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Justices suspend attorney for collecting 'exploitive fee'

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The Indiana Supreme Court has suspended an Indianapolis attorney after finding he engaged in attorney misconduct by collecting a “clearly unreasonable and exploitive fee” from a vulnerable client.

Everett E. Powell II had only been admitted to the bar for a few months in 2004 when T.G. and her boyfriend J.S. consulted him about getting access to funds in a trust. T.G. had been represented by Mark E. Ross in a settlement of a personal injury action. The trust was created to hold the $42,500 from the settlement in order to preserve T.G.’s eligibility for public assistance and prevent depletion of funds by T.G. or those who may not be acting in her best interest, like J.S. T.G. had a history of drug and alcohol abuse and said she was in an abusive and controlling relationship with J.S.

Ross declined to give T.G. access to the trust account, so T.G. went to Powell. Because she didn’t have money to pay a fee upfront, she agreed to a contingent fee of one-third of whatever was in the trust. Powell misrepresented to Ross that he was going to take over as trustee when in fact he intended to dissolve the trust. As soon as he became successor trustee, he deposited a check that was intended to pay for medical bills into the trust, and Powell paid himself $14,815.55 as his fee, and gave T.G. nearly $30,000. The remaining funds remained in the account until bank fees depleted them.

In In the Matter of Everett E. Powell, II, No. 49S00-0910-DI-426, the high court found Powell violated Indiana Professional Conduct Rule 1.5(a) by collecting the unreasonable fee. While he may have reasonably believed in the beginning that removing Ross as trustee could be contested or how much money was in the account, the case quickly proved to be relatively conflict-free as Ross agreed to resign and he then knew how much money was in the account.

Powell claimed that his fee could be justified by “red flags” raised by a client complaining about a former attorney because that client could then treat him the same way and he could have faced a legal action for breach of trust.

“Even if ‘red flags’ that a client may be difficult to deal with could justify a higher fee than would be reasonable otherwise, we reject any suggestion that an attorney's concern that he may be committing legal malpractice in representing a client justifies charging the client a higher fee,” states the per curiam opinion. “We do not suggest that a contingent fee must be reduced every time a case turns out to be easier or more lucrative than contemplated by the parties at the outset. But collection of a fee under the original agreement is unreasonable when it gives the attorney an unconscionable windfall under the totality of the circumstances.”

The justices found Powell wasn’t remorseful, made contradictory and evasive assertions during the proceedings, didn’t fully cooperate with the Disciplinary Commission’s investigation, knew his client was vulnerable, made misrepresentations to Ross, and never made restitution. Powell has no disciplinary history and he was a newly admitted attorney at the time of the misconduct.

After looking at previous disciplinary actions involving fee violations, the justices imposed a 120-day suspension without automatic reinstatement, beginning Nov. 11.

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  • 3rd Para Typo
    Good coverage - typo shifts "T.G." to "T.S." at beginning of third paragraph.

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  1. Why in the world would someone need a person to correct a transcript when a realtime court reporter could provide them with a transcript (rough draft) immediately?

  2. If the end result is to simply record the spoke word, then perhaps some day digital recording may eventually be the status quo. However, it is a shallow view to believe the professional court reporter's function is to simply report the spoken word and nothing else. There are many aspects to being a professional court reporter, and many aspects involved in producing a professional and accurate transcript. A properly trained professional steno court reporter has achieved a skill set in a field where the average dropout rate in court reporting schools across the nation is 80% due to the difficulty of mastering the necessary skills. To name just a few "extras" that a court reporter with proper training brings into a courtroom or a deposition suite; an understanding of legal procedure, technology specific to the legal profession, and an understanding of what is being said by the attorneys and litigants (which makes a huge difference in the quality of the transcript). As to contracting, or anti-contracting the argument is simple. The court reporter as governed by our ethical standards is to be the independent, unbiased individual in a deposition or courtroom setting. When one has entered into a contract with any party, insurance carrier, etc., then that reporter is no longer unbiased. I have been a court reporter for over 30 years and I echo Mr. Richardson's remarks that I too am here to serve.

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  4. "a ttention to detail is an asset for all lawyers." Well played, Indiana Lawyer. Well played.

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