Three Indiana justices decided that an attorney deserved an 18-month suspension for violating four rules of Professional Conduct, including charging an unreasonable fee. Justice Steven David didn’t participate in the case and Justice Robert Rucker believed the attorney only violated three of the rules and deserved a shorter suspension.
In , No. 49S00-0907-DI-331, Lawrence Newman was retained by M.L. to help represent her in disputes over the operation of a closely held corporation left by her father in his estate. The agreement between M.L. and Newman said Newman would be paid $195 an hour, payable upon receipt of M.L.’s distribution from the estate, plus 25 percent of M.L.’s distribution.
Just a few weeks later, M.L. sent a letter asking Newman to stop all work, and she later terminated his employment and asked for a statement of the work he had done. Newman filed a notice of intent to hold an attorney’s lien on M.L.’s distrubtion from the estate for his hourly fee plus 25 percent of the distribution of the estate. It took more than three years for M.L. to receive her file, which she got after she was ordered to pay Newman nearly $8,500 for the work he had done on her case.
Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justices Brent Dickson and Frank Sullivan agreed with the Disciplinary Commission that Newman violated Indiana Professional Conduct Rules 1.4(a)(4), 1.5(a), 1.16(a)(3), and 1.16(d) for failing to comply with M.L.’s reasonable requests for an accounting of the hours he worked prior to being discharged, by charging an unreasonable fee, by failing to withdraw from representation promptly after being discharged, and by failing to return M.L.’s file after its retention was no longer necessary to secure payment of his fee.
“While we do not adopt the Commission's assertion that a contingent fee agreement is per se unethical whenever there is no risk of total non-recovery, we conclude that the evidence supports a conclusion that the contingent fee agreement under the circumstances of this particular case was unreasonable,” the per curiam opinion states.
Justice Rucker dissented on this matter, finding there to be insufficient evidence to support a violation of Rule 1.5(a) – charging or collecting an unreasonable fee – and that the 18-month suspension imposed is based in part on a violation not charged by the commission. He pointed out that the hearing officer didn’t make findings or conclusions that Newman may have violated the rule by charging or collecting an unreasonable fee, and the commission never filed charges against him alleging a violation of this provision of the rule. The hearing officer claimed Newman violated this rule by “negotiating and entering into a contingency fee agreement when [M.L.] faced no risk of non-recovery” in the estate matter.
“To conclude that ‘Respondent violated Rule 1.5(a) by charging an unreasonable fee’ decides a question outside the scope of our review and violates the Respondent’s right to fundamental due process,” he wrote. Rucker would impose a 90-day suspension for the remaining three violations.
Newman's suspension begins Jan. 31.