A Tale of Two Grievances— (1) $20 too late, and (2) $650 too much

If you believe an attorney has been unethical in dealings with you, one option is filing a grievance with your state bar. 

Many if not most state courts have grievances online. For example, Connecticut has grievance decisions going back to 1994 to 2014 online here. See my links page here for additional grievance decision links for some other states.

Generally, an attorney who is found to have violated the Rules of Professional Conduct may be subject to various consequences such as reprimand, continuing education classes in ethics, ongoing supervision by other attorneys, suspension, or temporary or permanent disbarment. Sometimes the grievance committee may require restitution or an assessment of costs. Though a reprimand by itself does not result in anything other than a public record, attorneys who have multiple reprimands will likely be dealt with more harshly later on even for something that might otherwise only require a reprimand.

While grievance decisions are primarily to guide attorneys and how they practice law, they also may help clients understand what attorneys may or may not do, and, more specifically, whether your attorney is acting in a way that violates the rules of conduct and merits filing a grievance.

From time to time, starting now, I will blog about some of these decisions (in no particular order of severity), ones that I believe will help readers of this blog understand some of the bottom line requirements for being an ethical attorney.

The first two grievances are on almost opposite ends of the spectrum: in one, an attorney was reprimanded for deducting $20 for stopping a check to a client. In another, an attorney was reprimanded for giving money ($650) to a client.

In the first grievance of interest, an attorney represented a client selling his house. The attorney miscalculated the amount due at the closing, so the client brought a bank check that was $69 more than the client needed to pay.  The attorney was honest and advised the client of the mistake at the closing. However, months went by, and the client had not received a refund. The client called multiple times, wrote, and even sent a registered letter to the attorney over a period of months. A few days after sending the registered letter, at long last, the client received a refund. Except, the refund check was for $49. It turns out the attorney had deducted $20 for stopping a check for $69 that the attorney claimed he had previously sent.

The client objected to the deduction. The attorney responded with a voice message stating that he would not return the $20, and that the former client could sue him for the money. That bit of bravado was a mistake. Of course, no one is likely to sue someone for $20 but because this involved an attorney, the former client had a right to file a grievance. The attorneys excuse? He claimed that he had sent a full refund to the client. The only glaring problem with the excuse is that the attorney sent the refund to the address of the property that the attorney had closed for the client. As the committee noted: “We are of the opinion that the Respondent should have known that the Complainant could not be living at the address that the check was sent to since the Respondent had conducted the closing for the Complainant and was well aware that the Complainant had sold that property.”

 The committee ordered the attorney to provide restitution to the former client for the $20. It is not mentioned why  the committee did not also have the attorney reimburse the client for the registered letter. In any case, the committee specifically found that this attorney violated Rule 1.3, which requires attorneys to act with reasonable diligence and promptness. The attorney was reprimanded.

The second grievance may be surprising to you, since it turns out that attorneys can get into trouble by giving money to clients, even for a noble purpose.  

In this particular grievance, the attorney represented a client in three matters, two motor vehicle accidents and a divorce. There was a settlement for one of the accidents, but sometimes it takes a while before an insurance company issues a check. In the meantime, this particular attorney gave the client $600 to purchase a new automobile (this was in 1991) prior to receiving the check from the insurance company.

At another time, this same client complained to the attorney that he was unable to make child support payments, so the attorney gave the client $50 in cash. Finally, the attorney provided money to the client so he could be examined by a physician in connection with injuries from one of the accidents.

The local grievance panel (where complaints in Connecticut go first), did not find any violation of a rule. However, these determinations are reviewed by the statewide committee which decided to pursue the matter. The statewide committee found that the attorney violated RPC 1.8(e) and reprimanded him.

RPC 1.8(e) specifically prohibits lawyers from giving give clients financial assistance other than optionally advancing the costs and expense of litigation, or representing indigent clients to pay court costs and expenses. The committee noted that while it was sympathetic to the attorney’s concerns regarding the client, the rule specifically prohibit attorneys from doing that and reprimanded the attorney.

A reprimand is a warning to an attorney. It does not have a particular punishment attached to it, but in Connecticut at least,  an attorney who receives three reprimands in the five years preceding any complaint, automatically has to have the case considered by the Connecticut Superior Court. It is possible that an attorney may be given a harsher sanction because it is part of a pattern of behavior. This is important for clients to know because it means that even grievances that do not rise to the level of requiring suspension or disbarment may a future impact on protecting others, since your grievance may be used at a later date by the grievance committee to assess additional consequences to an attorney who short-circuits the rules of professional conduct on a repeated basis.

(Speaking of the rules, in Connecticut, the Rules of Professional Conduct are found in the Practice Book. The 2019 PDF version is found here  (the rules are on pages 4-66). Links to the rules from some other states are found here.)

Howard Altschuler

 (Click here for a brief summary of my other blog posts on various legal malpractice related issues)  

(Disclaimer: Please note that nothing in this blog or website is legal advice, and this post does not create an attorney-client relationship. You should always consult with an attorney for any legal malpractice issues, fee dispute, or ethical concerns that you may have. Thanks!)

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