June 9, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Every occupation has its rotten apples. Law is no exception, but when you’ve got a person practicing law who is nothing more than a vampire, clients become the blood bank from which he makes withdrawals.
Not far from Eureka, located among some of the most beautiful Redwoods in all of the Pacific Northwest, there lives — not an ogre — but a vampire with a law degree. One of my columns was about this lawyer and how he ripped off Karen, a reader who hired him for defense of a civil suit filed by a former boyfriend.
To recap, following the advice of Karen’s then boyfriend, she and her mom purchased an old weekend cabin for $35,000.
“My boyfriend was a contractor and assured us the cabin was in acceptable condition, so we bought it. However, it required extensive repairs, which he did at our expense. Later, we found that his work was grossly substandard and had to be redone. But before we broke up, he ran up over $10,000 on my credit card for materials used on other jobs. Of course, he refused to repay me for those credit card charges,” Karen wrote.
Suffering at that time from a neurological condition that interfered with clear thinking and sound judgment, instead of seeing a lawyer who would have attempted to negotiate a repayment plan, she found a paralegal who prepared and helped her file a suit against boyfriend for the $10,000.
The paralegal never told Karen that, once served, he would likely hire a lawyer and in turn sue her, turning a $10,000 dispute into an expensive adventure in poor judgment. And when handed Karen’s lawsuit, the boyfriend responded by suing her for $100,000, which (1) led Karen into the arms of an attorney to defend the suit, and (2) in seven months winds up with her paying $45,000 in attorney fees!
Karen’s lawyer was well aware of her medical condition and, based upon what I have learned, used his skills — not to help a client – but to enrich him at her expense. Even though Karen suggested just sitting down with boyfriend and working it out – as this was expensive for him as well – the attorney refused.
Finally, she suggested that boyfriend just pay her $5,000 and the case would be dropped. The guy agreed, paid the money, and the case was settled.
Well, almost. Karen was stuck with the $10,000 credit card bill, plus something more, something that gives honest lawyers goose bumps. The written fee agreement – which itself violated California law — had a built in “bonus” of $5,000 to her attorney for settling the case before trial begins. But that is what a lawyer is paid to do in the first place — get a case settled prior to trial!
This is like ordering a Big Mac and then the server tells you, “Oh, we put meat in it, so now it costs more.”
So, even though hired to represent his client and obviously to save her money, he gets $5,000 more for doing his job! Talk about a rip-off!
In early 2007, Karen contacted “You and the Law,” and as I always do, a call was placed to her attorney. I was never given the courtesy of a return call and left several polite messages on his answering machine, simply requesting his version. I also faxed his office, with no reply.
Following my advice to contact the Humboldt County Bar Association and ask for fee arbitration, Karen requested a refund of the $5,000 “bonus” payment.
In my legal opinion, and that of experts in legal ethics I spoke with, it was an unconscionable fee. Such a fee violates the ethical standards to which we are held. Given Karen’s disability, it was simply shocking.
The fee arbitration case was heard in late August of 2007. As an expert witness for Karen, I gave my opinion that the “bonus” was illegal and without what we call in law “consideration.”
He was already paid to represent her and to resolve the case. There is no justification for that “bonus” of $5,000, and it does not matter if it is written into the contract. It was not only improper, but also clearly unconscionable in the legal sense of that word.
I often serve as an arbitrator in attorney fee dispute cases. Typically, the client and former attorney discuss the matter, and frequently something is worked out in a spirit of fairness and compromise.
Lawyers who care about doing the right thing and reputation among their peers know how serious these matters are. No lawyer with half a brain wants to behave like a greedy, unethical creep in front of other lawyers. So either a settlement is reached, or the arbitrator finds one way or the other.
In Karen’s case, her attorney did not to come to the hearing! I have never heard of such a thing! Despite urging by the arbitrator to appear, he declined to attend the hearing.
The arbitrator, attorney Gerri Anne Johnson, found this indeed to be an almost unbelievable example of unconscionability. The attorney was ordered to pay back not only the $5,000 bonus, but $10,000 in excessive fees charged, as well as the arbitration filing fee.
I hope that the state bar looks at this guy closely. From what I am told, he holds himself out as a champion of environmental causes. In my legal opinion, any lawyer who does these things is a champion deserving a trophy with the inscription: “In recognition of greed, arrogance and mockery of the legal profession.”
I have to compliment Karen for having the courage to stand up against evil, for that is what this case is really about. Lawyers do indeed have enormous power over people who do not know their rights or what to expect in a lawsuit.
We are here to serve and protect our clients, so many of who come to us in times of great stress, worry or fear. We are not here to rip them off.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.