The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission brings charges against attorneys who have violated the state’s rules for admission to the bar and Rules of Professional Conduct. The Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications brings charges against judges, judicial officers, or judicial candidates for misconduct. Details of attorneys’ and judges’ actions for which they are being disciplined by the Supreme Court will be included unless they are not a matter of public record under the court’s rules.
Kenneth E. Lauter of Morgan County was publicly reprimanded by the Indiana Supreme Court for violating Ind. Prof. Cond. R.1.5 (b) and (c). The court issued a per curiam decision in the case Sept.17, 2010.
The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission charged Lauter with violating Ind. Prof. Cond. R. 1.5 (b) and (c) and 1.8(a); however the hearing officer concluded Lauter did not violate any rules and recommended judgment for Lauter. The disciplinary commission sought Supreme Court review of the hearing officer’s findings.
Justices Brent Dickson and Robert Rucker dissented, believing that the disciplinary commission did not prove a charged violation by clear and convincing evidence and that the hearing officer correctly found no violation.
In May 2003, a client hired Lauter and his firm to pursue an employment discrimination claim. The client signed a written attorney services contract that provided for a contingency fee based on the amount recovered – one-third if settled prior to trial, 40 percent otherwise. It also called for an “engagement fee” of $750, which the client paid. The contract also contained a hand-written notation in the bottom margin, initialed by the client, calling for an “additional retainer fee payable if client and firm agree to file federal court litigation.” The client and Lauter agreed to leave the amount of the additional retainer undetermined until Lauter had completed due diligence and decided whether to proceed to federal court. Lauter testified that a typical engagement fee for an attorney taking an employment discrimination case is $5,000, whether or not federal litigation is involved.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found no probable cause in December 2003 so Lauter filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the EEOC file. He received the file in February 2004 and contacted the client the next day to tell her he believed the case had sufficient merit to proceed to federal court. He also testified that he reminded her of the additional retainer that she had initialed and said it would be $4,250 – which was not reduced to writing. He did not advise the client that she might want to consult independent counsel before agreeing to the amount. Three days after their conversation, the client wrote a check to Lauter’s firm for $4,400 that included $150 filing fee and the $4,250 additional retainer. The client’s lawsuit was successfully settled, and the client recovered $75,000 from the defendant May 15, 2006. Lauter’s total fee was $30,000 (the $750 engagement fee, the $4,250 additional retainer, and the $25,000 one-third contingent fee).
“Respondent’s structuring of his fees so clients whose claims are resolved at the administration level pay a lower fee than those whose cases must go to court appears intended to benefit his clients and is certainly not to be discouraged. The problem in this case is that Respondent gave no indication to the client of what the additional retainer would be or how it would be determined,” the court wrote.
Because Lauter and the client agreed at the outset to leave the amount of the additional retainer undetermined until later, the court determined Lauter did not violate Rule 1.8(a). •