Report Your Convictions, Indiana Lawyers; Scammed; School Board Lawyers Indicted over Free Lunch?;

Those other Rules also Count to the Ind. Supreme Court

There are several (18) sets of rules that lawyers need to know about as a part of your practice, and sometimes we forget them. One that bit a lawyer recently was the rule on reporting our convictions.  No, not our deeply held principles, but the convictions we get for violating the law. The Rule is A&D Rule 23 §11.1 (a)

(2)    An attorney licensed to practice law in the state of Indiana who is found guilty of a crime in any state or of a crime under the laws of the United States shall, within ten (10) days after such finding of guilt, transmit a certified copy of the finding of guilt to the Executive Secretary of the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission.

The 18 sets of Rules on the Court’s website can be found here.

Gary Selig, of Indianapolis, was convicted in 2003 of OVWI, but did not report it to the Disciplinary Commission. In 2013 he was again convicted, and started treatment. This time the conviction was reported, apparently by the judge (see below) His matter went to the Commission, and was docketed with the Supreme Court on two charges: Committing a criminal act that reflects adversely on his fitness to practice (RPC Rule 8.4(b) and Failure to Report the 2003 conviction (A&D Rule 23 §11.1(a)(2)).

The penalty: 30 days suspension from the practice of law, stayed for a six months probationary period with terms to help with the alcohol issues in his life, and to remain under JLAP supervision.  Good luck.

While it is probably painful to report a criminal conviction, it will be an aggravation factor if you don’t. Judges:  if a lawyer is convicted in your court, you also have a duty under 11.1(a)(1) to report that conviction within ten days.  Don’t overlook that duty.

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When the money is coming from Nigeria – Be careful

At least he did not fall for an email from Nigeria, but maybe what he did was worse.  Above the Law has the snarky version of the tale of the Iowa lawyer who not only fell for the $18.8M scam, but convinced several clients to invest in the up front payment of $177,660 to get that big check. He did it for the client who got him into this mess, (a criminal defendant with a pending case) and for the 10% finder’s fee that Robert Allen Wright Jr. (lawyer son of a prominent Iowa lawyer) was expecting out of the deal.

He even tried to get the funds from the Bank of Nigeria and the President of Nigeria (Nigeria is ruled by an Edo – the title used by the current “ruler” of Nigeria.)

Among the charges that were filed was a charge of Fraud on Clients, but it was dropped by the Disciplinary Board, because the evidence showed that Wright did not know there were no funds, and that he still is delusional about the prospect of obtaining the Nigerian cash, any day. Stupid is as stupid does…

He was suspended for a year from the practice. No word on restitution to the clients who were duped, and no requirement was stated for IQ or EQ testing before reinstatement.  Sounds like it might be a good idea.

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Got to Quit Reading NJ Law Journal
School board lawyers in NJ get indicted on Free Lunch scam for Board Members.

School Board member reports to the board lawyers that his income statement was “misstated” by his wife and he wanted to correct it “so I don’t end up like” another board member who was under investigation for getting free lunches when her kids were not eligible, due to her income.

The lawyers solved the problem for the board member, by conspiring to hide evidence, and telling staff to remove lunch applications from files, and doctor computer records, all to cover up for the various board members’ misdeeds.  Oops.   It was reported that:

A state grand jury in Trenton charged Capece and Nelson [the lawyers] with second-degree conspiracy and official misconduct, third-degree tampering with public records and physical evidence, and fourth-degree hindering prosecution.

If convicted, they would spend a minimum of five years in jail without parole and could pay fines of $150,000.

(emphasis added)

And you thought we school board lawyers lived quiet lives.

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FYI, Last Friday, I presented a three-hour CLE (one hour ethics) seminar on Representing and Working with a Not for Profit Entity.  A good session sponsored by the Northern Indiana Community Foundation (Fulton, Miami and Starke Counties), the Marshall County Community Foundation and the Pulaski County Community Foundation. If you are interested, contact me at ted@peterson-waggoner.com

Ogden is a fighter, but…; Voils forgot to fight; Disabled and out of the fight

Okay, Paul…it’s your fight

Indy lawyer Paul Ogden writes a blog and challenges authority regularly. Today (Thursday) he threw a punch at the Disciplinary Commission with this blog post.

His trial before the Indiana Supreme Court is next Tuesday, July 30.
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But Alex, Don’t forget to Fight the cases you are hired to fight.

Alex Voils was hired to fight an insurance company for benefits as the company denied the client’s claim in 2005. In 2009, after repeated requests for action, the client fired Voils.  Then he failed to provide the file to new counsel and he ignored the Disciplinary Commission’s request for a response to the grievance.

The parties agreed on discipline of 30 days suspension with automatic reinstatement. The court suggested that punishment might have been more severe if there had not been an agreement. They agreed that Voils violated three rules:

 1.3: Failure to act with reasonable diligence and promptness.
1.16(d): Failure promptly to return to a client case file materials to which the client is entitled after termination of representation.
8.1(b): Failure to respond in a timely manner to the Commission’s demands for information.

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Disability Suspension

We don’t see too many of these, and as the Boomers age, and the Greatest Generation ages even more, we may see these with more regularity. Indy lawyer Mary K. Kleiss was accused by the Disc. Comm. of being disabled “by reason of physical or mental illness or infirmity, or because of the use of or addiction to intoxicants or drugs.”  No more is described.  Kleiss filed an Affidavit of Consent to the Disability Suspension.

The Supreme Court accepted the filings and suspended Kleiss under the A&D Rule 23(25), and ordered that she may petition for reinstatement upon the termination of the disability.  Good Luck.

“Causing grief to clients” = slapdown by judge; Learn from your neighbor lawyers’ mistakes; attend your clients.

Fee Shifting is no Reason to Mishandle a Case

There are a number of statutes that allow for fee shifting, and we hear calls daily for “tort reform” that pushes that idea.  Here it caused all kinds of bad incentives, as pointed out in a 113 page trial court order on the Fee Petitions under USTA and/or ELA environmental laws. [My experience in front of Judge Goshorn in a few cases is that he is normally a judge who uses few words to make his points – this output is unlike his normal work.]

Judge Goshorn of Wells County was asked to approve fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyer in the amount of $676,986.11. He denied the request, mostly due to the conduct of the plaintiff’s counsel in the handling of the case.  Award to counsel $0. actually less, due to several contempt of court orders.

The judge said many things in 113 pages, none complimentary to Mark E. Shere, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in this case. A few direct slapdowns:

  • …Shere caused “untold grief and damage to [his] former clients”… [p.2]
  • “has been an impediment, not a facilitator, to the just resolution of this cause.” [p.2]
  • “this case has been extraordinarily and needlessly protracted…due to Mr. Shere’s fee agreement with his client.”  [p.3]
  • “… Shere drove this case off a cliff, leaving in his wake two bankrupt and divorced clients and a third client in financial trouble with its reputation sullied.” [p.5]

The judge was just getting warmed up.  He continued through 169 Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, never letting up on Shere.  On page 96 he found that the Fee Agreement Shere had with his clients violated Rule 1.8(i) of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct which states:

(i) A lawyer shall not acquire a proprietary interest in the cause of action or subject matter of litigation the lawyer is conducting for a client, except that the lawyer may:

(1)acquire a lien authorized by law to secure the lawyer’s fee or expenses; and

(2)contract with a client for a reasonable contingent fee in a civil case.

Judge Goshorn saw the fee agreement as giving Shere a stake in the case for clients Witt, to his favor and to the favor of co-client Hydrotech. He found that:

  • “… the driver of this litigation was recovery of the maximum amount of fees for Mr. Shere, not assisting the Witts.” [p.99]

But this was not a screed against plaintiffs’ lawyers, he gave some fees to lawyers who worked for Shere, ordering the payment to the Clerk, and the clerk to direct the fees to those lawyers. [p.113].

The judge did not feel particularly sorry for the defendants in the case either, denying their petition for fees from Shere or his clients. The Court found:

  • “This litigation was a caged grudge match [I like that word-picture offered by the judge] with both sides throwing punches. … The Court is concerned about the chilling effect an award of fees to defendants in a USTA or ELA action might have…” [p.111-2]

Shere gets nothing due to the way he tried the case, putting his interests above those of the client.

This case was also addressed by the Indiana Supreme Court in a March 21, 2012 opinion where Shere and his clients were held in contempt of court.  The Court, in  a 3-2 opinion agreed with the contempt finding, overturning a reversal by the Court of Appeals.

For some reason I suspect we may see another Supreme Court opinion coming out in the future concerning the actions taken by counsel in this case.

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Learn from your Neighbors*

One lesson that is important is for lawyers to learn from the mistakes of their neighbors. It is one of the reasons this blog exists. Elden Stoops, for example, should have learned from neighboring county lawyer Jeffrey Price‘s 2009 public reprimand.  The cases as described sound surprisingly similar.  Both lawyers filed family law matters, seeking emergency relief.  Both offered proposed Orders to the court granting the emergency relief their clients sought. Neither petition cited or certified the steps made to notify the opposing parties of the filing of the emergency filing, as required under Trial Rule 65(B).  Both courts set hearings and immediately granted the emergency relief. [Query, when can parties, and lawyers, count on judges reading pleadings and knowing the law on such things?]

Later the opposing parties were notified of the actions taken.

Unlike Price, who was charged with one offense, Stoops was charged and sanctioned for two offenses. The one above was for violating Rules 3.5(b) – ex parte communication with a judge; 8.4(d) & (f) conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, and assisting a judicial officer in violation of rules of judicial conduct. Stoops second violation was a conflict of interest, when co-clients turned against each other, and he took the case of one of the former co-clients.

Public reprimand for his actions. He had a clean record, and the court accepted the idea that he was trying to protect children, were mitigating factors accepted by the court.

* A lawyer from my firm was involved in the Stoops case.

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Take Care of the Clients

Ron Weldy has been a frequent poster on the ISBA email discussion lists.  He should have been paying attention to his clients’ matters a bit better.  The Supreme Court recently suspended Weldy for 180 days, 90 to serve and one year probation.  From the six counts, there were issues of fee agreements, client communication, case management, and knowledge of the law were problems for the respondent.  The list of rule problems is lengthy:

Violations: The parties agree that Respondent violated these Indiana Professional Conduct Rules prohibiting the following misconduct:

1.2(a): Failure to abide by a client’s decision concerning the objectives of representation.

1.3: Failure to act with reasonable diligence and promptness.

1.4(a)(3): Failure to keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter.

1.4(a)(4): Failure to comply promptly with a client’s reasonable requests for information.

1.4(b): Failure to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit a client to make informed decisions.

1.5(b): Failure to communicate the basis or rate of the fee for which a client will be responsible before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation.

1.5(c): Failure to disclose to a client the method by which a contingent legal fee will be determined.

1.7(a)(2): Representing a client when the representation may be materially limited by the attorney’s own self-interest.

1.15(e): Failure to properly secure disputed property until the dispute is resolved.

1.16(a)(3): Continuing representation of a client after the lawyer is discharged.

3.1: Asserting a position for which there is no non-frivolous basis in law or fact.

3.2: Failure to expedite litigation consistent with the interests of a client.

3.3(a)(1): Knowingly making a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal.

8.4(c): Engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

8.4(d): Engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

This case is a good one to review before taking a weekend off.  Stay diligent, read the law. Be careful with your fee agreements

When you, a lawyer, are in trouble, hire a competent lawyer; NY Times on Billing Troubles Abound with Fraud Allegation; More on Fee issues – what is a “document review” billing entry worth?

Can you believe this guy is [might once again be] a lawyer?

It is reportedly a heart stopping moment, you get a certified letter from the Disciplinary Commission inviting you to explain some complaint made against you.  It has to be even more disconcerting when the Commission files, and serves you with its Verified Complaint; now you are past the informal opportunity to solve the problem.

The Best Practice is to hire a competent lawyer to help you at the first letter, but if you don’t, then hire one at the complaint stage – you failed to get yourself off, get help.

Before you go to lunch, find someone, call and set an appointment. Do not go out for the afternoon golf game.  Save your license.

Jeffery Fetters had even been through the process before. In 2012 he started down a path he had previously walked in 2005.  This time he did not read the A&D Rules that govern the disciplinary process.  He misfiled his answer to the complaint. The misfiled answer did not meet the standards for an answer to a complaint. He apparently took the whole process lightly.

Just like he took the duty of effectively representing his client in the eviction process. He won the immediate eviction hearing, but did nothing after that, and eventually refused to talk to the client about the problems.

The court found the following violations:

The Court finds that Respondent violated these Indiana Professional Conduct Rules prohibiting the following misconduct:

1.2(a): Failure to abide by a client’s decisions concerning the objectives of representation.

1.3: Failure to act with reasonable diligence and promptness.

1.4(a)(3): Failure to keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter.

1.4(b): Failure to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit a client to make informed decisions.

8.1(a): Knowingly making a false statement of material fact to the Disciplinary Commission in connection with a disciplinary matter.

Lots of failures there, and no effective way to answer the allegations because he did not follow the rules, or hire a competent lawyer to assist him.
What do you think the Court did? Answer is below.

DLA Piper in More Trouble

In March, I reported the biggest of the BIGLAW firms that may have gotten caught engaging in serious bill padding. And this was a billing problem of the magnitude of a $200,000 over-estimate, and it was as much as $675,000 in dispute. The NY Times article updating us on the value of the dispute now is here.

One rule of being a smart lawyer is to be real careful before deciding to “sue a client for fees.”  It is on many of the “do not ever do this” lists right before “fool around with the staff, nobody will ever know,” and after “what is a small loan from the trust account going to hurt.”  There are a lot of reasons, not to sue a client, and I will mention a couple illustrated by this case:

1 – you already created a litigation tiger and now you grabbed him by the tail.  Clients going through a lawsuit are often seriously ticked off, and to then be sued by your lawyers, the people you put your trust in, really gets under most clients’ skin.

2 – if you sue your client, be sure that you don’t have a smoking gun in the file, or on the computer. That means you don’t have anything that suggests, let alone shows that you were padding the bill or committing malpractice or ethical violations, or anything else, anywhere in a letter, an email, an interoffice communication, or on a scratch pad. Discovery is getting good.

If you think your client owes you $675K, then the client probably has the resources to spend another $500K searching your database.

Another reason to use a smaller firm?

The Times quotes a “billing ethics professor” (I did not know we have ethics professors who specialize in billing matters – but now know why we do) in this paragraph:

In a survey of about 250 lawyers that Professor Ross conducted in 2007, more than half acknowledged that the prospect of billing extra time influenced their decision to perform pointless assignments, such as doing excessive legal research or extraneous document review. There is also the issue of “featherbedding,” he said, or throwing armies of bodies at every problem.

When your law firm does not have “armies of bodies” hanging around looking for something to do, the “featherbedding” issue is mooted to a great extent.  And when your lawyer or small team of lawyers, that you know by name, are working on your matter, the thought of performing “pointless assignments” is not near as tempting as it might be if you are teaching a large class of first year lawyers the ways of research or the firm’s ethics of billing.

The most recent news in the case?

His [Victor’s] lawyer, Larry Hutcher at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, amended the countersuit last week to include a fraud claim and a request for $22.5 million in punitive damages, a number representing 1 percent of DLA Piper’s reported revenue last year. (my emphasis)

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The other end of the Canada case.

Last week we discussed the Canada case, where the fees, though flat, were earned, and upon the client’s demand did not need to be returned.  Octavia Snulligan did not understand that rule before Canada was decided.

She too requested a flat fee, but did not appear to do the work required, or at least she could not satisfy the client that she was doing the work that was expected.  After five months she was fired, and the client wanted part of her retainer money back. Snulligan refused, and when she was asked for an invoice, she crafted one. She, like many lawyers do not keep time sheets, but she created one anyway, and showed 37.8 hours of work, in 32 entries.  28 of the entries were for “Document Review” without further explanation. The hearing officer, the commission and the Supreme Court were all unimpressed with the reconstructed time records.

So unimpressed that it was the most serious aggravating factor found. It was “calculated to mislead the Family, the Commission and the Hearing Officer” said the Supreme Court.

Snulligan got a retainer of $6,000 on a flat fee of $12,000. She had the case for five months and said she had worked it. The court said she failed to refund the unearned portion, which the hearing officer calculated as $5,000 in unearned fees of the $6,000 she had received.

The court goes out of its way to say that a “$12,000 total fee, or her collection of $6,000 of that fee before she was terminated would [not] have been unreasonable” if she had been able to complete the representation. But she did not, she was discharged and had not met the Realtor’s Rule of getting to the close before getting fired by the client.

Another good discussion on fee issues by the court, helping the bar to better understand where the line of good behavior ends before you get into bad behavior.

What do you think the Court did? Answer is below.

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Fetters got Six month suspension without automatic reinstatement [follow link to find out about automatic reinstatement], with a requirement for restitution for reinstatement.

Snulligan got a 30 day suspension without automatic reinstatement, but with a proviso that if she refunds the $5,000 in overcharged fees, she may petition for immediate reinstatement.

Hourly Billing leads to Suspension; How Much is Too Much?: Know the Battles to Fight

Billing is one of the toughest things lawyers do.

The legal field is struggling with the proper method of billing for legal services.  There are a number of ways, mostly broken down into the following styles: Contingency, Hourly, Value Pricing and some hybrids such as menu billing or flat fee billing.

Each method has its critics, and the Indiana State Bar Association recently held a session at its Annual Meeting on “The Future of Legal Fees.”  MS lawyer and ABA bestselling author Mark Chinn was the presenter.  One fear expressed there was that Value Pricing fees could run afoul of ethics issues.

Any system of billing can run afoul of ethical issues. The primary breach is in the lawyer, not the system. “But lead me not into temptation…” Michael Murphy, a Massachusetts lawyer, learned the hard way.  He was a salary lawyer for an unnamed law firm.  On at least two cases he “knowingly spent more time than necessary” in order to increase his billables. He reviewed materials multiple times, often for hearings that had not been scheduled yet. He billed for time performing tasks that “should have been delegated” to lower cost lawyers at smaller billing rates. He billed for performing tasks that others had performed. Author John Conlon regularly writes about the problem for clients about misallocation of duties between higher priced lawyers and the lower priced associates or non-lawyer staff.

Murphy’s firm refunded the fees, and wrote off unpaid bills, but Murphy got a Year and A Day suspension.  Rumor has it that this kind of billing problem occurs with enough frequency that it should be discussed in biglaw and small firm settings, and forbidden by policy. The Mass. Court found the fees charged was a violation of Rules 1.5(a) and 8.4(c).

H/T Andy Perkins

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106 Paragraphs in the Ethics Complaint => Suspension

Illness does not give you a “Free Pass” card.  Kjell Engebretsen, a Boone County, IN lawyer appears to have struggled for years in representing his clients.  The battles may have had to do with depression or other illnesses, but were manifested in his refusal to do the clients’ legal work, or to cooperate with the Disciplinary Commission.

The charges included: neglecting clients’ cases, failing to do the work for which he was hired, failing to communicate with clients, failing to inform clients that medical problems would severely limit his ability to represent them, failing to inform clients of court orders and hearings, failing to appear at hearings and a pretrial conference, unilaterally terminating his representation of clients without protecting the clients’ interests, failing to refund unearned fees, and failing to cooperate with the Commission.

This is the fifth action against the respondent filed by the DC, and there may have been others not filed before the 2008 matter. At the time of this Order he was on two other suspensions (failure to pay costs, and non-cooperation with a show cause order), and did not respond to the charges filed here.

The Court found violations of the following Rules of Professional Conduct:

1.3: Failure to act with reasonable diligence and promptness.

1.4(a)(3): Failure to keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter.

1.4(a)(4): Failure to comply promptly with a client’s reasonable requests for information.

1.4(b): Failure to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit a client to make informed decisions.

1.16(d): Failure to protect a client’s interests upon termination of representation.

1.16(d): Failure to refund an unearned fee upon termination of representation.

3.2: Failure to expedite litigation consistent with the interests of a client.

8.1(b): Failure to respond in a timely manner to the Commission’s demands for information.

8.4(c): Engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

For all that, the result may surprise you.  Read the opinion, and J. David’s dissent.
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Pick your Battles Carefully, Especially When You get the Lede

Vikrant Pawar, a NYC lawyer had to file the suit. His honor apparently was tested by the allegation.  Then the slap-down hits.  As reported in the New York Law Journal [full story behind a paywall]:

“The charge of stealing a $6.95 order of chicken wings, hardly constitutes that of a serious crime,” Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Louis York wrote, holding that Vikrant Pawar had not made a sufficient case that the charge amounted to slander.

So an event that merited the attention of Pawar’s family and staff, and the owner of the Wings Shop, has now been made a record in the courts, and in the popular legal media.  Now we know he was accused of stealing chicken wings, and that the court does not find that charge to be an insult to his integrity.

Maybe the better resolution was to pay the tab, tip the waiter and stay quiet.  H/T Patrick Olmstead.

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