A Kokomo lawyer’s sudden abandonment of his law practice has left the local legal community scrambling to clean up a mess involving scores of ripped-off clients, some of whom learned of their attorney’s disappearance when they showed up for court dates and he didn’t.
“I think it’s deplorable,” Howard County Bar Association President Rebecca Vent said of the situation involving attorney Bradley Hamilton. Vent said Hamilton was accepting new clients and collecting fees the same week he left the country, apparently to join his wife who returned to her native Australia with the couple’s three children.
It’s unclear how much money Hamilton’s clients may have lost. As many as 80 appear to have pre-paid for bankruptcy petitions that he failed to file before leaving the country, according to Brent Dechert, the attorney appointed by court order Oct. 7 to act as a surrogate and wind down Hamilton’s practice. Dechert said Hamilton also left his practice with about 150 active cases.
Vent has taken a few of those cases, and other lawyers are doing what they can.
“Like any other profession, when something tragic happens, we pull together as best we can,” she said. Hamilton’s clients, though, are stinging.
“They’re frustrated, they’re apprehensive about what’s going on,” Vent said. New lawyers stepping in to take over cases don’t just have to get up to speed, but they also have to counsel distrustful clients. “They’re anxious … and understandably so,” she said.
“The Howard County Bar Association feels horribly about how quickly Mr. Hamilton left without providing due notice or refunds to his clients,” she said.
Dechert said Hamilton told him he was leaving more than a month ago after he unsuccessfully attempted to sell his law practice. Before he left, Dechert said Hamilton asked him if he would consent to serve as a surrogate. “It’s quite a mess,” Dechert said.
A few Mondays back, Howard Superior 4 Judge George Hopkins said three or four of Hamilton’s clients with court dates appeared before him after he had received the petition to appoint Dechert. “In each case, I talked to the people individually, and told them Mr. Hamilton is no longer practicing,” Hopkins said. “They had no idea.”
Dechert couldn’t estimate how much clients may have lost, and he said clients are still making claims. “I think it could be substantial,” he said. But he noted there still are accounts with balances, and it will be up to the court to determine how claims for the funds will be handled.
Hopkins’ order says, “the disappearance and/or abrupt closure of Bradley D. Hamilton’s law office constitutes an occurrence under Supreme Court Admission and Discipline Rule 23, Section 27(c), which requires the appointment of an attorney surrogate to act as custodian of Bradley Hamilton’s law practice.”
The surrogate order appoints Dechert to act as custodian, transfer files and notify clients pursuant to the rule. The order also grants a 120-day extension on statutes of limitations, deadlines and most filing time limits for Hamilton’s clients, as provided in ADR 23, Section 27(e).
Dechert, whose practice is predominantly family law, said he’s been able to take some of those cases, and other attorneys in Kokomo have stepped up to take bankruptcy and miscellaneous civil cases left unrepresented. He said his first priority as surrogate is making sure files are returned to clients who can then decide how best to proceed with their cases.
Dechert said he’s had limited email contact with Hamilton since being appointed surrogate. “This was not the way it should have been closed down,” Dechert said.
He said some of Hamilton’s clients had filed or were planning to file complaints with the Howard County Bar Association and the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission, and he had provided information to clients about filing complaints.
Hamilton was last seen in Kokomo in late September. He was admitted to practice in 1984 and is listed on the Indiana Roll of Attorneys as active and in good standing, with prior disciplinary matters filed in 2010 concluded in March 2012.
Indiana Supreme Court public information officer Kathryn Dolan said the Disciplinary Commission has not issued a verified petition for discipline in Hamilton’s case. She said she could not comment on whether any complaints had been filed because they remain confidential before the issuance of a verified petition.
But Dolan said Hamilton’s case shows that the attorney surrogate rule adopted in recent years is working. “The goal here is to make sure that clients are represented,” she said.
Hamilton also might be facing criminal charges.
“The matter is still under investigation, and I can say our office has received some complaints against Mr. Hamilton which we are investigating,” Howard County Prosecutor Mark McCann said. “We’re still trying to talk to victims and alleged victims.”
Hopkins said the situation presents challenges for the court and attorneys. Dechert has petitioned the court for guidance on how to handle money Hamilton’s practice retained, for instance, and for everyday matters such as how to handle mail that arrives at the office. There’s also at least one case where there might be a conflict. Hopkins said he’ll soon rule on those sorts of issues.
“It’s a difficult situation for any attorney even under the best of circumstances,” Hopkins said of those who act as surrogates or take cases where a surrogate has been appointed. Dechert, for instance, has incurred out-of-pocket expense, Hopkins said.
“You’re asking an attorney to walk in and take over a goodly number of cases with no background in the cases at all and doing what needs to be done under the surrogate rule, and probably doing a lot of it for free,” Hopkins said.
“It’s a pretty good undertaking for anyone who walks into this position, and yet we have to have some way to do it,” he said.
Vent said the local legal community is trying to make the best of a bad situation. “You typically don’t need a lawyer unless there’s some sort of trouble in your life or an issue in your life you need help with,” she said. “I’m just frustrated that his departure has left so many people up in the air.”•