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Justices differ on reasonableness of GAL fees

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If two parties in a domestic relations dispute sign a written contract to retain the services of a guardian ad litem, then the trial court must enforce the terms of the agreement unless it is contrary to public policy, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Friday.

In In re the paternity of N.L.P; R.P., v. L.S. n/k/a L.B., No. 45S03-0904-JV-133, guardian ad litem Jill S. Swope challenged the trial court’s reduction of her GAL fees from $34,800 to $20,000 for work she did from 2004 to 2008 for parents R.P. and L.S. The parents executed a joint written agreement to hire Swope as the GAL to help resolve existing visitation and parenting issues. The written agreement outlined the hourly fee of $150 and that the parents would pay for various expenses such as long-distance phone calls.

The trial court found Swope’s original fees to be unreasonable because she charged for phone calls and other things that should have been included in the hourly rate; the parents may not have the ability to pay those fees; and some of her services duplicated services done by the court-appointed custody evaluator.

The Indiana Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s decision and remanded for the trial court to support its determination that the $20,000 fee was reasonable. The COA sua sponte ruled the fees were unreasonable because Swope acted as a GAL and attorney, and that she should have billed her work separately.

In this issue of first impression, the majority of justices found the focus on the reasonableness of the GAL fees to be misplaced. The clients didn’t contest Swope’s bill and entered into a contract to set the hourly rate and fees she could charge, wrote Justice Robert Rucker.

There is a strong presumption in the enforceability of private contracts unless the contracts somehow violate public policy grounds, but that isn’t the case here, the justice continued.

“We see no basis for the trial court to modify the terms of the parties’ agreements,” he wrote.

The trial court erred by not enforcing the term of the parties’ written agreements. The justices also noted they disagreed with the COA that someone acting as a GAL and attorney should bill separately for services and by not doing so, that renders the fees unreasonable.

Justice Theodore Boehm agreed with his colleagues that the parties’ hourly rate and reimbursement for incidental expenses are presumptively enforceable, but he agreed with the COA that the trial court may review the reasonableness of services rendered.

“Even if the hourly rate agreed is reasonable, a fee agreement is not a blank check for the attorney to fill in the amount of services rendered irrespective of the need for services,” wrote Justice Boehm.

The trial court is in the best position to determine if the services rendered were reasonable or useful, he continued, and whether duplication of services provided were reasonable.
 

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  1. I expressed my thought in the title, long as it was. I am shocked that there is ever immunity from accountability for ANY Government agency. That appears to violate every principle in the US Constitution, which exists to limit Government power and to ensure Government accountability. I don't know how many cases of legitimate child abuse exist, but in the few cases in which I knew the people involved, in every example an anonymous caller used DCS as their personal weapon to strike at innocent people over trivial disagreements that had no connection with any facts. Given that the system is vulnerable to abuse, and given the extreme harm any action by DCS causes to families, I would assume any degree of failure to comply with the smallest infraction of personal rights would result in mandatory review. Even one day of parent-child separation in the absence of reasonable cause for a felony arrest should result in severe penalties to those involved in the action. It appears to me, that like all bureaucracies, DCS is prone to interpret every case as legitimate. This is not an accusation against DCS. It is a statement about the nature of bureaucracies, and the need for ADDED scrutiny of all bureaucratic actions. Frankly, I question the constitutionality of bureaucracies in general, because their power is delegated, and therefore unaccountable. No Government action can be unaccountable if we want to avoid its eventual degeneration into irrelevance and lawlessness, and the law of the jungle. Our Constitution is the source of all Government power, and it is the contract that legitimizes all Government power. To the extent that its various protections against intrusion are set aside, so is the power afforded by that contract. Eventually overstepping the limits of power eliminates that power, as a law of nature. Even total tyranny eventually crumbles to nothing.

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