Lawyer must face malpractice claim in ex-ballplayer’s unrepaid loan

An Indianapolis attorney must face a legal malpractice claim from a couple who allege the lawyer failed to adequately protect them and had a conflict of interest when he drafted a promissory note for a loan to a retired Major League Baseball player, who never repaid.

Elizabeth and Robert Bilbija sought to lend $42,500 to their friend, former big leaguer Ryan Thompson, in July 2014. Thompson, then an Indianapolis youth baseball coach, was facing jail time for ID theft charges and said he needed the money to fight the charges. He in fact had entered a guilty plea months earlier, but he didn’t disclose his plea to the Bilbijas, who previously had given Thompson and his wife, Charon, a loan of $70,000.

When the Canadian couple decided to lend Thompson the $42,500, they insisted an attorney help with the transaction, and Thompson was referred to Indianapolis attorney Christopher T. Lane. The promissory note Lane drafted called for the loan to be secured by Thompson’s MLB pension of about $8,000 a month. The Bilbijas and Thompson each paid Lane $250 for his legal services.

“After the promissory note secured by the MLB pension was executed, the Bilbijas loaned the additional money to Thompson by wiring the money to his criminal defense attorney,” Judge Tanya Walton Pratt wrote in an order Friday in Bilbija et al. v. Lane, 1:16-cv-2124.

“Thompson failed to pay back the money that he owed the Bilbijas. Mrs. Thompson informed the Bilbijas in August 2014 that their financial situation was very bad, and they might file for bankruptcy,” Pratt continued. “The Bilbijas later learned that Thompson filed for bankruptcy. The Bilbijas contacted the MLB pension authorities to receive payment under the promissory note secured by the MLB pension, and they learned that Thompson’s pension was subject to execution only for child support or similar debts and a judgment would be necessary.”

The Bilbijas sued Lane for legal malpractice, and Pratt on Friday let the case proceed, denying Lane’s motion for summary judgment in part. She declined to accept Lane’s argument at this stage that he did not represent the couple. 

“Lane adamantly maintains he did not represent the Bilbijas and never communicated to them that he represented them, and on the other hand, the Bilbijas steadfastly insist that Lane communicated through words and actions that he did represent them throughout the promissory note transaction,” Pratt wrote. “… Because the evidence gives rise to a factual dispute, the Court determines that summary judgment is not appropriate on the issue of the existence of an attorney-client relationship between Lane and the Bilbijas.”

Pratt did grant Lane summary judgment on the conflict of interest count of the Bilbijas’ complaint, finding Indiana’s Rules of Professional Conduct do not support such a separate legal claim.

Thompson, 50, pleaded guilty in 2014 to a single federal count of using a false Social Security number with intent to deceive. He was one of 18 people arrested in an ID theft ring. He was sentenced by Pratt to six months in prison and ordered to make restitution of $85,917.

According to Baseball Reference, Ryan played nine major league seasons between 1992 and 2002 with the New York Mets, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Florida Marlins and Milwaukee Brewers.

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