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Attorney reprimanded for charging unreasonable fees

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The Indiana Supreme Court has publicly reprimanded a Hamilton County attorney for violating Indiana Professional Conduct Rule 1.5(a) by making agreements for and charging unreasonable fees.

The justices released a per curiam opinion Feb. 11, In the Matter of Heather McClure O'Farrell, No. 29S00-0902-DI-76, in which the majority chose the discipline based on Heather McClure O'Farrell’s lack of prior disciplinary history and her cooperation with the Disciplinary Commission. Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justice Robert Rucker joined in a dissent to the sanction. Because O'Farrell’s lawyer indicated that she is unrepentant, the dissenting justices believe a period of suspension without automatic reinstatement should have been instituted to protect clients.

McClure & O’Farrell, where O'Farrell practices, uses an “Hourly Fee Contract” or a “Flat Fee Contract” most of the time when it represents a party in a family law matter. Both contracts contain a provision for a nonrefundable “engagement fee.” The Disciplinary Commission alleged that O'Farrell improperly charged two clients these nonrefundable engagement fees and didn’t refund unearned fees after the representations ended.

The justices examined the various types of fee arrangements and the nonrefundability of fees. O'Farrell argued that the nonrefundable fees she charged the two clients were justified because by representing these clients, the law firm couldn’t represent opposing parties and it required time that the firm could have otherwise devoted to other representations. But this would be true anytime an attorney is engaged by a client, the opinion said.

They determined that the fees at issue are flat fees for work to be performed. O'Farrell failed to tell her clients that the flat fee could be refundable upon the failure to perform the agreed legal services; instead, she told her clients the fee was nonrefundable even if the client-attorney relationship ended before the completion of the attorney’s representation.

“The presence of this contract provision, even if unenforceable, could chill the right of a client to terminate Respondent's services, believing the Law Firm would be entitled to keep the entire flat fee regardless of how much or how little work was done and the client would have to pay another attorney to finish the task. We conclude that Respondent violated Rule 1.5(a) by including an improper nonrefundability provision in her flat fee agreements,” said the opinion.

They also found she violated the rule by charging and collecting flat fees that were nonrefundable, regardless of the circumstances.

“The Court is mindful of the legitimate concern of attorneys that they will go through the initial steps of opening a case and beginning work for a new client, only to have that client discharge them and demand a refund of the entire initial payment as unearned. The solution, however, is not allowing attorneys to charge flat or advance fees upfront that are wholly nonrefundable regardless of the amount of services rendered,” wrote the justices.

They decided based on the record they weren’t able to hold that some amount of the flat fee must be returned in all cases in which the attorney-client relationship ends before the work contracted for is completed. They also were unable to determine how much, if anything, O'Farrell should have refunded to the two clients, so they found the Disciplinary Commission didn’t meets its burden of proof that she violated Rule 1.16(d).

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  • Consistent
    If I recall, Tony Zirkle did not cooperate in the disciplinary process.
  • consistent or not?
    is this consistent with the punishment laid on Tony Zirkle or was he punished more severely? And why?

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  1. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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