Settling for Something

September 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

We’ve discussed here the lawyer’s power to bind the client, as in a settlement announcement where the agreement was to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice upon payment of a settlement sum. The specific case we focused on was Williams v. Homecoming Financial, a COA case handed down July 23, 2013.

In Williams, the disappointed plaintiffs felt that there was not enough money on the table, and sued to get out of the settlement agreement. The attorney countered that the terms of the settlement had been thoroughly discussed with and agreed to by the Williamses before the settlement was announced. They were unsuccessful in their quest to escape the agreement.

How and what you communicate with the client about settlement is critical. That’s because Mississipi Rule of Professional Conduct 1.2 specifies that there is only one decision in chancery court where the client retains absolute decisional autonomy, and that is whether to accept an offer of settlement. That means that your client calls the shots when it comes to how the case will settle.

An extreme case where the lawyer ran right over, around and through that autonomy is Culpepper v. Miss. Bar, 588 So.2d 413 (Miss. 1991), in which the attorney: (a) did not communicate the terms to the client before announcing it in open court; (b) failed to advise the court that his client thought the case was being settled on different terms; (c) did not disclose to the court that the settlement agreement was different from one his client had signed; (d) represented to the court that the parties had agreed to the terms of the agreed judgment, knowing that was not true.

Three clear duties arise from R 1.2:

  1. The duty to communicate any offer or demand to the client, no matter how unreasonable;
  2. The duty to confer with and avise the client about the pros and cons of settlement, and the strengths and weaknesses of both sides’ cases; and
  3. The duty to zeaalously represent the client to accomplish the client’s settlement goals, unless the lawyer feels that they are so unreasonable, frivolous, or otherwise unmeritorious that withdrawal is warranted.

The autonomy of the client can be varied by contract, but not eliminated. For instance, the lawyer-client contract can provide that the lawyer may settle the case within certain parameters. That would be ethical. But an agreement that vests in the lawyer sole, final decision-making authority would be unprofessional, because only the client can make that final decision. See, Jackson and Campbell, Professional Responsibility for Mississippi Lawyers, 2010, § 8.4 – 5, pp. 8-6 – 8-8.

The only exception to the rule is in MRPC 1.14, which addresses how to deal with impaired clients.

It’s true that a lawyer should not let the client dictate the strategy and tactics of representation. But the end of the litigation is always within the client’s discretion. You have the power to bind your client, but if you invade the client’s province to settle, you may face some unpleasant consequences.

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