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Money and Ethics: "Non-refundable" Fees

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By Kevin P. Mcgoff and James J. Bell
 

Bell James Bell
McGoff Kevin McGoff

It’s the beginning of a case and your client has agreed in writing to a $10,000 non-refundable retainer. You get to work. The case is messy. There are motions to prepare, witnesses to interview and your client is constantly calling for “updates.”

But your client doesn’t really want updates. Instead, he wants to feel good. He needs reassurance. This case is important to him and he is understandably worried about what lies ahead. You take time from the case to do a little hand-holding. This is part of the job. You became a lawyer to help people through their biggest problems, and you’re getting paid to hear your client.

Days go by. You’ve done everything your client has asked and have told him about each, separate step by phone and via e-mail. The client calls again and you get comfortable for next conversation.

But this call is different. Your client says he appreciates your hard work, but he “wants to go in another direction.” As it turns out, his step-brother’s barber knows a lawyer who is second cousin to the judge’s nephew. He wants someone with more of an “inside track.” In other words, you’re being dumped. He tells you “it’s not you, it’s me”. He hopes you can “still be friends.” “That’s fine,” you say to yourself. Now, you can have your life back.

Oh. And there is one more thing: He wants his money back.

You blow a fuse. No way. While you may or may not have completed $10,000 worth of work, what does this guy think “non-refundable” means? You tell your ex-client to read the fee agreement and take a hike. There will be no refund. It is a “non-refundable fee.”

Have you violated the Rules of Professional Conduct? Yes. In fact, you may have violated the Rules twice. The first time was at the outset of the case, when your fee agreement called for a “non-refundable” fee. The second time was when you refused to refund any part of the money because you said the fee was non-refundable. This and other lessons are contained in the recent decision in Matter of O’Farrell, No. 29S00-0902-DI-76, 2011 Ind. LEXIS 72 (Ind. Feb. 11, 2011).

In O’Farrell, the Supreme Court concluded that “the assertion in a fee agreement that an advance fee is nonrefundable violates [Rule 1.5(a)’s] requirement that a lawyer’s fee be reasonable.” Id. at *10. The Court also noted that “an attorney cannot treat a fee as ‘earned’ simply by labeling the fee ‘earned on receipt.’” Id. at *12 (citations omitted).

How then do you protect yourself from the above situation? The Court suggests that “[a]s an alternative, a fee agreement could designate a reasonable part of the initial payment that would be deemed earned by the attorney for opening the case and beginning the representation.” Id. at *18. “Even without such contract provisions, ‘[i]t is well settled that, where the complete performance of an attorney’s services has been rendered impossible, or otherwise prevented, by the client, the attorney may, as a rule, recover quantum meruit for the services rendered.” Id. at *19 (citations omitted). In other words, you can retain the earned portion of the fee.

In fact, in O’Farrell, our Supreme Court was “not prepared to hold that some amount of a flat fee must be returned in all cases in which the attorney-client relationship ends before the work contracted for is completed.” Id. at *20. The Court also acknowledged circumstances in which the “entire flat fee could be deemed earned if the client deals unfairly with the attorney.” Id. Finally, the Court acknowledged circumstances where a client could pay a “general retainer” which is “payment for an attorney’s availability, which is earned in full when paid before any work is done.” Id. at *6-7. However, a “general retainer” cannot be charged for “routine legal services.” Id. at *11 (Citations omitted). It can only be justified in circumstances where, for example, the attorney is “preclu[ded from] other representations.” Id. (citations omitted).

So here is what we can take away from O’Farrell: 1) Avoid fee disputes, if possible; 2) Revisit and revise your engagement letter or fee contract; 3) Remove the term “non-refundable” from your fee agreement; and 4) Never treat a fee as non-refundable. If you charge a “general retainer,” make certain that the circumstances justify this arrangement and realize there is a risk that others may not agree that a general retainer is justified. Finally, if you are terminated from a case, work with the former client to find a reasonable amount, based on the amount of work performed, to retain as your fee.•

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  1. Good luck, but as I have documented in three Hail Mary's to the SCOTUS, two applications (2007 & 2013),a civil rights suit and my own kicked-to-the-curb prayer for mandamus. all supported in detailed affidavits with full legal briefing (never considered), the ISC knows that the BLE operates "above the law" (i.e. unconstitutionally) and does not give a damn. In fact, that is how it was designed to control the lawyers. IU Law Prof. Patrick Baude blew the whistle while he was Ind Bar Examiner President back in 1993, even he was shut down. It is a masonic system that blackballs those whom the elite disdain. Here is the basic thrust:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackballing When I asked why I was initially denied, the court's foremost jester wrote back that the ten examiners all voted, and I did not gain the needed votes for approval (whatever that is, probably ten) and thus I was not in .. nothing written, no explanation, just go away or appeal ... and if you appeal and disagree with their system .. proof positive you lack character and fitness. It is both arbitrary and capricious by its very design. The Hoosier legal elites are monarchical minded, and rejected me for life for ostensibly failing to sufficiently respect man's law (due to my stated regard for God's law -- which they questioned me on, after remanding me for a psych eval for holding such Higher Law beliefs) while breaking their own rules, breaking federal statutory law, and violating federal and state constitutions and ancient due process standards .. all well documented as they "processed me" over many years.... yes years ... they have few standards that they will not bulldoze to get to the end desired. And the ISC knows this, and they keep it in play. So sad, And the fed courts refuse to do anything, and so the blackballing show goes on ... it is the Indy way. My final experience here: https://www.scribd.com/document/299040062/Brown-ind-Bar-memo-Pet-cert I will open my files to anyone interested in seeing justice dawn over Indy. My cases are an open book, just ask.

  2. Looks like 2017 will be another notable year for these cases. I have a Grandson involved in a CHINS case that should never have been. He and the whole family are being held hostage by CPS and the 'current mood' of the CPS caseworker. If the parents disagree with a decision, they are penalized. I, along with other were posting on Jasper County Online News, but all were quickly warned to remove posts. I totally understand that some children need these services, but in this case, it was mistakes, covered by coorcement of father to sign papers, lies and cover-ups. The most astonishing thing was within 2 weeks of this child being placed with CPS, a private adoption agency was asking questions regarding child's family in the area. I believe a photo that was taken by CPS manager at the very onset during the CHINS co-ocerment and the intent was to make money. I have even been warned not to post or speak to anyone regarding this case. Parents have completed all requirements, met foster parents, get visitation 2 days a week, and still the next court date is all the way out till May 1, which gives them(CPS) plenty of to time make further demands (which I expect) No trust of these 'seasoned' case managers, as I have already learned too much about their dirty little tricks. If they discover that I have posted here, I expect they will not be happy and penalized parents again. Still a Hostage.

  3. They say it was a court error, however they fail to mention A.R. was on the run from the law and was hiding. Thus why she didn't receive anything from her public defender. Step mom is filing again for adoption of the two boys she has raised. A.R. is a criminal with a serious heroin addiction. She filed this appeal MORE than 30 days after the final decision was made from prison. Report all the facts not just some.

  4. Hysteria? Really Ben? Tell the young lady reported on in the link below that worrying about the sexualizing of our children is mere hysteria. Such thinking is common in the Royal Order of Jesters and other running sex vacays in Thailand or Brazil ... like Indy's Jared Fogle. Those tempted to call such concerns mere histronics need to think on this: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/a-12-year-old-girl-live-streamed-her-suicide-it-took-two-weeks-for-facebook-to-take-the-video-down/ar-AAlT8ka?li=AA4ZnC&ocid=spartanntp

  5. This is happening so much. Even in 2016.2017. I hope the father sue for civil rights violation. I hope he sue as more are doing and even without a lawyer as pro-se, he got a good one here. God bless him.

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