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Money and Ethics: "Non-refundable" Fees

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By Kevin P. Mcgoff and James J. Bell
 

Bell James Bell
McGoff Kevin McGoff

It’s the beginning of a case and your client has agreed in writing to a $10,000 non-refundable retainer. You get to work. The case is messy. There are motions to prepare, witnesses to interview and your client is constantly calling for “updates.”

But your client doesn’t really want updates. Instead, he wants to feel good. He needs reassurance. This case is important to him and he is understandably worried about what lies ahead. You take time from the case to do a little hand-holding. This is part of the job. You became a lawyer to help people through their biggest problems, and you’re getting paid to hear your client.

Days go by. You’ve done everything your client has asked and have told him about each, separate step by phone and via e-mail. The client calls again and you get comfortable for next conversation.

But this call is different. Your client says he appreciates your hard work, but he “wants to go in another direction.” As it turns out, his step-brother’s barber knows a lawyer who is second cousin to the judge’s nephew. He wants someone with more of an “inside track.” In other words, you’re being dumped. He tells you “it’s not you, it’s me”. He hopes you can “still be friends.” “That’s fine,” you say to yourself. Now, you can have your life back.

Oh. And there is one more thing: He wants his money back.

You blow a fuse. No way. While you may or may not have completed $10,000 worth of work, what does this guy think “non-refundable” means? You tell your ex-client to read the fee agreement and take a hike. There will be no refund. It is a “non-refundable fee.”

Have you violated the Rules of Professional Conduct? Yes. In fact, you may have violated the Rules twice. The first time was at the outset of the case, when your fee agreement called for a “non-refundable” fee. The second time was when you refused to refund any part of the money because you said the fee was non-refundable. This and other lessons are contained in the recent decision in Matter of O’Farrell, No. 29S00-0902-DI-76, 2011 Ind. LEXIS 72 (Ind. Feb. 11, 2011).

In O’Farrell, the Supreme Court concluded that “the assertion in a fee agreement that an advance fee is nonrefundable violates [Rule 1.5(a)’s] requirement that a lawyer’s fee be reasonable.” Id. at *10. The Court also noted that “an attorney cannot treat a fee as ‘earned’ simply by labeling the fee ‘earned on receipt.’” Id. at *12 (citations omitted).

How then do you protect yourself from the above situation? The Court suggests that “[a]s an alternative, a fee agreement could designate a reasonable part of the initial payment that would be deemed earned by the attorney for opening the case and beginning the representation.” Id. at *18. “Even without such contract provisions, ‘[i]t is well settled that, where the complete performance of an attorney’s services has been rendered impossible, or otherwise prevented, by the client, the attorney may, as a rule, recover quantum meruit for the services rendered.” Id. at *19 (citations omitted). In other words, you can retain the earned portion of the fee.

In fact, in O’Farrell, our Supreme Court was “not prepared to hold that some amount of a flat fee must be returned in all cases in which the attorney-client relationship ends before the work contracted for is completed.” Id. at *20. The Court also acknowledged circumstances in which the “entire flat fee could be deemed earned if the client deals unfairly with the attorney.” Id. Finally, the Court acknowledged circumstances where a client could pay a “general retainer” which is “payment for an attorney’s availability, which is earned in full when paid before any work is done.” Id. at *6-7. However, a “general retainer” cannot be charged for “routine legal services.” Id. at *11 (Citations omitted). It can only be justified in circumstances where, for example, the attorney is “preclu[ded from] other representations.” Id. (citations omitted).

So here is what we can take away from O’Farrell: 1) Avoid fee disputes, if possible; 2) Revisit and revise your engagement letter or fee contract; 3) Remove the term “non-refundable” from your fee agreement; and 4) Never treat a fee as non-refundable. If you charge a “general retainer,” make certain that the circumstances justify this arrangement and realize there is a risk that others may not agree that a general retainer is justified. Finally, if you are terminated from a case, work with the former client to find a reasonable amount, based on the amount of work performed, to retain as your fee.•

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  1. Call it unauthorized law if you must, a regulatory wrong, but it was fraud and theft well beyond that, a seeming crime! "In three specific cases, the hearing officer found that Westerfield did little to no work for her clients but only issued a partial refund or no refund at all." That is theft by deception, folks. "In its decision to suspend Westerfield, the Supreme Court noted that she already had a long disciplinary history dating back to 1996 and had previously been suspended in 2004 and indefinitely suspended in 2005. She was reinstated in 2009 after finally giving the commission a response to the grievance for which she was suspended in 2004." WOW -- was the Indiana Supreme Court complicit in her fraud? Talk about being on notice of a real bad actor .... "Further, the justices noted that during her testimony, Westerfield was “disingenuous and evasive” about her relationship with Tope and attempted to distance herself from him. They also wrote that other aggravating factors existed in Westerfield’s case, such as her lack of remorse." WOW, and yet she only got 18 months on the bench, and if she shows up and cries for them in a year and a half, and pays money to JLAP for group therapy ... back in to ride roughshod over hapless clients (or are they "marks") once again! Aint Hoosier lawyering a great money making adventure!!! Just live for the bucks, even if filthy lucre, and come out a-ok. ME on the other hand??? Lifetime banishment for blowing the whistle on unconstitutional governance. Yes, had I ripped off clients or had ANY disciplinary history for doing that I would have fared better, most likely, as that it would have revealed me motivated by Mammon and not Faith. Check it out if you doubt my reading of this, compare and contrast the above 18 months with my lifetime banishment from court, see appendix for Bar Examiners report which the ISC adopted without substantive review: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS

  2. Wow, over a quarter million dollars? That is a a lot of commissary money! Over what time frame? Years I would guess. Anyone ever try to blow the whistle? Probably not, since most Hoosiers who take notice of such things realize that Hoosier whistleblowers are almost always pilloried. If someone did blow the whistle, they were likely fired. The persecution of whistleblowers is a sure sign of far too much government corruption. Details of my own personal experience at the top of Hoosier governance available upon request ... maybe a "fake news" media outlet will have the courage to tell the stories of Hoosier whistleblowers that the "real" Hoosier media (cough) will not deign to touch. (They are part of the problem.)

  3. So if I am reading it right, only if and when African American college students agree to receive checks labeling them as "Negroes" do they receive aid from the UNCF or the Quaker's Educational Fund? In other words, to borrow from the Indiana Appellate Court, "the [nonprofit] supposed to be [their] advocate, refers to [students] in a racially offensive manner. While there is no evidence that [the nonprofits] intended harm to [African American students], the harm was nonetheless inflicted. [Black students are] presented to [academia and future employers] in a racially offensive manner. For these reasons, [such] performance [is] deficient and also prejudice[ial]." Maybe even DEPLORABLE???

  4. I'm the poor soul who spent over 10 years in prison with many many other prisoners trying to kill me for being charged with a sex offense THAT I DID NOT COMMIT i was in jail for a battery charge for helping a friend leave a boyfriend who beat her I've been saying for over 28 years that i did not and would never hurt a child like that mine or anybody's child but NOBODY wants to believe that i might not be guilty of this horrible crime or think that when i say that ALL the paperwork concerning my conviction has strangely DISAPPEARED or even when the long beach judge re-sentenced me over 14 months on a already filed plea bargain out of another districts court then had it filed under a fake name so i could not find while trying to fight my conviction on appeal in a nut shell people are ALWAYS quick to believe the worst about some one well I DID NOT HURT ANY CHILD EVER IN MY LIFE AND HAVE SAID THIS FOR ALMOST 30 YEARS please if anybody can me get some kind of justice it would be greatly appreciated respectfully written wrongly accused Brian Valenti

  5. A high ranking Indiana supreme Court operative caught red handed leading a group using the uber offensive N word! She must denounce or be denounced! (Or not since she is an insider ... rules do not apply to them). Evidence here: http://m.indianacompanies.us/friends-educational-fund-for-negroes.364110.company.v2#top_info

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