June 2, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Is it legal for a doctor, lawyer, CPA or most any professional to charge for a missed appointment?
That was the question left on my cell phone voice mail by Sandra, who lives in Atascadero, Calif. In case you did not know it, the State Mental Hospital for the Criminally Insane is located there, a fact that was pointed out in her message several times.
Sandra explained that she works at the hospital, and “despite dealing with some of the most disturbed people on earth, even this could not prepare me for the way I was treated by a San Luis Obispo lawyer. I have read your column for a long time and just know that you are not one of those lawyers,” she said.
“I had an appointment to meet with the attorney concerning a speeding ticket a CHP officer gave me when I was returning to work on Highway 46 from Fresno. I tried to reason with the officer that as he and I both worked for the state, he really should not give me a ticket, even if I was doing 85 in a 55 zone. There was no traffic anyway. He just laughed and gave me the ticket anyway,” she related in a tone of voice that became more angry and strident the longer we spoke when I called her back later that day.
“If you were going that fast — and clearly exceeding the speed limit — what did you expect an attorney to do for you?” I inquired, becoming just a tad concerned as to her state of mind. Her answer floored me.
“Anyone knows the answer to that question,” she snapped back. “If you hire a lawyer, then it’s a slam-dunk to get that case dismissed. That’s what I expected and is why I wanted to retain a lawyer,” she explained.
Based upon my assessment of her mental well-being, I felt this was not the best time to tell her that it doesn’t quite work that way. But I did conclude Sandra was indeed working in the right place — a mental hospital. I urged her to tell me how I could help, to bring her back to the reason for contacting me in the first place.
“I had an appointment with the lawyer at 10 a.m. on a Monday. But we had a last minute schedule change, and I had to go into work. It was just impossible to call the lawyer until later that day,” she explained.
“When did you know of the schedule change?” I asked. “At about 8 a.m. that morning,” she replied, again calm and as nice as could be.
“So, why not call the attorney’s office to reschedule, or at least give them the chance to fit someone else in that time slot? After all, doesn’t this seem a little inconsiderate of you in not telling the lawyer you couldn’t make it? Also, I would like to know why you didn’t tell your supervisor that you had an appointment that morning and see if someone else could come in instead of you?” I inquired.
“I don’t want to talk about that! I had to work and needed the money. Just tell me, do I have to pay the lawyer’s bill? She is asking for her regular hourly rate of $200,” Sandra shouted at me.
With people who are clearly disturbed, I react by not reacting. But Sandra was getting me mad, and I replied, “Before I try to answer your question about paying for the missed appointment at the lawyer’s regular hourly rate, I need to know if you think it’s OK with you to basically take time from that lawyer and not pay for it?” Sandra said nothing.
By this time suggested she was suggesting that I was somehow in cahoots with a San Luis Obispo lawyer I’ve never heard of before.
“Were you informed there would be a charge for the consultation if you did not keep your appointment?” I asked. “Well, yes, I was told that, but I thought that without a written agreement, it isn’t legal,” she replied.
“In fact, if there is no mention in advance of that policy, then the state bar and most courts would say that you do not have to pay. But if you are aware of the charge and fail to cancel or reschedule in time, AND your time slot cannot be filled with other income-producing business, then I would argue that some fee is appropriate.”
In reality, by this time it was clear that I was dealing with someone with serious issues, but who did have a valid question. As I assumed she had some experience with the medical or psychiatric professions, I tried to explain the no-show fee in those terms.
“Today, it is common, when you become a new patient, for doctors and dentists to address these issues in their sign-in documents, reserving the right to charge for being stood-up,” I explained, adding, “It’s basic fairness. We all sell the same thing — time. I’m sure you would agree that it isn’t fair to make an appointment and just not show up, unless there truly is some emergency.”
Sandra had a come-back question:
“OK, what do you say about a doctor, dentist or even attorney who keeps patients and clients waiting two hours for an appointment? I don’t mean when there is a real emergency, but because they have scheduled too many at the same time! Can I charge my psychiatrist for wasting my time?” she blurted out.
(By that time I wondered what her relation was with the state hospital. Did she work there, or was she a patient?)
Her question was a good one. “Yes, I agree with you, no patient or client should have to wait an unreasonable time. Unless there is some reason for an unreasonable delay in being seen, I think that asking for an adjustment in the bill is appropriate,” I told her.
Then, just as I was about to congratulate myself on having maintained a pleasant attitude with this difficult person, my underlying questions were suddenly answered.
For I heard the following from someone obviously standing close to the woman; “Sandra, put down the phone and take your medicine. What are you doing, girl? We’ve been looking all over for you. Please be nice and come with us now!”
By the way, I did not send her a bill!
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.