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Criminal defense attorney receives public reprimand for fee agreement changes

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The Indiana Supreme Court has publicly reprimanded an Indianapolis criminal defense attorney, finding that he modified an agreement and charged an unreasonable fee without first obtaining written consent and giving his client a chance to get another lawyer’s opinion.

In an order issued this week, the court handed down a sanction in the disciplinary action In the Matter of Robert W. Hammerle,  No. 49S00-0811-DI-609. The Marion County attorney received the public reprimand for violating two professional conduct rules when he was representing a client in 2005.

In May 2005, Hammerle began representing Edward Blinn Jr. on federal money laundering charges. The two entered an agreement for a “retainer/flat fee” of $35,000, plus an hourly fee of $250 if the trial lasted more than five days. Prior to that, Blinn had told Hammerle that he had no interest in a plea agreement and they planned for a multi-week jury trial.

After nearly seven months of work on the case, Hammerle wanted to revise the fee agreement because the case was more demanding than expected. The two eventually reached a modified agreement requiring Blinn to pay an additional flat fee of $20,000, and, in exchange, Hammerle would drop billing by the hour for all work done after five days of trial.

“Respondent believed the ultimate fee under this modification would be more beneficial to the client given everyone’s anticipation of a lengthy trial, but Respondent now recognizes he should have considered the possibility that the fee modification would be more beneficial to Respondent if the case could be resolved before trial,” the Supreme Court order states. “Respondent did not advise the client to consult with another attorney about… the advisability of amending the fee agreement, and he did not obtain the client's written consent to modify the original agreement.”

Not long after the fee agreement was modified, the government offered a plea agreement and the client accepted it on Hammerle’s advice, the order states.

Those circumstances led to two conduct rule violations: Rule 1.5(a) for charging an unreasonable fee, and Rule 1.8(a) for entering into a fee agreement modification with a client without giving that client a reasonable opportunity to see independent counsel and obtaining the client’s written consent to the transaction.

The court wrote, “Respondent's violation of Rule 1.5(a) is based solely on Respondent's charging of a fee in excess of the original fee agreement. The Commission does not contend that the total fee the client paid to Respondent would have been unreasonable if Respondent had complied with Rule 1.8(a) in modifying the fee agreement.”

Finding no aggravating factors, the court looked to four mitigating factors: Hammerle has no disciplinary history in his 37 years of practice, he’s devoted substantial time to the representation of and service of indigent criminal defendants, he is remorseful and accepts full responsibility for his actions, and he has repaid $20,000 to the client.

The public reprimand disposes of this disciplinary action, and the client’s case against Hammerle ended following the Indiana Court of Appeals’ affirmation in the spring of the trial judge’s decision granting summary judgment for Hammerle. A not-for-publication ruling in April spells out the circumstances after the client sued Hammerle for legal malpractice and unjust enrichment. Judge Melissa May dissented in that appeal because she felt a material issue of fact existed about whether the lawyer was unjustly enriched by accepting that $20,000 despite there not being any trial. That appeal was Edwin Blinn, Jr. v. Robert Hammerle and Hammerle & Cleary (NFP), No. 49A02-1006-CT-634.

 

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  1. KUDOS to the Indiana Supreme Court for realizing that some bureacracies need to go to the stake. Recall what RWR said: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!" NOW ... what next to this rare and inspiring chopping block? Well, the Commission on Gender and Race (but not religion!?!) is way overdue. And some other Board's could be cut with a positive for State and the reputation of the Indiana judiciary.

  2. During a visit where an informant with police wears audio and video, does the video necessary have to show hand to hand transaction of money and narcotics?

  3. I will agree with that as soon as law schools stop lying to prospective students about salaries and employment opportunities in the legal profession. There is no defense to the fraudulent numbers first year salaries they post to mislead people into going to law school.

  4. The sad thing is that no fish were thrown overboard The "greenhorn" who had never fished before those 5 days was interrogated for over 4 hours by 5 officers until his statement was illicited, "I don't want to go to prison....." The truth is that these fish were measured frozen off shore and thawed on shore. The FWC (state) officer did not know fish shrink, so the only reason that these fish could be bigger was a swap. There is no difference between a 19 1/2 fish or 19 3/4 fish, short fish is short fish, the ticket was written. In addition the FWC officer testified at trial, he does not measure fish in accordance with federal law. There was a document prepared by the FWC expert that said yes, fish shrink and if these had been measured correctly they averaged over 20 inches (offshore frozen). This was a smoke and mirror prosecution.

  5. I love this, Dave! Many congrats to you! We've come a long way from studying for the bar together! :)

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