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Justices differ on reasonableness of GAL fees

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If two parties in a domestic relations dispute sign a written contract to retain the services of a guardian ad litem, then the trial court must enforce the terms of the agreement unless it is contrary to public policy, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Friday.

In In re the paternity of N.L.P; R.P., v. L.S. n/k/a L.B., No. 45S03-0904-JV-133, guardian ad litem Jill S. Swope challenged the trial court’s reduction of her GAL fees from $34,800 to $20,000 for work she did from 2004 to 2008 for parents R.P. and L.S. The parents executed a joint written agreement to hire Swope as the GAL to help resolve existing visitation and parenting issues. The written agreement outlined the hourly fee of $150 and that the parents would pay for various expenses such as long-distance phone calls.

The trial court found Swope’s original fees to be unreasonable because she charged for phone calls and other things that should have been included in the hourly rate; the parents may not have the ability to pay those fees; and some of her services duplicated services done by the court-appointed custody evaluator.

The Indiana Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s decision and remanded for the trial court to support its determination that the $20,000 fee was reasonable. The COA sua sponte ruled the fees were unreasonable because Swope acted as a GAL and attorney, and that she should have billed her work separately.

In this issue of first impression, the majority of justices found the focus on the reasonableness of the GAL fees to be misplaced. The clients didn’t contest Swope’s bill and entered into a contract to set the hourly rate and fees she could charge, wrote Justice Robert Rucker.

There is a strong presumption in the enforceability of private contracts unless the contracts somehow violate public policy grounds, but that isn’t the case here, the justice continued.

“We see no basis for the trial court to modify the terms of the parties’ agreements,” he wrote.

The trial court erred by not enforcing the term of the parties’ written agreements. The justices also noted they disagreed with the COA that someone acting as a GAL and attorney should bill separately for services and by not doing so, that renders the fees unreasonable.

Justice Theodore Boehm agreed with his colleagues that the parties’ hourly rate and reimbursement for incidental expenses are presumptively enforceable, but he agreed with the COA that the trial court may review the reasonableness of services rendered.

“Even if the hourly rate agreed is reasonable, a fee agreement is not a blank check for the attorney to fill in the amount of services rendered irrespective of the need for services,” wrote Justice Boehm.

The trial court is in the best position to determine if the services rendered were reasonable or useful, he continued, and whether duplication of services provided were reasonable.
 

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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