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Close calls, complex cases highlight need for attorney surrogates

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It was a very close call.

The situation began when an attorney walked into the courtroom of Floyd Circuit Judge J. Terrence Cody with a petition for a surrogate attorney and a box of client files. The attorney’s friend had left his solo law practice to seek out-of-state treatment for an illness.
 

cody Cody

A peek inside the files showed some clients were in jail, others had already paid money for services and some had court appearances scheduled. Because these clients had immediate needs and their attorney was essentially unavailable, Cody took the files and started calling local attorneys to enlist their help in taking over the cases.

Recounting the incident, Cody pointed out what he considered the blessing: the absent attorney handled only criminal cases. If the lawyer had a practice that covered a broad spectrum of legal matters, the process of sorting through the files and finding attorneys would have taken much longer, and clients would have been at risk for not getting proper representation.

Consequently, even though Cody circumvented the surrogate attorney process because of the urgency of the situation, he is adamant that surrogate attorneys are vital. The process ensures that clients of a lawyer who is no longer able to practice will be informed and given options instead of left wondering what to do.

“We have spread the gospel about the need for surrogate attorneys,” Cody said.

Enacted in 2008, the attorney surrogate rule in the Indiana Rules for Admission to the Bar and the Discipline of Attorneys spells out the process for designating another member of the bar to take over when a lawyer dies, becomes disabled, is suspended, disbarred or disappears.

At the time Rule 23, Section 27 was created, Indiana was among only a handful of states to have such language. The need for a court to appoint a surrogate arises only a few times each year, but when it does, the rule provides clear guidance on what to do.

Still, as Cody noted, attorneys have to be told about the rule. Five years after the provision took effect, Terry Harrell, executive director of the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, fields a handful of frantic phone calls every year from lawyers not knowing what to do when a colleague cannot continue to practice.


Terry Harrell mug Harrell

Ideally, attorneys in solo practice or in small firms with associates who have no fiduciary authority have a surrogate attorney named. They have a written agreement and add the surrogate attorney’s number to their registration. Then, in the event something happens, the court will not have to find a surrogate.

It is another form of estate planning, but Harrell said attorneys do not know about the rule or about how to name a surrogate because they do not want to contemplate unpleasant events.

“I think for the same reason people don’t have a will, you don’t like to think about it,” Harrell said. “You don’t want to think about not being there to serve your clients.”

Before and after the rule

Following the death of a sole practitioner in South Bend, the complexity of the cases he left behind caused the court to appoint three surrogates. The attorney handled primarily immigration cases, including deportation proceedings and applications for visas and green cards.

Retired Magistrate Judge David Ready was named one of the three under an amendment to the Indiana Administrative Rules that allows senior judges to serve as surrogates. The other two were practicing attorneys who are fluent in Spanish.


ready Ready

With no funds available to keep the deceased attorney’s office open, the trio loaded the files into about 18 Bankers Boxes and took them to the law library in the St. Joseph County Courthouse where the materials would be secure.

Next, the surrogates drafted a letter (one side in English and the other in Spanish) to notify the clients their attorney had died. The clients were also told the times they could come to the courthouse and claim their file.

Ready believes the process worked fairly well, although a few letters were returned and some records still have not been picked up.

Without the surrogates, he does not know what would have happened – maybe the attorney’s wife would have maintained the files in her home or turned them over to the county bar association.

Before the surrogate attorney rule, no formal process existed for protecting clients of an attorney who was no longer able to practice. Ted Waggoner, chair of the Indiana State Bar Association’s Attorney Surrogate Rule Special Committee, said traditionally the spouse might ask a good friend for help and judges would have to do what they thought was best.

The rule not only offers guidance but also includes the key provision of immunity. Absent intentional wrongdoing, the attorney will be protected from civil suits for all actions and omissions taken while a surrogate.

Ready has seen first hand the importance of surrogates, and he often asks attorneys if they have named a surrogate and directs them to read the rule.

“If the (Indiana) Supreme Court has not got around to making the appointment of surrogates mandatory, they probably ought to,” Ready said.

Not an easy job

The range of duties an attorney may undertake as a surrogate include examining the files and records of the law practice; filing notices, motions and pleadings on behalf of the client where jurisdictional time limits are involved; taking possession of all trust accounts and taking appropriate actions; and making referrals for replacement counsel or accepting representation of the client.

Waggoner conceded serving as a surrogate is not easy.

The surrogate may find the law practice in disarray and may have to deal with clients who are likely under strain because they have problems that require the help of a lawyer. On top of this, the surrogate will have obligations to his or her own practice.

Still, Waggoner, managing partner at Peterson Waggoner & Perkins LLP in Rochester, readily gives three reasons for becoming a surrogate attorney: it is the right thing to do; if money is available, the surrogate may get paid for his or her service; and the surrogate may have the opportunity to get new clients.


ted waggoner Waggoner

JLAP, along with the state bar association, will put the surrogate rule in the spotlight at a special CLE. The program, “Ethical Application of the Attorney Surrogate Rule,” will highlight the importance of designating a surrogate, the duties of the surrogate and how the current process for surrogate attorneys can be improved.

The CLE will be from 1 to 4:30 p.m. May 10 on the eighth floor of the Kite Building, 30 S. Meridian St., Indianapolis.

For more information call the ISBA at 317-639-5465.•

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  1. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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