A northern Indiana attorney who was involved in a Florida-based legal scheme that purported to assist clients in foreclosure and bankruptcy matters has been suspended from the practice of law for 30 days, the second of five Indiana attorneys involved with the Florida group to be disciplined by the Indiana Supreme Court.
The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission first filed a complaint against Huntington attorney Justin Wall in September 2015, alleging numerous violations stemming from his relationship with McCann Law Group, doing business as Consumer Attorney Services P.A., a Florida-based corporation that purported to offer bankruptcy, mortgage modification and foreclosure defense services.
CAS advertised in Florida and other areas, including Indiana, and created contractual arrangements in which most client work was handled by central staff in Florida, with local counsel services limited to the aspects of the case specifically requiring their work. Clients were charged an upfront nonrefundable fee of roughly $1,200, as well as ongoing monthly fees that ranged from $400 to $1,300.
Wall first signed agreements with CAS in 2012, first as an “associate” and later as a “partner,” agreeing to provide discrete services to CAS bankruptcy and foreclosure defense clients in Indiana. He received fixed sums for some services, $25 as a partner for every case assigned to other CAS-associated attorneys in Indiana and minimum wage for 10-20 hours per week as “partner pay.”
In most of his cases, Wall’s sole objective in his work with CAS was to get a mortgagee to agree to a modification. Additionally, Wall testified that he reviewed all pleadings and made necessary changes before signing and filing them.
Wall was one of five Indiana attorneys who responded to a Craigslist ad from CAS to serve as local counsel. But by 2013, CAS had become the subject of complaints alleging that the company was failing to serve clients, prompting a consumer lawsuit from the Indiana Attorney General’s Office. Brenda McCann, the owner of McCann Law Group, has been effectively disbarred from the Florida Bar, and she was never licensed to practice law in Indiana, though the companies were registered as business entities.
The Indiana Supreme Court recently allowed the attorney general’s case against CAS to continue, affirming the denial of summary judgment to the Florida group in Consumer Attorney Services, P.A. v. State, 71 N.E.3d 362 (Ind. 2017). Similarly, another Indiana attorney associated with CAS was disciplined in Matter of Jackson, 24 N.E.3d 419 (Ind. 2015).
In Wall’s case, the court found in his favor on several of the charges, including violations of Rules of Professional Conduct 1.4(a)(1) and (5), 5.3(b), 7.5(a)(4) and 8.4 (a), (c) and (d).
However, the court also found that Wall had violated a handful of other Rules of Professional Conduct, including 1.5(e). Writing that Wall was not “in the same firm” as CAS when he worked for the company, as required under 1.5(e), and further noting that he maintained his own law firm throughout his relationship with the Florida group, the court wrote that Wall was in violation of fee splitting requirements. Additionally, the justices “readily concluded” that he assisted CAS in charging unreasonable fees to its clients in violation of Rule 8.4(a) and 1.5(a).
The court was slightly divided on Wall’s alleged violation of Rule 5.5(a), with the majority finding that he did violate the rule by assisting CAS in the unauthorized practice of law. Quoting the case of Matter of Dilk, 2 N.E.3d 1263 (Ind. 2014), the court wrote that “Without the involvement of Respondent, the (company) could not have provided the services they offered to homeowners. Selling the assistance of an attorney to defend a foreclosure action was a necessary part of their business model.” Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, however, dissented on that issue.
While the commission urged the court to impose a six-month suspension without automatic reinstatement, the hearing officer recommended a 30-day suspension with automatic reinstatement. For his part,discipline.
The court ultimately chose to impose the hearing officer’s recommendation, subjecting Wall to a 30-day suspension, with automatic reinstatement, effective June 14. The justices found as mitigating factors the fact that Wall has no prior discipline and the fact that there was no evidence of particularized harm to any clients or judicial proceedings as a result of his misconduct.
Provided there are no other suspensions in effect after the 30-day period has passed, Wall will be automatically reinstated pursuant to Admission and Discipline Rule 23(18)(a). The costs of the proceedings are assessed against him.