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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. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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