Idaho why lawyers are so often tripped up on this.

I’m writing from Boise where tomorrow I’m delighted to have the chance to speak on legal ethics for the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association.  (I’m also delighted that the weather is unseasonably warm at the moment.)  Last year I had the chance to do a similar presentation for the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference.  Prosecuting attorneys throughout the country are finding themselves more frequently in the cross-hairs of disciplinary proceedings.

But today’s post isn’t really about that, but it does help explain the selection process.  As I find myself drawn to write about a recent instance of discipline imposed on a private attorney in Idaho that involves behavior that I’ve counseled lawyers about so I know it happens to be relevant beyond just the Idaho Bar.

The case involves the issuance of a suspension order against Attorney Beckett issued at the end of January 2018, but for which the 28-day active suspension period will run during the month of February.  You can read the press release put out by Idaho State Bar Counsel here.

The underlying case was a personal injury lawsuit, and Beckett was able to get the case successfully settled for his client.  His client, though, wanted immediate access to parts of what would be forthcoming from the settlement.  Perhaps simply motivated by an effort to be accommodating, or more likely because of a failure to properly communicate with the client and manage expectations regarding how long such things take, Beckett agreed to provide two advances of the forthcoming settlement funds to the client out of his own money and from money belonging to a separate company Beckett owned.

As the press release explains, he didn’t do that in a way that was at all proper because she didn’t manage to keep the funds properly segregated to avoid commingling them with money in other accounts and also didn’t communicate to the client the available alternatives.  Despite the fact that, as the press release makes clear, Beckett didn’t charge any interest or fees for the transaction and that no other clients were harmed in any way, the conduct violated Rule 1.15 and 1.4 of the Idaho Rules and merited a 60-day suspension, with 28 days of active suspension, and a six-month probationary period.

What is interesting is that the press release makes no mention of Rule 1.8(a) governing business transactions with clients.  When I have had to counsel lawyers about inquiries from clients along these lines, that is the Rule most pertinent to the discussion for a path to actually doing what the client wants if the lawyer is insistent on providing an accommodation.

Idaho, like Tennessee, has a Rule 1.8(a) patterned after the ABA Model Rule.  Tennessee’s, for example, provides that a business transaction with a client – which is what a loan like what Beckett did would be — cannot happen unless

(1) the transaction and terms on which the lawyer acquires the interest are fair and reasonable to the client and are fully disclosed and transmitted in writing in a manner that can be reasonably understood by the client;

(2) the client is advised in writing of the desirability of seeking and is given a reasonable opportunity to seek the advice of independent legal counsel on the transaction; and

(3) the client gives informed consent, in a writing signed by the client, to the essential terms of the transaction and the lawyer’s role in the transaction, including whether the lawyer is representing the client in the transaction.

Now, working through that rule is not 100% of the battle altogether, because the risk still exists that a bar counsel would argue that other provisions in the same rule, RPC 1.8(e) and (i) in Tennessee for example, would still work to prohibit such a business transaction altogether if the case has been settled but no order of dismissal ending the litigation has been entered.

Those provisions provide:

(e) A lawyer shall not provide financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation, except that:

(1) a lawyer may advance court costs and expenses of litigation, the repayment of which may be contingent on the outcome of the matter; and

(2) a lawyer representing an indigent client may pay court costs and expenses of litigation on behalf of the client.

and

(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.

RPC 1.8(i) has always struck me as a prohibition that can be drafted around in the transaction documents to sever any connection between the litigation and the loan, but (e) is trickier if the litigation, despite being settled is technically still “pending” at the time of the client’s inquiry.

Husband can’t control his wife, gets disciplined.

Sometimes titles for posts are tough to come up with, sometimes they are far too easy.  This is one of the latter and is offered both with a spirit of tongue-in-cheek silliness and because it is a truly perfect seven-word summary of a recent disciplinary case of note.

It is, of note, at least for discussion purposes, because it appears to be: (1) the right outcome; and (2) a quintessential example of the harm that my state, Tennessee, seeks to prevent through the existence of a very specific, black-letter rule.  Despite that, I’d still like to explain why I happen to think that the Tennessee rule, in particular, is still too harsh and the wrong public policy approach.

The case comes out of Illinois and involves a public censure handed down earlier this month.  The ABA Journal online wrote an article about it a couple of days ago but here’s the pithier description of events published by the Illinois disciplinary authorities:

Mr. Niew, who was licensed in 1972, was censured. His wife, Kathleen Niew, an Illinois lawyer, was disbarred in 2013 for misappropriating $2.34 million belonging to a client who she represented in a real estate matter. After her disbarment, Mr. Niew failed to ensure that his wife no longer maintained a presence in their law office and he also failed to supervise his associate, to prevent that associate from aiding Ms. Niew in the unauthorized practice of law.

The ABA Journal piece points out a bit more detail, explaining that the wife was disbarred in November 2013 but kept coming into the law offfice she had shared with her husband multiple days a week until June 2014.  You can get the highly unfortunate details of the wife’s wrongdoing at the ABA Journal piece.  (Spoiler:  financial wrongdoing.)

The reason that the husband’s role in the wife continuing to come into the office was, itself, a disciplinary problem is that Illinois has a Supreme Court Rule, Rule 764b, that bars a lawyer who has been disbarred or suspended from the practice of law for at least six months from maintaining a presence in any office where law is practiced.  That Illinois rule also imposes a direct duty on other lawyers affiliated with the disbarred or suspended lawyer to stake steps to insure that the rule is complied with.

This kind of rule, which we also have in our ethics rules in Tennessee, is one that I and other Tennessee lawyers have described to people as a rule that means, if you’ve been disbarred or suspended, you can’t even push a broom in a law office as a way of trying to make a living.

In Tennessee, over the objections of the Tennessee Bar Association, our Supreme Court put such a prohibition housed in our rules as RPC 5.5(h).  It acts similarly to the Illinois rule by completely barring involvement in anything surrounding the practice of law for disbarred or suspended lawyers, but it is solely focused on the other lawyers involved and is actually even more harsh than the Illinois rule in two respects.

The Tennessee rule reads:

(h) A lawyer or law firm shall not employ or continue the employment of a disbarred or suspended lawyer as an attorney, legal consultant, law clerk, paralegel or in any other position of a quasi legal nature.

It is harsher than its Illinois counterpart, first, because it applies (on its face) with respect to a lawyer suspended for any period of time not just for six months or more.  Arguably even where a lawyer has been suspended for only 30 days or, possibly, even when they are subject to merely an administrative suspension.  Second, it is harsher because it is not just limited to a prohibition on being physically present in a law office but applies to any employment of such a person by a lawyer or law firm.

In Illinois, for example, the public policy objections I have to such a harsh rule might be less pointed beccause the ability to work from home or otherwise remotely be employed to perform certain tasks could be a saving grace against the otherwise absolute barrier to opportunities for lawyer rehabilitation.  But not so in Tennessee.

While the Niew Illinois case that has gotten some attention certainly appears to demonstrate the right outcome for its circumstances, I still think rules like Tennessee’s are far too harsh.  Problems posed by the classic scenarios that such rules seek to prohibit can otherwise be addressed through provisions in RPC 5.5 that make it unethical for a lawyer to assist someone else in the unauthorized practice of law.

It seems that there ought to be exceptions to such an absolute prohibition; exceptions that it would be hard for reasonable people to argue against.  One could readily construct a hypothetical involving a lawyer who gets herself suspended because of problems associated with the handling of client funds or other deficiencies in their ability to handle the business aspects of the practice of law, but who might be an incredibly gifted researcher and writer.  Seems unduly harsh to foreclose that person’s ability to continue to contribute and benefit clients of other lawyers through performing such work for other lawyers with no access to client funds or even to the clients in question while rehabilitating themselves on their deficiencies.

At present, there simply is not.  The only potential route to rehabilitiation that could be available in Tennessee, apropos if for no other reason than our being called “the Volunteer state,” is that it does look like a disbarred or suspended lawyer could take on such assignments for free.

Friday follow up – TIKD off by a DQ motion and the Supremes won’t stop suspending the wrong lawyers.

In the middle of Roadshowing (short break until the next stops next week) and also still trying to handle client matters to boot, so this will be a quick post.

(If you are here next week looking for the Roadshow playlist, just keep scrolling down as it can be found in the post immediately below this one.)

The dustup between the smartphone app known as TIKD and the Florida Bar has been back in the news in the legal trades recently over a motion to disqualify TIKD’s counsel filed by the Florida Bar.

On its face, it sounds like a pretty decent disqualification motion on the merits as the Florida Bar is alleging that TIKD’s counsel who is a former Florida Bar president had access during his term in office to internal information evaluating the Florida Bar’s antitrust liability exposure given its structure in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in an antitrust suit against the board that regulates dentistry in North Carolina.  (You might recall that I wrote a bit about that in the past as well as it is that case that has revived interest in, and concerns about, antitrust issues for the regulation of the practice of law in unified bar/mandatory bar jurisdictions.)  That would seem like a slam-dunk in terms of disqualification if that person had been a former General Counsel or otherwise a lawyer for the Florida Bar, but the analysis may be a lot murkier if, as is the case generally of bar presidents, that the president of the Florida Bar is always a lawyer but isn’t necessarily acting as a lawyer for the organization during the term of office.

Oh, and speaking of the U.S. Supreme Court, I wrote a bit earlier this year (as many other people did) about the weirdness associated with the fact that the United States Supreme Court made the very unfortunate mistake of suspending the wrong attorney – confusing one lawyer named Christopher P. Sullivan for another lawyer named Christopher P. Sullivan.  At the time, I tried to make discussing the circumstances a bit more worthwhile substantively and not just anact of piling-on by citing that epic mistake by the highest court in the land as maybe the ultimate example of the need for people in our profession to be deliberate in their actions and take their time because what we do can have real consequences for us and for others.

As is of course true for literally billions of other people on the planet, the Clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court is not a dedicated reader of this space (or didn’t take heed of that message) as a new story came to light a week or so ago of pretty much the same thing happening again with the Court suspending a lawyer named Jim Robbins instead of a lawyer named James A. Robbins.  (Even more coincidentally, the Sullivan who was wrongly suspended earlier in 2017 practiced law with a firm called Robins Kaplan.)

Actually, to say that pretty much the same thing happened isn’t quite right, as the James A. Robbins that deserved to be suspended wasn’t actually a member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar at all.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court since December 2008 and even more fortunately it appears to be an admittee with a name, Brian S. Faughnan, that seems highly unlikely to be duplicated on (or off) its rolls.

Speaking again of rarer occurrences

Last week I dedicated a post to highlighting some topics of note that I hadn’t written about in a while.  This is another such post as the Tennessee Supreme Court has again taken action on its own initiative to increase discipline against an attorney beyond a result that both the accused attorney and the prosecuting entity had decided not to even appeal.  I previously wrote about such an occurrence back in April 2015.

Any time it happens it’s an interesting outcome because for lawyers in such proceedings, and the lawyers who represent them, the possibility always looms in the background when handling a matter but does not frequently occur.  As the opinion explains, Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9, § 15.4 imposes a duty on the Court even if no one has appealed to “review the recommended punishment provided in such judgment or settlement with a view to attaining uniformity of punishment throughout the State and appropriateness of punishment under the circumstances of each particular case.”

This more recent instance has occurred to a Nashville criminal defense lawyer by the name of Paul Walwyn and you can read the full ruling here.

The nature of case against the lawyer reads in a pretty straightforward manner:

This case arose from Mr. Walwyn’s representation of Jonathan Gutierrez in a first degree murder trial in 2011. At the time, Mr. Walwyn had been licensed to practice law since 1996 and had been practicing criminal law for fifteen to sixteen years. Following
Mr. Gutierrez’s convictions for first degree murder and four counts of aggravated assault, he was sentenced to life in prison and four consecutive four-year sentences, for a total effective sentence of life plus sixteen years. Mr. Walwyn filed a motion for new trial,
which was subsequently denied on September 30, 2011. However, Mr. Walwyn did not file a notice of appeal in Mr. Gutierrez’s case until May 8, 2015, even though the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure require that a notice of appeal be filed within
thirty days.  The trial court appointed new counsel, Mr. Richard Strong, on June 3, 2015.  The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals subsequently accepted the late-filed notice of appeal in the interest of justice. See Tenn. R. App. P. 4(a).

The opinion reveals there were some factual wrinkles, including questions about how (in)frequent communication with the client was during the delay in noticing the appeal and that a TV interview the lawyer provided after trial meant he shouldn’t handle the appeal, but the primary focus of the disciplinary matter was on the 3 1/2 year delay in filing a notice of appeal.

Originally the hearing panel imposed a one-year suspension with all of the time served on probation rather than active suspension.  While that used to be an acceptable framework in Tennessee, the rules changed within the last few years and, now, if an attorney is to be suspended they must have an active period of suspension of no fewer than 30 days.  Because the hearing panel managed to overlook the rule changes, disciplinary counsel filed a motion to have the judgment altered to comply with the rules.  In response, the hearing panel altered the punishment not by imposing 30 days of active suspension but by reducing the punishment to a public censure along with certain conditions, including a practice monitor.  Thereafter, Mr. Walwyn (not surprisingly) did not appeal and neither did disciplinary counsel (surprisingly).

The Court exercised its Section 15.4 obligation to review, however, and indicated it would consider increasing the punishment.  After that point, the Board – which is allowed a second bite at the apple in such a situation – did begin to advocate to the Court that Mr. Walwyn should be suspended.  The Court agreed and imposed a 12-month suspension with 6 months of active suspension and 6 months on probation with a practice monitor as well as imposing some additional CLE requirements as the final sanction.

In the end, the driving force was the fact that the attorney had previously been disciplined several times for very similar conduct.

Prior to this disciplinary hearing, Mr. Walwyn had been disciplined on five separate occasions. In 2003, he received a private reprimand for failing to file a proposed order for four years. In 2004, he received a public censure for filing a proposed order late
in a child support and custody case, filing a notice of appeal in a criminal case five days late, filing an appellate brief sixty days late, and failing to file a timely petition to this Court, resulting in the petition being denied as untimely. In 2006, he received a public
censure for failing to timely respond to Disciplinary Counsel. As a condition of his guilty plea, Mr. Walwyn was required to undergo a law practice management evaluation by another attorney; audit the law practice management course at the Nashville School of
Law; and complete six additional hours of CLE hours on subjects related to client relations, the management of a law practice, the Rules of Professional Conduct, or disciplinary actions of the Board of Professional Responsibility. In 2006, Mr. Walwyn received a private informal admonition for neglecting to have a default judgment set aside and for failing to provide an affidavit to Disciplinary Counsel. Finally, in December 2015, Mr. Walwyn was suspended from the practice of law for six months, with thirty days to be served on active suspension and five months to be served on
probation. See Walwyn v. Bd. of Prof’l Resp., 481 S.W.3d 151, 161-62, 171 (Tenn.2015). Mr. Walwyn was still completing this probation at the time of his disciplinary hearing in this case.

Loyal readers of this blog (or at least those with eidetic memories) will recall that December 2015 suspension of Mr. Walwyn as being the case in which his lawyer articulated the “rambling and bordering on incoherent” attack on the structure of the disciplinary system in Tennessee.  (That same lawyer represented Mr. Walwyn in this matter as well.)

Finally, having received a bit of feedback from a fellow ethics nerd as a comment on my post about my perceived delay in a California disciplinary case last week, I also want to mention that this case also shows some of my perspective as to timing.  A review of this latest Walwyn matter will show that the time between the filing of the formal petition for discipline and this ultimate outcome from the Tennessee Supreme Court, even with all of the added procedural hurdles involved, was just under 2 years.

It’s been a while.

Today I’m going to splice together two short discussions about topics that I haven’t mentioned in a while.  (And, for any fans of the podcast U Talking U2 to Me that are out there, you do have to read the title of this post to sound like the first words of this remake right here.)

I have not written in a while of an instance of a lawyer getting into disciplinary trouble over saying too much in the process of withdrawing from a client representation.  But it’s happened again, so it’s worth reminding people not to do that.

A week ago, the Ohio Supreme Court issued its opinion affirming a recommended one-year suspension (but with all of the suspension stayed) for a divorce lawyer who paired an affidavit with his motion to withdraw from a client’s matter.  The Ohio court succinctly laid out the problematic contents of the affidavit:

In the affidavit, he recounted communications he had had with
[the client] about the scope of his representation and his compensation, accused her of refusing to pay his agreed-upon fees “without cause,” and disclosed legal advice that he had given her. He also described [the client]’s discharge of him as “retaliatory” and alleged that it had “occurred because of [his] advice to her
concerning her objectionable and potentially illegal actions” relating to her ex-husband, which he characterized as “a problem similar to the one [he] experienced in [his] previous representation of her.”

The Ohio opinion not only cogently walks through why the lawyer’s attempted arguments that such disclosures were permitted to be made under exceptions set out in Ohio’s Rule 1.6(b) weren’t triggered, but also stresses another point too often overlooked by lawyers even when they might have justification to make certain disclosures:

Finally, even if [the lawyer] had reasonably believed that Prof.Cond.R. 1.6(b) permitted him to disclose [the client]’s allegedly fraudulent conduct, the means by which he chose to do so were improper. The comments to Prof.Cond.R. 1.6 clarify that when a lawyer believes that disclosure of client information is
necessary, the lawyer should first seek to persuade the client to take suitable action to obviate the need for the attorney’s disclosure and that a disclosure adverse to the client’s interest should be no greater than necessary to accomplish the purpose. Prof.Cond.R. 1.6, Comment 16. And “[i]f the disclosure will be made in connection with a judicial proceeding, the disclosure should be made in a manner that limits access to the information to the tribunal or other persons having a need to know it and appropriate protective orders or other arrangements should be sought by the lawyer to the fullest extent possible.” Id. Here, [the lawyer] failed to notify or communicate with [the client] about the allegations in his affidavit prior to filing it, and he did not attempt to limit public access to the document.

Another topic I haven’t mentioned in a while is ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) and how it’s playing in various states.  You will recall on at least one occasion when I did write about it, I mentioned how one of the ABA’s talking points was that somewhere north of 20 states already had black-letter rules in one form or fashion making acts of discrimination unethical.

About three weeks ago, one of those states, Vermont, just decided to scrap its version of such a rule and replace it with a Rule 8.4(g) that is substantially equivalent to the ABA Model Rule.  You can read the order of the Vermont Supreme Court adopting such a rule which will become effective on September 18, 2017 here.

Hey Genis! Don’t do that.

I’ve represented a lot of lawyers over the years in disciplinary proceedings in Tennessee.  It is certainly fair to say that the process is slow when you want it to be fast and sometimes vice versa.

I noticed a story that the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct ran with that made me realize that the disciplinary process is pretty remarkably slow in a lot of places.  Mike Frisch has written at length, and repeatedly, about his views on how slow the DC disciplinary process is, but this is about the long and winding road that is a disciplinary case against a California DUI lawyer.

The article in the Lawyers’ Manual caught my attention immediately because I remember the lawyer in question — not only because of his punny name but because I highlighted certain aspects of what he was going through at a past Ethics Roadshow — the 2014 Ethics Roadshow.  Back then there had been a recommendation that he be suspended for 90 days for, among quite a few things, improperly questioning police officers in front of the jury about prior perjury allegations.  At that time, I also mentioned that he was going to have to deal with more allegations, the pending charge against him for his stealing materials from the prosecutor on the other side of a case – and being caught on video doing so — and lying to the judge when confronted.

From the ruling itself, here is a very pithy description of the underlying facts:

In sum, a prosecutor alleged that on July 9, 2014, Genis “fiddled” with his papers during a court recess and then rearranged and hid a document from him. The prosecutor promptly reported this to the trial judge. The judge then asked Genis in a series of four consecutive questions whether he touched, moved, or hid any of the prosecutor’s documents, and each time, Genis denied the allegations. On the fourth inquiry, Genis “categorically” denied any wrongdoing. The trial judge later reviewed a videotape of the
courtroom that revealed to him that Genis did what he denied doing.

Back in June the ruling – or at least the recommended outcome – was issued suggesting that he should be suspended 60 days for the misconduct.  Interestingly, of course, the emphasis is not on the act of stealing the material – which is mentioned as being “sophomoric” – but on the lying to the Court about having done it.  (Equally interestingly, the first ruling that was appealed by the disciplinary authority was that the lawyer only be admonished rather than disciplined.)  You can read the full recommended ruling here.

In reading this new ruling, I also learned that the 90-day proposed suspension that was my primary focus during the 2014 Ethics Roadshow was ultimately reduced to only a 30-day suspension based on, at the time, Genis’s lack of any prior disciplinary history.

Now sticking with focusing on the “delay” aspect, this particular lawyer likely cares not a whit about how long this process has been pending because, as ABA/BNA also reported, he is presently serving a two-year federal prison sentence over willfully failing to pay his taxes.

As as an outsider and someone who is normally an advocate for lawyers, I find it harder to understand how it would take three years to go from start-to-finish on this one — that feels like much too long to resolve (and I’m kind of inclined to think that the 60-day suspension is still a bit light really).

What’s in a name?

For example, the folks behind the popular Radiolab podcast also launched a spin-off podcast last year about the U.S. Supreme Court called “More Perfect.”  The reason for naming it that, of course, is that it almost assuredly a reference to the famous line in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

But today it seems a funny/ironic name because the U.S. Supreme Court managed to make a pretty bad mistake that is being reported on now and that likely added some real stress into the life of a lawyer whose only crime was having almost the same name as another lawyer.

You can read about the story itself, and find links to other outlets reporting on the story, at the ABA Journal online, but the short version is that the U.S. Supreme Court intending to suspend and potentially disbar a Christopher P. Sullivan of Vermont instead suspended and issued show cause why disbarment should not occur to a Christopher P. Sullivan of Boston, Massachusetts.  The Vermont Sullivan’s middle name was Paul and he had already been disbarred in Vermont after being involved in a fatal automobile accident and pleading guilty to a DUI.  The Massachusetts Sullivan’s middle name is Patrick.

If you do the math, you will find that the Sullivan who was wrongfully sullied ended up with 15 days passing between being suspended and the U.S. Supreme Court fixing its mistake and reinstating him.  Presuming he was aware of and dealing with fixing the Court’s mistake, I imagine that was a long 2 weeks for that gentleman.

But, in terms of a larger lesson to be learned, I think the lesson is that we all need to be more deliberate rather than more perfect in what we do.  I can’t help but think that a more deliberate review of information on the Court’s part would have avoided the “mistaken identity” error in the first place.

I like to think that most errors I make are ones that, upon reflection, I could have avoided had I been more deliberate in the first place.  I reckon you might say the same about yourself, so …

A tale as old as time.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one … it’s about a lawyer getting into trouble for overbilling … where there are examples of the lawyer even trying to claim to have billed more than 24 hours in a day.

You probably stopped me somewhere in there because you have heard it before.  The legal profession is filled with people who bill their time fastidiously and honestly.  The legal profession also has among its ranks some folks who don’t.  A West Virginia lawyer subjected to a two-year suspension from practice is among the “don’t” and, remarkably, almost got a much lesser suspension, in part, simply because he was not among the worst overbillers that a West Virginia agency – Public Defender Services – was dealing with.

That context is actually part of what makes this particular incident really worth writing about because it is another unfortunate example of discipline for overbilling coming up in a context where some people can often try to argue it away as being somehow more understandable — lawyers who are trying to make a living off of court-appointed work at unfairly low hourly rates.  The problem, of course, is that not only is that still not a particularly good excuse for deceptive billing practices but it also is counter-productive to how much more difficult it makes it for people who want to advocate for better compensation arrangements for such lawyers to gain traction.

I tend to think the frequency with which lawyers get caught for over-billing in connection with court-appointed work isn’t necessarily a matter of those lawyers being more prone to doing so as much as it is that they are more prone to getting caught because there is effectively one “client” able to see all of their time records and, literally, do the math that the clients of lawyers in private practice serving a variety of clients aren’t as readily positioned to do.

Overbilling was not the only ethical flaw of the West Virginia lawyer made the subject of this 40-page opinion of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals — interestingly enough his other problems involved missing deadlines and neglecting client matters and even includes an interesting side excursion into his suffering from low testosterone which manages to make the inflated billable numbers from prior years seem even more . . . nope, I’m not going to go for blue humor.  At least not today.

For those who don’t want to read a 40-page opinion about this kind of conduct, just a few of the highlights in terms of both the egregious nature of the billing practice and the really pretty remarkable testimony about how he stacked up compared to other lawyers in terms of Cooke-ing the books (We know while I may shrink at going blue I always rise to the opportunity for word play.)

First, here are the lawyer’s overbilling highlights uncovered by the Executive Director of West Virginia’s Public Defender Services:

  • “found to have exceeded fifteen billable hours a day on thirty-one dates from mid-January, 2014 to mid-September, 2014.” (NB: the lawyer’s claimed low testosterone problems were stated to be during and around August 2014 and the West Virginia court most certainly paid attention to that time line to point out that it was interesting that he claimed to be sleeping 10 to 16 hours a day when he couldn’t meet certain deadlines so that, at most, during the relevant time period he couldn’t bill more than 8 to 14 hours a day.)
  • “on four dates he submitted vouchers for twenty-three or greater billable hours and on two dates he submitted vouchers for greater than twenty-four hours” (including billing 27 hours on December 26)
  • “billed 2,568.5 hours, 2,279.3 hours, 2,671.2 hours, and 3,259.46 hours for the years 2011-2014, respectively. These billable hours equate to an average daily billable rate of 7 hours, 6.2 hours, 7.3 hours, and 8.9 hours, for 365 days.”
  • “rarely billed activity at less than .2 hours (12 minutes); the only .1 (6 minutes) entries are attempted phone calls and, occasionally, a hearing. Review of any and all documentation or correspondence, including email, is billed at a minimum .2 hours. Virtually every hearing entails billing .3 hours for “waiting in court,” which affords a higher hourly rate.”
  • “On April 17, based on Cooke’s accounting of his time utilizing his schedule and the court’s docket, in the two-hour window from 1:00 p.m. until a 3:00 meeting at the jail, he billed a cumulative 4.3 hours of “actual time”; the activity billed all consisted of travel, waiting in court, and attending hearings. Similarly, on August 18, Cooke’s incourt schedule shows hearings at 9:00, 9:30, and 10:30 with the docket resuming at 1:00. The matters which were scheduled in the three-hour window from 9:00 a.m. until noon, were billed at a cumulative 6.1 hours. Additionally, matters beginning at 1:15 p.m. on that date were billed at additional 7.2 hours and consisted solely of waiting in court, reviewing “court summaries” while waiting, and attending hearings.”
  • when first called on to explain certain aspects of his billing, he said he couldn’t do so because Public Defender Services hadn’t provided him the information he needed and ” his own time-keeping system would not permit him to retrieve that information.”

As to the chilling notion that this lawyer was not as bad as others, the Executive Director testified:

I still hold firm that we were billed for duplicate—we were billed several times for the same trip, that we were billed several times from the same period of waiting in court. In other words, if he had three hearings, let’s say he waited in 17 court for one hearing while he was actually doing another hearing. That’s not properly [sic] billing. That’s billing the same period of time. So I firmly believe that that had happened, but in looking through the vouchers and everything else, it appeared to be less frequent than I had seen with other counsel. 25 The only perceived fraud or deception that still exists in my mind is the fact that he may have been value billing, that is, billing a .2 for an activity that should’ve only been a .1 or a .4 when it should’ve been a .2. However, he wasn’t billing me 3.0 for these things and he was—and he was saying 12 minutes as opposed to 240 minutes. . . . I just did not see in his case the overt deception that existed with many other attorneys. . . . He was unable to exonerate himself completely in this situation because he had failed to comply with that time requirement, but that, overall, I believe that he was zealously representing his clients and he was providing the actual services that were described even though the time allotted to them may have been—may not have been the actual time.

and he also:

gave the example of one attorney who “rubber-stamped” the same time for each day and one attorney who billed 900 hours of travel in a three-month period.

As a way of further bolstering the problem this creates for those working hard to try to get better, fairer hourly rate reimbursements in place, the Executive Director of the West Virginia program also:

explained that PDS is paying $25 million a year to court-appointed counsel that are, in his opinion, undercompensated at $45/hour for “out of court” time and $65/hour for “in court” time.14 He indicated that when requesting an hourly increase at the Legislature he was typically confronted with the fact that many attorneys were making greater than $100,000.00 a year in court-appointed work and that the legislators took a dim view of an hourly rate increase when, in their opinion, the court-appointed attorneys had given themselves a “raise” by overbilling.

Well, anyway, get back to work I guess.

Whistling about where you work.

We appear to be living now in an era in which whistle blowers are going to be in the news (and perhaps be the news) more than ever.

Many who know me, know that I hold a pretty controversial opinion — Arrested Development is potentially the greatest television show in history.  For many years when I needed a fictional lawyer for my hypos at seminars, Barry Zuckerkorn, Bob Loblaw, and Wayne Jarvis were my go-to choices.  I could drop this blog and write a blog just about the genius of that show but (perhaps) even fewer people would read that, much like it never got its fair share of viewers.  One example of the simple brilliance of its writing though was its treatment of the issue of whistle blowers from the 20th episode of the first season, “Whistler’s Mother”:

Mr. Jordan: Listen, you’ve got the money now and you know my price. You don’t need a whistle blower around here.

Michael: Interesting choice of words, Mr. Jordan. He’s right, we don’t need a whistle blower. We need a building full of whistle blowers. Okay? Whistles. I want this place to be honest. That’s exactly why I had these made up for us. When you see something wrong…

[Whistle blows]

Michael: There you go. I want you to report it. I want you to…

[Whistle blows]

Michael: Exactly. Just like that. I want us to police ourselves vigilantly… Let’s wait till something’s actually happens, though.

[Whistles blowing]

Michael: All right… Good fun… Enough!

[twenty minutes later…]

Michael: 45, 46, 47…

Michael: Okay, there’s still three whistles left out there. Who’s got the whistles?

[Whistle blows]

Board Member #1: He kept one.

Michael: There’s a good example of whistle blowing, okay, but you’ve kept yours, so it’s hurting your case.

Board Member #1: I was in the bathroom when you asked for it back.

[Whistle blows]

Board Member #2: No, he wasn’t.

When lawyers (or those that work closely with lawyers) claim to be whistle blowers, the stakes tend to be even higher and the ethical issues for those lawyers and even for the lawyers that represent those lawyers are almost always complicated.  Even when answers seem straightforward, the tensions that exist between the public interest in preventing wrongdoing and the private interest in protecting confidentiality can lead to second-guessing as to where the right lines should be drawn.  When the traditional right of a client to fire their attorney for any reason or even no reason at all is wound into the mix, sometimes that readily clarifies how the tension is resolved  but not always.  It is a pretty good explanation for why there aren’t really many instances of outside counsel to companies or government entities serving as whistle blowers.  When the lawyer seeking to blow the whistle though is an in-house counsel, that absolute right to fire your attorney can be made to yield to public policy since the client is also the lawyer’s employer.

In the last couple of weeks, there have been three stories of interest making the rounds involving three high-profile cases – two of them in California and one in D.C. — where the classic tensions are playing out in differing ways.  The D.C. case is the longest running of the three and was actually pretty much believed to be over back in 2008 when the a former in-house counsel for GE’s Sarbanes-Oxley suit — which she supported using her former client’s confidential information — was dismissed as untimely filed.  The matter got renewed attention with a recent development of a disciplinary suspension recommendation against her.  One of the California matters is part of a roiling and unseemly dispute between the State Bar of California and the Chief Disciplinary Counsel that it fired within the last year.  The other California matter is currently in the middle of trial proceedings and involves the former General Counsel of Bio-Rad, Sanford Wadler, who filed suit back in 2015 alleging he was fired because he blew the whistle on his former employer’s violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The weird mess involving the California State Bar has been back in the news twice in succession.  First, there was a story that the former assistant to the former Executive Director, Joe Dunn, would not be permitted to use information she took with her on her laptop to pursue her claim that she too was fired in retaliation because of her knowledge of the same kinds of violations for which her boss has said he was terminated.  Then, even more recently, word came down that Dunn’s suit, which had previously been forced into arbitration, has been dismissed by the arbitrator.  The  former Bio-Rad General Counsel recently received a favorable ruling about his ability to use confidential client information to seek to prove his case despite what would otherwise be his ethical obligations of confidentiality.

At a primary level, the developments in the three cases underscore a few points.  One, none of them involve outside counsel.  Two, lawyers who claim to be terminated for whistleblowing are almost always going to be met with counter-allegations that that they just simply were bad at their job and were terminated for poor performance.  Three, the obligations lawyers owe to clients in terms of confidentiality not only complicate matters and raise the stakes but almost always create satellite disputes within the litigation about use of information that will make or break the case.

Rather than try to re-tread all of the details of the three matters (because you might care about all, none, or just some of them), I’m pretty sure through the links I have provided and a little Googling, you can immerse yourself as much as you want in available information about any of the three.

One piece of one of the matters though really piqued my interest and deserves a brief separate discussion — the detail of why the former GE attorney, Adriana Koeck, appears headed for a 30-day suspension and a lawyer representing her is also getting punished — going beyond the use of the confidential client information to support allegations in the complaint but providing some of that same information to the press.   One of the reasons the matter piqued my interest originally was that, here in TN, we have a version of RPC 3.6 on trial publicity that allows communications about the media regarding the contents of a complaint, for example.  D.C. has a much different version of that rule.

But, further digging is what further made me curious because D.C. really is a weird place, I guess.  Admittedly, at this point I have only read the Law360 article, but it seems bananas that a D.C. lawyer who assisted, Koeck, in providing documents referenced in her complaint to news reporters is being disciplined for doing so.  Koeck’s 30-day suspension seems to be explainable by the fact that she didn’t participate in the proceedings having already agreed to be suspended from practice by consent.  But punishing a lawyer for that lawyer seems Draconian.  Yet, and somehow I missed reading about this back in 2015, but even the prominent law professor who gave Koeck advice that the crime-fraud exception would apply to the documents also received disciplinary punishment for doing so — that seems even more Draconian.

In fairness, I’ll have to dig a bit further to educate myself on those proceedings to see if I can better explain all of that.

In the meantime, it does appear like Season 5 of Arrested Development is going to happen.  So yay for that.

 

Glitch in the TN disciplinary procedural rules?

I got a call a week or two ago from another Tennessee lawyer trying to noodle through a situation.  The caller was curious to see if I could offer any insight about why a situation that seemed a bit broken was not.

I couldn’t.  Instead, I was able to sort of confirm for the lawyer that the situation does seem to be a bit broken.  The situation involves an aspect not of the ethics rules in Tennessee but the rules that govern disciplinary proceedings and the enforcement of their outcomes – which are housed in Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 9.

More particularly, the situation involves the application of a provision that governs certain things a lawyer must do by way of notice when being disbarred, suspended (even temporarily), or having their license transferred to disability inactive status.  The problem arises from treating suspensions and disbarment the same way.  When the suspension is a lengthy one, these provisions make sense, but when you are talking about a short suspension — 30 or 60 days for example — the analogy breaks down.

The specific section, Section 28, contains 11 sub-parts of provisions addressing requirements that are triggered by any order of disciplinary suspension just as with an order of disbarment.  The first four sub-parts, Section 28.1 through 28.4, present no real issues as they address the effective date of an order, that a notice has to be sent by the lawyer to clients, and opposing counsel/adverse parties within 10 days of the order, and requirements to maintain records about such things having being timely done.

The problem with having this rule apply to”[o]rders imposing disbarment, suspension, transfers to disability inactive status, or temporary suspension” alike kicks in with the next three sub-parts of the rule:

28.5.  Return of Client Property.  The respondent attorney shall deliver to all clients any papers or other property to which they are entitled and shall notify them and any counsel representing them of a suitable time and place where the papers and other property may be obtained, calling attention to any urgency for obtaining the papers or other property.

28.6.  Refund of Fees.  By no later than fifteen days after the effective date of the order, the respondent attorney shall refund any part of any fees, expenses, or costs paid in advance that has not been earned or expended, unless the order directs otherwise.

28.7.  Withdrawal from Representation.  The respondent attorney shall within twenty days after the effective date of the order file in the court, agency or tribunal in which the proceeding is pending a motion for leave to withdraw or a motion or agreed order to substitute and shall serve a copy of the motion or agreed order on opposing counsel or the adverse party, if unrepresented, in the proceeding.

Now, again if we are talking about a lengthy suspension, these provisions make sense.  And, Section 28.6 at least acknowledges that the order imposing a suspension could even direct otherwise as to refunding unearned fees, but similar language, however, surely needs to be added to Sections 28.5 and 28.7 because the application of these requirements might not only be contrary to a client’s interest but will have the impact of essentially practically extending the length of an otherwise short-term suspension.

Looking at Section 28.7 specifically, if you do not even have to file such a motion until twenty days from the order, by the time you have it heard and ruled on by a court, a lawyer’s 30-day suspension will either be over, or practically will be over.

Now, perhaps the justification for these provisions is that even for 30 days a client shouldn’t be left defenseless in a matter and represented by a lawyer who cannot do anything, but there seems to be a very good reason to believe that all three of these provisions ought to reference the potential for an order to direct to the contrary and not just Section 28.6.  It may be more trouble for client and lawyer alike for these things to have to happen for just a short suspension rather than permitting the order to say to the contrary so that the client can simply choose to wait out the suspension.  Likewise, in situations in which more than one lawyer (whether at the same firm or different firms) is representing the same client in the same matter, during the suspension the client won’t be left defenseless at all.

This situation particularly seems in need of fixing when other related provisions in Rule 9 are examined.

Section 28.10 indicates that “[p]roof of compliance with Section 28 shall be a condition precedent to any petition for reinstatement.”  Section 12.2(a)(1) makes clear that, unlike in the past when lawyers could automatically resume practice after certain short-length suspensions, “no attorney suspended” under any part of Rule 9 :shall resume practice until reinstated by order of the Court.”

And, Section 12.2(a)(3) plainly indicates that all suspensions “regardless of duration” are subject to Section 28 “unless otherwise expressly provided in” Rule 9.