she has been on top of it for a while, thanks to AffiniPay (a/k/a LawPay and Dan Reed). Whether you are with LawPay or some other provider, it is your skin in the game. Make sure everything lines up as it should.

***

Tax abuse schemes are serious! Up to $190M serious for one lawyer.

The IRS issued one of its worst ideas a few years ago, called the Circular 230 Disclosure. Good in theory, to require lawyers to warn clients and potential clients not to construe information in a letter or email as being tax advice from the author to engage in a tax scheme, unless that is the purpose of the letter. Now a majority of lawyers’ posts of recipes or sports commentary carries a long disclaimer at the end that no client lacking an MBA could understand, and that most posters do not understand, or they would not prize their every utterance so highly!

But, sometimes folks should avoid doing what lawyers like Donna Guerin did, and review the tax code before writing tax schemes.

Ms. Guerin wrote a scheme so good she and her co-author claimed that her law firm’s clients could save millions of dollars in taxes. And she was no fly-by-night lawyer. A partner in the once prestigious BIG law firm Jenkins & Gilchrist, she recently pleaded guilt to criminal tax fraud, will go to prison for 8 years and has agreed to a penalty and restitution of $190 Million. Her partner entered his plea early and only has to pay $1.6 Million.

For my lawyer friends, be careful with the indiscriminate use of the Circular 230 language, and for the lawyers who do tax work, go back and read Circular 230 in-depth. Then be careful.

****
Great fight, but Ice goes down.

Speaking last week on the Ethics of Developing and Representing Businesses, I was asked to discuss those lawyers who get disqualified from cases for overlooking and violating a Conflict of Interest. Rules 1.7 & 1.9 of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct are pretty clear when lawyers must not violate the pledge of loyalty we take to our clients (see Comment 1 to RPC 1.7). But lawyers continue to lose focus of their duty, often when one engagement is completed and a chance to earn a new fee surfaces in a “new” case.

I have had the call on the Ethics Hotline (facts changed to protect the calling lawyers) where a previous client went to a new lawyer, with a similar problem, and the same or similar issues. The old lawyer gets in the case, deciding that things have changed since the first time these folks met. Then that old lawyer just hates getting the call or letter saying “I think you have a conflict and need to get out of the case.”  Take that call seriously!

One of Indy’s premiere big firms, Ice Miller was hired by Walter Berger, an employee of Emmis Broadcasting Co., to help him in a senior management employment contract in 2002. Emmis had suggested Ice Miller to Berger. In 2005 Berger renewed that contract with Emmis, then several months later left Emmis to go to work for CBS Radio, Inc. Emmis did not like that, hired their lawyers, Another of Indy’s top big firms, Barnes & Thornburg to sue CBS for hiring Berger, (USDC, So. IN, Case No. 1:06-cv-0920) then it discharged B&T and hired Ice Miller to represent it in the case.

Ice shows up in the suit, and CBS and Berger demand it get out of the case due to an alleged conflict of interest. Ice, showing an incredible amount of chutzpah, lashed back with several defenses and a couple of accusations (which to an outsider read like they were based on client confidences), including that there is no conflict because “it is clear” that Berger breached the Emmis contract. The facts and issues were well briefed by both sides (materials in the ICLEF book) and Federal Judge Larry J. McKinney wrote a great explanation of the tests and the considerations involved in a DQ motion, in his 14 page Order. It is available on Pacer, or through Westlaw($$$).

Bottom line, loyalty is paramount, the issues are looked at from the client’s POV, and while case dicta and commentary makes it sound tough for the clients to prevail, in reality it is hard for a lawyer to win on this issue. There are a few outlier cases, but from my study, the issue, once raised, should be seen in the practical light of “how much is it worth to fight this issue, plus the possible ethics complaint, if you win? Is there enough in the case to pay all that?”  After looking at that, you should consider the option to prepare that Motion to Withdraw and have a talk with your now ex-client.