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COA: Attorney entitled to lien on former client's file

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An attorney doesn’t have to produce documentation of the amount of money a former client owes in order to have a valid retaining lien, ruled the Indiana Court of Appeals.

Gary attorney Douglas Grimes appealed the denial of his verified motion to quash subpoena duces tecum in a medical malpractice action filed by Victoria Crockrom. Crockrom originally hired Grimes as her attorney in the action and he collected certain medical records and put them in her file. He later withdrew as her counsel and Crockrom’s new attorney, Bessie Davis, requested the medical records from Grimes as she was having difficulty obtaining the same documents.

Grimes said he would give her the documents if Crockrom paid the attorney fees she owed him. He said he claimed a retaining lien in the file and documents since Crockrom hadn’t paid.

The trial court denied Grimes motion to quash the subpoena and ordered him to produce the record. At that point, Crockrom still hadn’t paid the attorney fees owed to Grimes.

In Douglas M. Grimes v. Victoria Crockrom, et al., No. 45A03-1008-CT-491, the Court of Appeals, citing Bennett v. NSR Inc., 553 N.E.2d 881, 882 (Ind. Ct. App. 1990), found the trial court erred when it ordered him to produce the medical records without also providing security for the payment of attorney fees. Crockrom disputed the amount of fees Grimes claimed she owed and argued that the lack of any documentation or itemization showing the amount she owed rendered Grimes’ retaining lien invalid.

The judges rejected her argument, saying that a common law retaining lien on records in possession of an attorney arises on rendition of services by the attorney. There’s no legal authority tying the validity of a retaining lien to the provision of an itemized bill to the client, wrote Judge Edward Najam.

“Indeed, a retaining lien is complete and effective without notice to anyone,” he wrote. “And the reasonableness of a fee, as reflected by an attorney’s lien, is irrelevant to the determination of whether the lien has been established.”

The judges also held that Crockrom’s contract with Grimes doesn’t require him to release the medical records even though she hasn’t paid. There’s no provision in the contract that excludes a retaining lien or anything else in it that would preclude one.

The appellate court remanded with instructions to determine the amount of attorney fees owed to Grimes and then order Crockrom to provide security for the payment of the attorney fees in the amount of the fees owed.

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