Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent recommendation of the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board that a Louisiana lawyer be suspended for 2 years for charging an excessive fee to a client with diminished capacity for performing non-legal tasks, failing to refund a portion of the fees after agreeing to the refund, and making misrepresentations, and failing to communicate with a second client, failing to account for trust funds, failing to place trust funds into a trust account, and failing to properly terminate the representation. The case is Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board In Re: Katherine M. Guste, Board No. 10–DB-046 (June 25, 2012).
According to the Board recommendation, the lawyer represented a client with Huntington’s disease, a genetic disorder that can cause cognitive impairment, and charged the client $125.00/ hour for running errands, packing the client’s household goods, taking him to a telephone company office, and taking him to Wal-Mart. The Board found that the lawyer charged excessive fees in the amount of $30,000.00 and agreed to refund $11,000.00 of the fees but failed to make the refund, and also made misrepresentations in her testimony about her actions. The Board rejected the hearing panel’s finding that the lawyer violated Louisiana Bar Rule 1.14 by failing to maintain a normal attorney/client relationship when a client has diminished capacity. In a second matter, the Board found that the lawyer failed to properly communicate with another client, failed to account for and place trust funds into a trust account, and failed to properly terminate the representation.
After considering the facts and finding that “job stress” was not a mitigating factor, the Disciplinary Board rejected a hearing panel’s recommendation that the lawyer be disbarred and instead recommended a two-year suspension. The Board’s recommendation will now be sent to the Louisiana Supreme Court for a final disciplinary order.
Bottom line: This lawyer was representing a client who apparently had diminished capacity and was found to have charged the client $30,000.00 in excessive fees, including $125.00/ hour for time spent on non-legal errands and other tasks (among other misconduct) and may be suspended for 2 years. As lawyers, we have a fiduciary duty to treat our clients fairly, even if they are under a disability. Florida Bar Rule 4-1.14(a) states that “(w)hen a client’s ability to make adequately considered decisions in connection with the representation is impaired, whether because of minority, mental disability, or for some other reason, the lawyer shall, as far as reasonably possible, maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship with the client.”
Be careful out there!
As always, if you have any questions about this Ethics Alert or need assistance, analysis, and guidance regarding these or any other ethics, risk management, or other issues, please do not hesitate to contact me.
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Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
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