Limited Scope Representation and Disclosure of Services

July 3, 2018 § Leave a comment

Before limited-scope representation, I think it was pretty clear that a lawyer who prepared papers for a person to use in court had to show on the paperwork that he had prepared it.

Since limited-scope representation, the answer has been unclear. Until now.

The Mississippi Board of Bar Commissioners has addressed the question with an Ethics Opinion. The text of it is here:

ETHICS OPINION NO. 261
OF THE MISSISSIPPI BAR
RENDERED JUNE 21, 2018

The Ethics Committee has asked to respond to two questions:

Is it ethical for a lawyer to prepare documents for pro se litigants?

If the answer to question 1 is yes, is the preparing lawyer required to disclose either the name of the preparer or that the document was prepared by a lawyer?

APPLICABLE RULES

Rules 1.2 and 8.4(c) of Professional Conduct are applicable to this opinion. The relevant portion of these Rules provide:

Rule 1.2 Scope of Representation

(c) A lawyer may limit the objectives or scope of the representation if the limitation is reasonable under the circumstances and the client gives informed consent.

Comment

Services Limited in Objectives or Means. The objectives or scope of services provided by a lawyer may be limited by agreement with the client or by the terms under which the lawyer’s services are made available to the client. For example, a retainer may be for a specifically defined purpose. Representation provided through a legal aid agency may be subject to limitations on the types of cases the agency handles. When a lawyer has been retained by an insurer to represent an insured, the representation may be limited to matters related to the insurance coverage.

A limited representation may be appropriate because the client has limited objectives for the representation. In addition, the terms upon which representation is undertaken may exclude specific means that might otherwise be used to accomplish the client’s objectives. Such limitations may exclude actions that the client thinks are too costly or that the lawyer regards as repugnant or imprudent.

Limited scope representation is an important means of providing access to justice for all persons regardless of financial resources. Lawyers are encouraged to offer limited services when appropriate, particularly when a client’s financial resources are insufficient to secure full scope of services. For example, lawyers may provide counsel and advice and may draft letters or pleadings. Lawyers may assist clients in preparation for litigation with or without appearing as counsel of record. Within litigation, lawyers may limit representation to attend a hearing on a discrete matter, such as a deposition or hearing, or to a specific issue in litigation.

Although this Rule affords the lawyer and client substantial latitude to limit the representation, the limitation must be reasonable under the circumstances. If, for example, a client’s objective is limited to securing general information about the law the client needs in order to handle a common and typically uncomplicated legal problem, the lawyer and client may agree that the lawyer’s services will be limited to a brief telephone consultation. Such a limitation, however, would not be reasonable if the time allotted was not sufficient to yield advice upon which the client could rely. Although an agreement for a limited representation does not exempt a lawyer from the duty to provide competent representation, the limitation is a factor to be considered when determining the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation. See Rule 1.1

And,

Rule 8.4 Misconduct

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

(c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation;

ANALYSIS

(1) Is it ethical for lawyers to limit the scope of their representation to discrete aspects of a matter?

Yes. The 2011 amendments to the comments to Rule 1.2, set out above, expressly provide that a lawyer may provide limited scope representation on behalf of a client. Such limits can involve merely drafting a document or advising a client on how to proceed in a matter without undertaking a full representation. This is commonly referred to as unbundled legal services. It is important for lawyers to remember two important aspects of this type of limited scope representation. First, is that the lawyer does represent the client to the extent of the limited scope representation, and the full panoply of ethical obligations (including the obligation of confidentiality under Rule 1.6) apply to the representation. Second, a lawyer’s ethical obligations under Rule 1.4 require that the lawyer ensure that the client fully understands what it means to limit the scope of representation to discrete aspects of the representation and the consequences of the limited representation. For example, if the lawyer only drafts a motion for summary judgment but does not appear at the hearing, the client will have to present the motion and respond to questions from the court that the client may be unable to answer.

(2) If the answer to question 1 is yes, is the preparing lawyer required to disclose either the name of the preparer or that the document was prepared by a lawyer?

No. The issue is whether a lawyer who has prepared a document to be filed with the court, but who does not enter a general appearance, must indicate on the document either the lawyer’s name or that the document was prepared by a lawyer. Some federal courts and some ethics opinions have found the lawyer’s failure to disclose his/her involvement to be misleading or dishonest to the court in violation of Rule 8.4(c).[1] The deception here is that the tribunal or opposing counsel could believe that the party has received no professional help at all, when in reality a lawyer has provided some assistance. As a result of this failure to disclose the client may receive more lenient treatment by a court who believes the party is proceeding pro se – unware of the limited representation provided.

While sensitive to these concerns, the Committee does not believe that a lawyer’s undisclosed limited representation is a deception as contemplated by Rule 8.4(c). A court presented with a lawyer-drafted document and a pro se litigant appearing to defend or argue that document, would be aware of the nature of a lawyer’s involvement. If not, the court can always inquire from the litigant whether a lawyer assisted in preparing the document. The unlikely event that a court will be misled into providing leniency to a pro se litigant under these circumstances does not outweigh the strong public policy set out in the Comment to Rule 1.2, encouraging lawyers to provide limited scope representation without having to enter an appearance. The Committee is concerned that lawyers will be dissuaded from providing limited representation if required to disclose their involvement.

There are two additional points to make about this opinion. The first is that a lawyer cannot utilize the limited scope representation to actively and substantially participate in a matter without disclosure. This opinion contemplates that the lawyer is performing discrete aspects of representation. On-going representation of a client without disclosure would be misleading and a violation of Rule 8.4(c). Second, this opinion is based solely on the Rules of Professional Conduct and a lawyer’s ethical obligation and does not address any questions of law.

The Lawyer’s Duty

January 16, 2018 § 2 Comments

In the spirit of the new year, which is always a good time to reassess and reevaluate, I offer you MCA § 73-3-37, with which I am sure you are familiar, but perhaps would like to read anew:

It is the duty of attorneys:

(1) To support the constitution and laws of this state and of the United States;

(2) To maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers;

(3) To employ for the purpose of maintaining the causes confided to them, such means only as are consistent with truth, and never to seek to mislead by any artifice or false statement of the law;

(4) To maintain inviolate the confidence and, at every peril to themselves, to preserve the secrets of their clients;

(5) To abstain from all offensive personalities, and to advance no fact prejudicial to the honor or reputation of a party or witness, unless required by the justice of the cause with which they are charged;

(6) To encourage neither the commencement nor continuance of an action or proceeding from any motives of passion or personal interest;

(7) Never to reject, for any consideration personal to themselves, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.

An End to Game-Playing

July 24, 2017 § 2 Comments

In 2007, Annie and Frederick Griffin got into a dispute with the mortgage carrier, ABN, over modified terms, and stopped paying. They then sued in federal court alleging fraud and violation of other federal laws on debt collection. ABN filed a motion to compel arbitration, but the matter returned to federal court in 2010 after the arbitrator no longer handled consumer cases. The Griffins filed a motion to declare the arbitration agreement unenforceable, and in response ABN withdrew the arbitration request, no doubt to move the case along. The court granted ABN’s motion.

The Griffins then filed an objection to the ruling, even though they had a pending motion to rule the arbitration agreement unenforceable. They filed the motion pro se, because their attorney withdrew, citing the Griffins’ proclivity for not following his advice. Finally, in February, 2012, the district court entered a sua sponte order dismissing the case for failure to prosecute, concluding that “[i]t appears to this court that the plaintiffs view this lawsuit not as something to be actually litigated, but, rather, as something to be kept alive indefinitely, even at the cost of taking a position that is fundamentally inconsistent with the one they have taken for years in this case.”

In January, 2014, the Griffins filed another complaint in chancery court raising the same legal claims and issues as in the federal suit, and based on the same set of facts. There ensued a removal to and remand from federal court, a recusal, and finally a dismissal in chancery on the ground of res judicata. The Griffins appealed pro se.

In the case of Griffin v. ABN, et al., handed down May 16, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Greenlee wrote for the court:

¶7. “The appropriateness of application of the doctrine of res judicata is a question of law” and will therefore be reviewed de novo. Swaney v. Swaney, 962 So. 2d 105, 108 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007).

¶8. We agree with the chancellor that Griffin II [the chancery matter filed after the federal court dismissal] is properly barred under the doctrine of res judicata. The doctrine of res judicata has four identities: (1) identity of the subject matter of the action; (2) identity of the cause of action; (3) identity of the parties to the cause of action; and (4) identity of the quality or character of a person against whom the claim is made. Harrison v. Chandler-Sampson Ins., 891 So. 2d 224, 232 (¶24) (Miss. 2005).

¶9. All four identities are met in the case at hand. The factual allegations in the complaint of Griffin II were copied almost verbatim from the complaint of Griffin I, and with the exception of dropping a couple of claims (the FDCPA and TILA claims), the complaint reasserts the same claims of fraud. All parties present in Griffin I were also present in Griffin II.

¶10. In addition to those four identities, to qualify as res judicata the prior judgment must have been a final judgment on the merits. Anderson v. LaVere, 895 So. 2d 828, 833 (¶10) (Miss. 2004). Under both Mississippi and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b), dismissal for failure to prosecute operates as a final judgment and dismissal is with prejudice. An exception is found in Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 41(d), which provides that where dismissal is made by the clerk following twelve months of docket inactivity, that dismissal is without prejudice. See Strickland v. Estate of Broome, 179 So. 3d 1088, 1094 (¶18) (Miss. 2015). But the case at hand does not fall under Rule 41(d), but rather falls under Rule 41(b). Prior to dismissal, the Griffins were put on notice by the district judge that the case would be dismissed for failure to prosecute if the litigation did not move forward in a meaningful way. The Griffins responded by shifting their legal position in order to avoid trying the merits of the case. The district court’s dismissal of the action was not only appropriate for failure to prosecute, but was also consistent with the Griffins’ new argument that the case should not be tried in court at all but rather arbitrated.

The court went on to address and reject some other issues raised by the Griffins.

Some takeaways:

  • Res judicata is all about identity of issues, facts, and parties. It matters not that the original, dismissed proceeding was in another state or federal court.
  • Res judicata requires a final judgment on the merits in the dismissed action, and the COA found here that the federal court’s dismissal order was a final judgment on the merits per R41(b), and not a dismissal per R41(d).
  • Shifting your legal position is a pretty effective way to frustrate your judge. My term for it is game-playing. Courts are for serious business, not for toying with others, delaying, pettifogging, and caviling. That’s the kind of conduct that will get your case thrown out of court. The Griffins’ lawyer was wise to withdraw before he became identified with their tactics and his own credibility with the court took a hit.

When You Are An Imminent Peril to Your Client

January 25, 2017 § 1 Comment

Earlier this week I saw a piece on a news show about the increasingly rampant practice of thieves stealing tax refunds by filing false tax returns.

In one case, a woman learned that the outlaws had filed a tax return in her name claiming thousands of dollars in fake deductions that resulted in a refund — to them and not her — of $26,000. The refund was directed to a blank (prepaid) credit card where it can not be traced. Of course, the victim had to go through much travail to undo all the damage.

In another case, a man’s tax return with all of his dependency exemptions was hijacked for $5,000.

A tax expert came on screen and said that all a thief requires is the taxpayer’s Social Security Number (SSN), and the number of each co-filer and dependent.

Okay. Let that sink in. All that is required is the SSN’s.

Think about how many documents you have in your possession that are full of your clients’ SSN’s. Every tax return has the taxpayer’s SSN on every single page — sometimes in multiple places. Loan applications have them. Social Security earnings reports and other communications have them.

When you file an 8.05 financial statement and do not redact those SSN’s, you are sending your client’s personal information unprotected out into the world. When you produce unredacted records in discovery, you are violating your clients’ confidences. When you introduce information into evidence that includes SSN’s, you are exposing your clients to fraud.

This is something I have discussed here before. It’s serious, and it has serious implications for you. It won’t be long before PI lawyers discover a fertile new field for liability: lawyers who violate their clients’ financial confidentiality and integrity by not observing either the MEC confidentiality rules or the simple, common-sense precaution of redaction.

It seems like every week I have to caution a lawyer to redact confidential information from documents being introduced into evidence. In one case, we had to take an hour-long recess to allow 10 years of tax returns to be redacted. That should have been done long before the trial date.

The MEC rules make it clear that, if confidential information is filed, it is considered that the client has waived confidentiality. So when you file unredacted information, you have waived confidentiality for your client. Did you have authority to do that? Haven’t you committed an ethical violation when you did it without your client’s express permission?

Discovery on Steroids

December 9, 2016 § 5 Comments

I know things can get tense out there, friends, but I hope it doesn’t come to this here in Mississippi:

A San Diego lawyer disbarred in a default judgment after walking out of his disciplinary trial says he plans to sue state officials involved in the proceedings.

The former lawyer, Douglas James Crawford, was accused of bringing pepper spray and a stun gun to a deposition, threatening to use them on opposing counsel if things got out of hand, and discharging the stun gun while pointing it toward opposing counsel, according to a summary of his case in the California Bar Journal. He was disbarred in September.

Crawford tells the San Diego Union-Tribune that he plans to sue for civil rights violations. He says he walked out of the disciplinary trial because he believed lawyers for the State Bar of California misrepresented facts and improperly kept him from presenting witnesses and evidence.

“As far as the disbarment, I could care less,” Crawford told the Union-Tribune. “It’s not really a group of people I want to associate myself with.”

A state bar court had found Crawford culpable in four of eight misconduct charges against him, according to the California Bar Journal summary and a July 2015 decision by the bar court hearing department. The bar court found he engaged in moral turpitude in the pepper spray and stun gun incident.

Crawford told the Union-Tribune that he brought the stun gun and pepper spray to the deposition because someone had brought a gun to another deposition and he felt unsafe. He said he displayed the stun gun and pepper spray to disclose that he was armed, but he never threatened anyone with them.

People bringing guns to depositions? People feeling unsafe at depositions? My Lord. And the disbarred lawyer is planning to sue for “civil rights violations.” Really.

I didn’t make this up. You can read the article at this link.

Breaching Confidentiality

November 22, 2016 § 1 Comment

Suppose your client gave you her income tax return in confidence. You then make 20 unredacted copies and drive down the street throwing them at passers-by. Have you violated your client’s confidentiality?

Or suppose that your client gave you those same tax returns with the understanding that they would be disclosed in discovery in the course of her divorce. You send them unredacted to opposing counsel in answer to a request for production. Counsel opposite makes a copy for his client, who throws it in the back of his pickup. Later, it blows out as he zooms down the interstate, scattering your client’s name and SSN to the four winds. Have you violated your client’s confidentiality?

Or you simply file those tax returns unredacted on MEC. Have you violated your client’s confidentiality?

I think the undebatable answer in each scenerio is a resounding YES. It is you who chose to send the documents out into the cold, cruel, identity-stealing world unredacted, contrary to MEC Section 9. Remember, MEC says that if you file unredacted documents you have waived confidentiality; did your client authorize you to do that? Did your client even know you were going to do that?

I know, MEC applies only to electronic filings. True. But the principle should be the same in everything you do with your client’s sensitive documents and things, whether in paper discovery, exhibits in court, correspondence, and on and on. Your clients want and expect you to protect their confidentiality.

We get all manner of things attached to motions in this court. Our standard practice is to turn the paperwork over to the staff attorney who then uses the unprinted-on backsides to print internal memos, cases, etc. A few days ago, I finished a memo and noticed that it was printed on the back of a copy of a federal tax return. The names and SSN’s of the taxpayers were unredacted. Those were immediately shredded. Had I not caught that those folks’ names and SSN’s would simply have gone into the trash, and thence to a landfill, perhaps to be picked up by a breeze and deposited into the clutches of a n’er-do-well. Whoever filed that return unredacted is responsible for its consequences.

Ethics in Action

September 30, 2016 § 1 Comment

Ethical rules are clear in an academic context. Anyone who has practiced law, however, will tell you that applying them in the day-to-day scrum can be devilishly difficult.

For instance: You have discovered that, in a will you had prepared some time before your client’s death, you omitted one of his children whom he intended to be a beneficiary, and neither you nor he caught the omission. Now you are being called upon to probate the will, and you realize your oversight. What do you do?

A reader sent me this:

Attorney Parker Clifton was retained by Frank Henry to prepare estate planning documents. Clifton inadvertently omitted one of Henry’s daughters as a child on the first page of a pour-over will. The omission did not have any effect on the dispositive provisions of the document. At Henry’s death, Clifton was retained to probate the will. Before filing the document with the probate court, Clifton altered the first page to correct the error. After questioning by the daughter about the alteration, Clifton withdrew as counsel and self-reported his conduct.

The Ohio Board of Professional Conduct concluded that Clifton had violated Ohio R. Prof. Conduct 3.3(a)(1) (knowingly making a false statement of law or fact to a tribunal) and 8.4(c) (engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation). Based on these violations, and considering mitigating factors such as a lack of prior discipline and Clifton’s self-reporting, the Ohio Supreme Court adopted the Board’s recommendation and issued a public reprimand.

Warren Cty. Bar Assn. v. Clifton, 2016 WL 4553838 (Ohio Sept. 1, 2016).

I invite your comments on how you would have addressed this situation.

Did Mr. Clifton really have to do anything, in light of the fact that, ” … The omission did not have any effect on the dispositive provisions of the document” ? The omission was “on the first page” of the will; we don’t know whether the missing name appeared elsewhere in the document.

If she were completely omitted and the testator had intended for her to be included, that would be a major problem. Otherwise, mere failure to name her in one paragraph would probably be inconsequential if she were identified elsewhere in the document.

Here, Mr. Clifton’s sin was in the alteration of the document and the initial dishonesty. Had he acknowledged the error and then had withdrawn and offered himself as a witness to the true facts, we would not be reading about him here.

This is the kind of thing that haunts lawyers sitting alone in their offices, confronted with a simple mistake that could have far-reaching implications that could reach into the lawyer’s wallet.

__________________

Thanks to Attorney Hale Freeland

How Low Can We Go?

September 9, 2016 § 2 Comments

This from the online ABA Journal

Two more lawyers are permanently disbarred for DUI setup of opposing counsel

POSTED AUG 26, 2016 10:39 AM CDT

BY DEBRA CASSENS WEISS

The Florida Supreme Court has permanently disbarred two Tampa lawyers for setting up their opposing counsel for a DUI arrest in the middle of a trial.

The court disbarred Robert Adams and Adam Filthaut on Thursday, saying their actions were “among the most shocking, unethical and unprofessional” that the court had ever witnessed. The Daily Business Review (sub. req.), the Tampa Bay Times and the Legal Profession Blog have stories. The decision is here (PDF).

Adams and Filthaut had argued any disbarment should not be permanent. A third lawyer involved in the setup, Stephen Diaco, was permanently disbarred in January after dropping his appeal.

The lawyers were accused of sending a paralegal to a Tampa steakhouse where the opposing lawyer was having drinks. The flirtatious paralegal seated herself next to the opposing lawyer and later persuaded him to drive her car, resulting in his arrest by a waiting police officer. The targeted lawyer had originally planned to walk home to his nearby apartment.

The court said the actions of the disbarred lawyers “constituted a deliberate and malicious effort to place a heavy finger on the scales of justice for the sole benefit of themselves and their client.”

Filthaut’s lawyer, Mark O’Brien, told the Daily Business Review that his client “is obviously very disappointed, but he has moved on and is actually very happy in his current endeavors.” Filthaut now runs an auto-glass business.

The headline reads “Two more lawyers …” as if this is the latest in a developing Zika-like epidemic. I know it refers to the two latest in addition to the one who dropped his appeal. Still, as unsettling as this story is, it’s scary to think it could be replicated anywhere else.

As I said earlier in the week, stories like this make it hard to defend the profession.

A Saga of Bad Behavior

September 8, 2016 § 1 Comment

Every attorney I know bridles when the conversation turns to questioning the general honesty of lawyers. We tend to get indignant and insist that ours is an honorable profession.

It is. Certainly. Yet some of our colleagues do things that tar all of us.

Consider what happened in the case of Newton v. Brown, et al., decided by the COA May 24, 2016. The case at the trial level involved dissolution of a two medical partnerships; one to purchase a building and parking lot, and the other to operate a medical clinic out of the purchased building. The partners were Drs. Brown and Matthews. When Matthews was convicted of failing to file tax returns, they began the process of dissolution. Each engaged the services of a lawyer to represent him. The dissolution involved exchanges of payments, deeds, and instruments. Brown was to buy out Matthews’ interest in the property and clinic.

Brown’s attorney handled the property transaction. He was given a check payable to the Mississippi State Tax Commission to satisfy its lien against the partnership property. At ¶8, Judge Griffis describes how Brown’s attorney handled his share of the responsibilities:

  1. He did not forward the check to the tax commission;
  2. He incorrectly drafted the quitclaim deed from Matthews to Brown by omitting the parking lot;
  3. He failed to record the quitclaim deed, and to compound the calamity …
  4. He lost the deed;
  5. He did not find or disclose a judgment lien on the property at the time of conveyance, which caused mischief later.

As head-shaking as is all of that, it just does not hold a candle to the conduct of Matthews’ attorney. Since Matthews at that time was already incarcerated, his attorney proceeded to collect the money due the doctor. The attorney visited Blakeslee, a CPA for the partnership. Blakeslee had two checks payable to the attorney as representative for the jailed doctor: one, a Hancock Bank check for more than $55,000 for the doctor’s share of the partnership’s liquid assets; and another, drawn on on an A.G. Edwards account, in the amount of more than $49,000 for the doctor’s share of the cash surrender of a whole-life insurance policy.

When Blakeslee left the room for a moment, the attorney took the checks, a folder, and some papers from Blakeslee’s desk and put them in his car. Blakeslee demanded return of the checks because Brown wanted to retain the money to offset the lien that he had belatedly discovered after he bought the property from Matthews. Newton refused, and negotiated the Hancock Bank check. He attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate the A.G. Edwards check.

Brown got an injunction and pursued a conversion action against the lawyer. You can read about how it turned out at the link above.

My interest in this case is the behavior of the attorneys:

On one hand, we see an attorney who committed compound blunders in handling the land transaction. Blunders that cost his client some serious money, and are continuing to do so.

On the other hand, we have what Judge Griffis characterized as “egregious behavior” by the attorney who took the checks without authorization and refused to return them. Egregious indeed.

These are the kinds of behaviors that make our words ring hollow when we try to defend the profession.

Week before last, I sat down with some entering law school students and discussed with them the gravity of the honor and dignity of the profession, and how the public places immense trust in our hands. We pondered some case studies involving ethical and professionalism considerations. It was gratifying to see their almost instinctual grasp of what is right and wrong, of what is to be expected of them when they are admitted to practice. I hope they avoid blunders and “egregious behavior” when their time comes.

 

What You Get to Decide as Attorney

November 24, 2015 § 3 Comments

Every now and then a lawyer will shrug his shoulders and say, “I filed it because that’s what my client told me to do.” Or, “I didn’t want that language in the agreement, Judge, but the client insisted.”

Things like that make me scratch my head and wonder what are today’s boundary lines between the lawyer’s authority and the client’s decision-making realm.

This article by Megan Zavieh on Lawyerist entitled Who Decides What in the Attorney-Client Relationship offers some helpful guidance.

I noticed that she specifically stated that, although the client gets to determine the goal, the attorney gets to decide the means. What happens, though, when the client’s objective is to drag out the litigation as long as possible with frivolous and vexatious motions, unnecessary and unnecessarily voluminous discovery, and to run up the cost to the opposing party to bleed them dry? Or what if the client’s sole objective is revenge by disclosing embarrassing information on the very periphery of relevance? These can be some tough choices for the attorney, especially when the client is willing to pay. How much of your reputation are you willing to spend for that fee?

When I represented clients, I made it clear that I would make the decisions about strategy and tactics, and I didn’t need the client’s helpful guidance in how to do that. In that way, I made sure that I was doing what I felt was ethical and was zealous representation within the bounds of the law. When clients, untrained in and unencumbered by ethical rules, begin calling those shots, you can find yourself in big trouble.   

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