August 2, 2015

Colorado Court of Appeals: Maintenance Awards Exempt from Attorney Charging Liens

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Marriage of Dixon v. Samuel J. Stoorman & Associates PC on Thursday, July 16, 2015.

Charging Lien—Maintenance—Attorney Fees.

Samuel J. Stoorman & Associates PC (law firm) sought to enforce its lien against the maintenance payments that husband was obligated to pay to the law firm’s former client (wife). The law firm had represented wife in the dissolution action giving rise to husband’s maintenance obligation. The trial court determined that the maintenance payments were exempt from enforcement of the attorney’s lien.

On appeal, the law firm contended that the trial court erred in finding that the law firm’s attorney’s lien could not be enforced against husband’s spousal maintenance obligations. A charging lien automatically attaches to the fruits of the attorney’s representation of the client, to the extent of the attorney’s reasonable fees remaining due and unpaid. An attorney may immediately enforce the lien against the client once judgment in favor of the client is entered. Maintenance payments and obligations are exempt from enforcement of the charging lien. Accordingly, an attorney’s charging lien may not be enforced against a court-ordered spousal maintenance obligation or payment. The trial court’s denial of the law firm’s motion to enforce the lien against husband’s maintenance obligations to wife was affirmed. Nevertheless, the law firm’s position did not lack substantial justification because the question whether a charging lien may be enforced against spousal maintenance payments or obligations had not been decided at the time of the law firm’s motion. Consequently, the award of attorney fees and costs to husband was reversed and husband’s request for an award of attorney fees and costs incurred on appeal was denied.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Public Comment Period Open for Changes to Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct

The public comment period is now open for proposed changes to the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. Most of the proposed changes amend the Comments to the Rules. Some of the proposed changes are minor, such as updating cross-references or contemplating electronic communications, while others are extensive, such as changes regarding how much disclosure of client information is appropriate during conflict checks or use of lawyers and nonlawyers outside the firm.

Comments regarding the proposed changes may be submitted to Christopher Ryan, Clerk of the Supreme Court, via email, mail, or hand-delivery. Comments must be received no later than 5 p.m. on October 15, 2015. A public hearing will be held on November 4, 2015, at 2:30 p.m. in the Colorado Supreme Court courtroom, and anyone wishing to participate in the hearing must notify Mr. Ryan no later than October 26, 2015.

For a redline of the proposed changes, click here.

Application Period Open for Vacancies on U.S. District Court Committee on Conduct

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado announced on Monday, July 13, 2015, that it is seeking applications for three vacancies on its Committee on Conduct. The Committee on Conduct investigates and acts upon complaints against members of the U.S. District Court bar, considers applications for reinstatement or readmission, and addresses matters concerning attorney disability.

Eligible applicants for the committee vacancies must have practiced law for ten years or more and have no disciplinary record; be licensed to practice by the Colorado Supreme Court; have been a member in good standing of the U.S. District Court bar for at least five years with no disciplinary record; and possess experience that makes the applicant especially qualified to investigate matters governed by the U.S. District Court’s disciplinary rules.

Applicants must submit the application packet in PDF format to COC_submissions@cod.uscourts.gov.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Proof of “Case Within a Case” Not Required in All Legal Malpractice Actions

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Boulders at Escalante LLC v. Otten Johnson Robinson Neff & Ragonetti PC on Thursday, June 18, 2015.

Legal Malpractice—Negligence—Statute of Limitations —Legal or Proximate Causation—Case Within a Case.

Plaintiff is a real estate development company formed to develop townhomes in a subdivision in Durango. Defendant is a law firm that was hired to represent plaintiff in a lawsuit against it by its general contractor to foreclose the contractor’s mechanic’s lien. Defendant filed several compulsory counterclaims on behalf of plaintiff for breach of contract and negligence. Plaintiff was concerned the contractor would not be able to pay a judgment if plaintiff succeeded on the counterclaims and asked defendant to review the insurance policies it had obtained for the project to determine whether the policies would pay a judgment against the contractor.

In 2006, defendant told plaintiff there was $2 to $4 million of coverage to pay a judgment against the contractor. In 2009, after plaintiff had obtained new representation, plaintiff learned that the policies contained an exclusion precluding payment to plaintiff if it succeeded on its claims against the contractor. Plaintiff and the contractor eventually settled, dismissing the claims against each other with prejudice. No payments were made by either party.

In 2011, plaintiff filed this action, asserting defendant was negligent in incorrectly advising regarding the insurance coverage, leading to extensive losses, including legal fees and expenses in continuing the litigation. The jury found defendant was negligent and its negligence caused 82.5% of the damages suffered by plaintiff. Judgment entered for approximately $2.7 million, plus pre- and post-judgment interest.

On appeal, defendant argued the claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations set forth in CRS § 13-80-102. Defendant argued that plaintiff’s claim accrued no later than February 2009, when plaintiff learned defendant’s advice regarding insurance coverage might be wrong, and the action wasn’t filed until April 1, 2011. The Court of Appeals disagreed. A cause of action for negligence accrues on the date both the injury and its cause are known or should have been known to the plaintiff by the exercise of reasonable diligence. Under the circumstances here, the question of when plaintiff knew or should have known that the advice was incorrect and that it was injured by that advice was properly a question resolved by the jury.

Defendant argued that in a legal malpractice action based on negligence, the plaintiff must prove a case within a case; namely, that the claim underlying the malpractice action would have been successful but for the attorney’s negligence. The Court disagreed. Here, the claimed injury does not relate to the outcome of the underlying matter, and therefore plaintiff did not need to prove a case within a case.

Defendant challenged whether its negligence caused plaintiff’s damages. The Court determined that the evidence was sufficient to establish that plaintiff proved its malpractice claim for damages based on the legal expenses it incurred because of defendant’s incorrect advice. But for this advice, plaintiff would not have continued incurring legal expenses in an attempt to prove its counterclaims. However, plaintiff should not have recovered damages based on the business losses it sustained. As a matter of law, defendant’s advice regarding the insurance coverage was not the legal, or proximate, cause of plaintiff’s claimed business losses. Although defendant could have reasonably foreseen that plaintiff would make business decisions based on defendant’s advice, the actual harm plaintiff suffered because of those business decisions was not within the scope of the risk created by defendant’s negligence. The case was remanded for a new trial, limited to determining the amount of damages plaintiff incurred in continuing to pursue its counterclaims against the contractor after receiving incorrect advice from plaintiff.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Secretary of State Breached Public Trust by Using Public Funds for Private Purposes

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Gessler v. Grossman on Thursday, May 7, 2015.

Breach of the Public Trust—Discretionary Fund Statute.

In August 2012, Colorado Secretary of StateGessler traveled to Florida to attend and present at a two-day program sponsored by the Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA). The RNLA seminar ended during the day on August 25, and Gessler stayed an additional night at an increased hotel rate and at the state of Colorado’s expense. The next day, he traveled to a different Florida city to attend the Republican National Convention (RNC).

Gessler used his statutorily provided discretionary fund to pay the $1,278.90 in documented travel and meal expenses incurred at the RNLA seminar. In addition, he requested reimbursement of “any remaining discretionary funds” in his discretionary account. He did not provide any documentation, but ultimately received $117.99 as the result of the request.

Colorado Ethics Watch filed a complaint with the Independent Ethics Commission (IEC). It alleged that Gessler had made false statements on travel expense reimbursement requests and misappropriated funds for personal or political uses. The IEC found that Gessler spent $1,278.90 of his discretionary account primarily for partisan—and therefore personal—purposes, in violation of the discretionary fund statute’s requirement that the fund be used in pursuit of official business. Gessler similarly violated the statute by requesting and receiving the balance in his discretionary fund without any documentation. Together, these constituted a breach of the public trust for private gain, in violation of the public trust statute, CRS § 24-18-103. Gessler sought judicial review of the IEC’s findings based on several assertions, each of which the district court rejected in a thorough written opinion.

On appeal, Gessler argued that Colo. Const. art. XXIX, § 5 applies only to gifts, influence peddling, and standards of conduct and reporting requirements that expressly delegate enforcement to the IEC. The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that § 5 gives the IEC authority “under any other standards of conduct and reporting requirements as provided by law.”

Gessler also argued that the public trust statute does not fall within the ambit of § 5 because it is “hortatory” only and does not provide a specific standard of conduct. The Court disagreed. It found that the statute sets forth specific standards of conduct. It also noted that Colo. Const. art. XXIX, § 6 provides an express remedy for violations of the public trust for private gain.

Gessler contended that the discretionary fund statute does not fall within the ambit of § 5. The Court rejected Gessler’s premise that Article XXIX excludes standards of conduct related to compensation. It also noted that even if compensation were excluded from the IEC’s jurisdiction, the discretionary fund statute does not constitute compensation. Discretionary funds are not received in return for services rendered but may only be used “in pursuance of official business.” It also rejected Gessler’s argument that he had unfettered discretion over the use of discretionary funds as leading to an absurd result, as well as rejecting Gessler’s claim that there is no specific standard of conduct for expenditure of the funds. The Court pointed to the requirement that those funds be used “in pursuance of official business.”

Gessler also argued that the IEC had construed its jurisdiction so broadly as to render § 5 vague and overbroad. The Court rejected this contention by noting it had construed § 5 so as to recognize the applicable limits to the IEC’s jurisdiction.

Gessler contended that if the IEC had jurisdiction, then its decision was arbitrary or capricious. The Court disagreed, finding substantial evidence in the record to support the IEC’s determination that Gessler improperly used his discretionary fund to attend the RNLA seminar and the RNC.

Finally, the Court rejected Gessler’s argument that he was denied procedural due process because he was not given advance and adequate notice of the standards of conduct he was accused of having violated. The Court found that Gessler had received ample notice of the claims asserted against him and, in any event, there was no support for any claim of prejudice to Gessler as a result of the notice he received. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

The Colorado Lawyer: Conflicts Check—Just Do It

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. Reprinted with permission.

By J. Randolph Evans, Shari L. Klevens, and Lino S. LipinskyEvans-Klevens-Lipinsky


Authors’ Note
Readers’ comments and feedback on this series of “WhoopsLegal Practice Malpractice Prevention” articles are welcomed and appreciated. References in the articles to “safest courses to proceed,” “safest course,” or “best practices” are not intended to suggest that the Colorado Rules require such actions. Often, best practices and safest courses involve more than just complying with the Rules. In practice, compliance with the Rules can and should avoid a finding of discipline in response to a grievance or a finding of liability in response to a malpractice claim. However, because most claims and grievances are meritless, effective risk management in the modern law practice involves much more. Hence, best practices and safer courses of action do more; they help prevent and more quickly defeat meritless claims and grievances. Other than billing, there is virtually nothing that attorneys dread more than addressing potential conflicts of interest. After all, resolving conflicts issues requires and attorney to focus on why not to take on a new representation rather than how to get the business in the door. However, unidentified or unresolved conflict issues cost lawyers more—in both clients and money—than most attorrneys realize.


Legal publications are replete with articles about motions to disqualify, disciplinary cases, and legal malpractice claims based on an unidentified or unresolved conflict of interest. Even when successfully defended, conflict-based allegations cost lawyers time and money. When lawyers lose, the risks are serious. The attorney could be disqualified from representing the client, face discipline for violating the Rules of Professional Conduct, receive an unfavorable jury verdict, or be forced to pay punitive damages based on a finding of disloyalty. The Office of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge (PDJ) takes conflicts of interest violations very seriously.[1]

In addition, judges and juries may well disregard defenses to claims (such as the protections of independent professional judgment or “trial tactics”) based on a breach of the lawyer’s fundamental fiduciary duty of loyalty to the client. Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced world, the path of least resistance when a new client walks in the door is to get started on the case without performing even a rudimentary conflicts check. When it comes to conflicts, however, haste really does make waste.

Rule 1: Identify Conflicts Before Representation

Conflicts do not get better with time and cannot simply be undone. Once a conflict-laden representation begins, one cannot simply give back the confidences and secrets and forget it ever happened. When the attorney–client relationship attaches under a cloud of a potential or actual conflict of interest, there is no going back to the way things were before. For this reason, the attorney must identify and resolve conflicts of interest before the attorney–client relationship begins. It is one of those areas where an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound (if not a ton) of cure.

Rule 2: Grant No Exceptions

With conflicts, systems aimed at 100% compliance are critical. Inevitably, it is that one representation that escaped the system that creates the most problems. Typically, the reasons for operating outside the conflicts process for one representation (the client is too important, the case is too complicated, the attorney is too rushed) are the same reasons the conflict analysis was so important for that representation. Hence, the single most important part of conflicts analysis is compliance without exception.

The challenge, then, is to address conflicts as painlessly as possible. The easier and faster the system is, the more likely it will be that every lawyer will “run conflicts” on every representation.

One last point on the “no exceptions” rule bears emphasis. Every new representation—even if it does not involve a new client—should be screened for conflicts. Conflicts screening should be done each time a new party becomes involved as a plaintiff, defendant, lender, buyer, or seller. Also note that, although computers make conflicts screening much easier, they are no substitute in the final conflicts analysis for involving lawyers in the process. Effective conflicts procedures involve both.

Spotting Actual and Potential Conflicts

Attorneys in Colorado must comply with Rules 1.7 and 1.8 of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct, which govern conflicts. There are two kinds of conflicts: actual conflicts and potential conflicts. The distinctions between each are worth noting.

Actual Conflicts

An actual conflict means that the conflict cannot be waived by disclosure or consent; the attorney simply cannot accept the representation. One type of actual conflict is direct adversity, which occurs when the needs of one client are directly adverse to the needs of another client. For example, a law firm cannot represent both a plaintiff and a defendant in the same lawsuit (although it has been tried). Effective conflicts systems identify direct adversity conflicts and make it impossible to open a matter when they arise.

Potential Conflicts

A potential conflict means that there is some issue that must be addressed before a lawyer can accept the representation. Typically, the issue is some form of consent or waiver from either the new client, another client, or a former client.

There are two types of potential conflicts: successive representations and multiple representations. Although they are different, the waiver is largely the same—full disclosure and consent. In both situations, the attorney must provide full disclosure to all of their clients and obtain their written consent before taking on the representation.

Successive representation. Successive representation conflict rules involve potential conflicts between a current (or prospective) client and a former client. Under the conflict rules, a lawyer cannot represent a new client in a matter substantially related to the representation of a former client without the former client’s consent after full disclosure.

Although there are many cases defining “substantially related,” the essence is whether the lawyer learned (or could have learned) confidential information from the old client that could be used in the new representation for the new client. If the answer is no—the lawyer did not and could not have learned confidences and secrets that could now be used—then the lawyer should be able to accept the new representation. If the answer is yes (and lawyers should assume the answer is yes when in doubt), then the lawyer should provide full disclosure to the former client and acquire his or her consent in writing before taking on the new representation.

Multiple representation. Multiple representation conflict rules involve potential conflicts arising out of the representation of more than one client. Many lawyers overcomplicate the analysis; it is actually pretty straightforward. If there is more than one client, then the multiple representation rules should be applied.

In most situations, the potential conflict is easy to spot—there is more than one client listed on the new matter form, so the rules have to be applied. However, sometimes the conflict is not so apparent. These situations can arise out of probate litigation (representing the executor, estate, and heirs); securities litigation (representing both the corporation and the directors/officers); domestic litigation (representing the parents and the children); and bankruptcies (representing multiple creditors).

Whenever there is more than one client, the lawyer should ask (1) Are there things I might do differently if I represented only one of the clients? and (2) Could changes down the road create adversity between the clients? If the answer to both questions is no, then there may be no conflict. Depending on the circumstances, the attorney may be able to accept the representation without further investigation. If the answer to either question is yes, then there is a potential conflict that requires a more thorough analysis. This analysis involves determining whether the lawyer can adequately represent the interests of all of the clients. If the answer to this question is no, then there is an actual conflict.

A simple way to establish whether there is an actual conflict is to determine if the clients’ interests are linked in any way. In a contested divorce proceeding, for example, no lawyer could advance one spouse’s interests without impacting the interests of the other spouse. Therefore, the representation of a wife and husband in a contested divorce proceeding is not permissible with or without consent.

Conclusion

Conflicts do not have to be complicated. They just require practice discipline and proper analysis. Before the representation begins, get the names and run the conflicts. Adopt the mantra “Just Do It!”


Note

[1] See People v. Layton, No. 13PDJ036 (PDJ Sept. 25, 2013) (suspending an attorney in part due to violation of Colo. RPC 1.8(e), which prohibits an attorney from providing financial assistance to a client involved in pending litigation).

Randy Evans is an author, litigator, columnist and expert in the areas of professional liability, insurance, commercial litigation, entertainment, ethics, and lawyer’s law. He has authored and co-authored eight books, including: The Lawyer’s Handbook; Georgia Legal Malpractice Law; Climate Change And Insurance; Georgia Property and Liability Insurance Law; Appraisal In Property Damage Insurance Disputes; and California Legal Malpractice Law. He writes newspaper columns (the Atlanta Business Chronicle, the Recorder, and the Daily Report) and lectures around the world. He served as counsel to the Speakers of the 104th – 109th Congresses of the United States. He co-chairs the Georgia Judicial Nominating Commission. He serves on the Board of Governors of the State Bar of Georgia. He handles complex litigation throughout the world. He has been consistently rated as one of the Best Lawyers in America, Super Lawyer (District of Columbia and Georgia), Georgia’s Most Influential Attorneys, and Georgia’s Top Lawyers for Legal Leaders. Along with numerous other awards he has been named the “Complex Litigation Attorney of the Year in Georgia” by Corporate International Magazine, and Lawyer of the Year for Legal Malpractice Defense in Atlanta. He is AV rated by Martindale Hubble.

Shari Klevens is a partner in the Atlanta and Washington, D.C. offices of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP. Shari represents lawyers and law firms in the defense of legal malpractice claims and advises and counsels lawyers concerning allegations of malpractice, ethical violations, and breaches of duty. In addition, Shari is the Chair of the McKenna’s Law Firm Defense and Risk Management Practice and is a frequent writer and lecturer on issues related to legal malpractice and ethics. Shari co-authored Georgia Legal Malpractice Law and California Legal Malpractice Law, which address the intricacies and nuances of Legal Malpractice law and issues that confront the new millennium lawyer. She also co-authored The Lawyer’s Handbook: Ethics Compliance and Claim Avoidance, which is an easy-to-use desk reference offering practical solutions to real problems in the modern law practice for every attorney throughout the United States.

Lino Lipinsky de Orlov is a litigation partner in the Denver office of McKenna Long & Aldridge, LLP.  He represents clients in all aspects of commercial litigation, mediation, arbitration, and appeals.  He has developed particular experience in complex business cases, particularly those involving creditor’s rights, real estate, trade secrets, and employment disputes.  Mr. Lipinsky also frequently speaks and writes on legal issues relating to technology, employment law, and ethics.   He is a member of the Colorado Bar Association’s Board of Governors and serves on the Board of the Colorado Judicial Institute.  He is a former President of the Faculty of Federal Advocates.  Among his honors, Chambers USA has recognized Mr. Lipinsky as one of Colorado’s leading general commercial litigators, and he has been included in The Best Lawyers in America.  He received his A.B. degree, magna cum laude, from Brown University and his J.D. degree from New York University School of Law, where he was a member of the New York University Law Review.

 

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

Colorado Supreme Court: Attorney Did Not Violate Rule 1.16(d) Where Some of Non-Returned Flat Fee was Earned

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in In the Matter of Juliet Carol Gilbert on Monday, April 6, 2015.

Attorney Discipline—Quantum Meruit—Colo. RPC 1.16(d).

In this attorney discipline proceeding, the Supreme Court considered whether an attorney violated Colo. RPC 1.16(d) by failing to return all of an advance fee to her clients. Colo. RPC 1.16(d) requires attorneys to refund upon termination by a client any advance payment of fee that “has not been earned.”

In this case, the attorney’s flat fee agreement did not describe what payment, if any, the clients would owe the attorney if the representation ended early. The Hearing Board determined that the attorney had earned part of the advance fee under a quantum meruit theory by performing services for the clients, and that she did not violate the ethical rules by retaining this amount after her discharge.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Hearing Board’s order. Under the facts of this case, the attorney did not violate Colo. RPC 1.16(d) by failing to return the portion of an advance fee to which she was entitled in quantum meruit for services rendered for her clients.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

The Colorado Lawyer: Screen Clients First—Avoid Problems Later

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. Reprinted with permission.

By J. Randolph Evans, Shari L. Klevens, and Lino S. LipinskyEvans-Klevens-Lipinsky


Authors’ Note
Readers’ comments and feedback on this series of “WhoopsLegal Practice Malpractice Prevention” articles are welcomed and appreciated. References in the articles to “safest courses to proceed,” “safest course,” or “best practices” are not intended to suggest that the Colorado Rules require such actions. Often, best practices and safest courses involve more than just complying with the Rules. In practice, compliance with the Rules can and should avoid a finding of discipline in response to a grievance or a finding of liability in response to a malpractice claim. However, because most claims and grievances are meritless, effective risk management in the modern law practice involves much more. Hence, best practices and safer courses of action do more; they help prevent and more quickly defeat meritless claims and grievances. Other than billing, there is virtually nothing that attorneys dread more than addressing potential conflicts of interest. After all, resolving conflicts issues requires and attorney to focus on why not to take on a new representation rather than how to get the business in the door. However, unidentified or unresolved conflict issues cost lawyers more—in both clients and money—than most attorneys realize.


For many attorneys in today’s difficult economic world, screening clients seems like a far-fetched concept, akin to telling a starving man to watch what he eats. Many firms are just glad to have clients; screening the few they have appears to be the least of the firm’s worries.

However, according to the data, problem clients are often worse than no clients at all. Clients who pay fees, but who also bring legal malpractice claims, only hurt—not help—the attorney and can result in a large net loss for the firm. The challenge comes in screening out the problem clients during the intake process.

Screening clients has a different meaning depending on the size, type, and location of a law practice. For solo practitioners, it will mean identifying the risk factors for new clients (preferably through use of a checklist) and then balancing the risks against the potential rewards of the representation. For smaller and mid-size firms, screening involves identifying standard practices and procedures suitable for the needs and expertise of the law practice, and ensuring that all of the lawyers in the practice consistently follow those rules. For larger firms, effective screening includes systems to ensure consistent compliance with the firm’s policies.

Every representation, whether for a paying client or for a pro bono client, requires that the attorney exercise good judgment about acceptance of the new client; and because it involves judgment, there is no formula for every decision regarding whether to accept a new client. However, there are some practices and procedures attorneys can implement when creating checklists and developing systems for screening prospective new clients.

Developing a Screening Method

Some indicators for problem clients seem obvious. Others are the product of data about legal malpractice claims and the risks of the modern-day law practice. The most important part of client screening is to adopt and follow a set of standard practices and procedures, including referring to a screening checklist, that apply to every new client and matter.

1. Ask the right questions.

Common sense goes a long way in detecting and avoiding problem clients. For example, one of the most telling questions to ask a new client is: “How many attorneys have previously represented you in this matter?” If the answer to that question is “seven,” the attorney will want to think long and hard about becoming the eighth. Clients who have been unhappy enough to hire and fire seven attorneys are unlikely to be happy with the eighth. Of greater concern is that, if their case or transaction does not go well in their eyes, they just might hire a ninth to sue the eighth for malpractice.

The lawyer should ask prospective clients other common-sense questions. For example: How many times have you been a party to litigation? Potential clients who have been parties to several prior cases should raise red flags. This is especially true for potential clients who have made a career of suing other people. Eventually, these serial plaintiffs make their way to also suing their attorney.

The realities of the proposed representation are also relevant when deciding to take on a new client. In making this assessment, consider when the work must get done. This involves calculating the first deadline for the new matter. Representations often do not end well if they begin on the eve of (1) the expiration of the statute of limitations for a plaintiff’s claim; (2) a scheduled closing for completion of a transaction or deal; or (3) any other imminent deadline. Unrealistic deadlines are red flags for a new representation.

Sometimes, there are good reasons a client reaches out to an attorney to undertake a representation on the eve of a pressing deadline. However, they are sometimes the same reasons an attorney should have second thoughts about accepting the representation. It could be that an earlier attorney fired the client because the client did not pay, or there could be insurmountable problems that have left the client desperate for immediate representation. Whatever the reason, the most significant questions attorneys should ask are: (1) When is the earliest deadline? and (2) Why is the client just now reaching out? The answers to these questions are important in deciding whether to accept the representation.

Another good question to ask is whether the prospective client can afford to pay the attorney fees associated with the representation. If there is no realistic chance of getting paid and the attorney takes the case anyway, the attorney assumes the risks of liability with no opportunity for compensation. This is a lose–lose proposition. Thus, a prospective client’s ability to pay is an important pre-representation topic that attorneys should candidly address.

Other things to consider when screening prospective clients include (1) possible conflicts with other clients; (2) whether the attorney has the expertise required to effectively handle all of the client’s issues; and (3) the role the client expects the attorney to play in the context of the client’s overall situation. These determinations are of particular concern, because they relate to an attorney’s ethical obligations toward the client.

For example, the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct (Rules or Colo. RPC) require an attorney to avoid conflicts with current and past clients or, alternatively, to take special care when entering into an engagement that could create potential conflicts.[1] The Rules also address attorney competence, requiring that an attorney has the “legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”[2] Additionally, the Rules allow an attorney to limit the scope of representation at the outset of an engagement, if reasonable.[3] Thorough screening may reveal whether limiting the scope of representation from the outset is a prudent option under the circumstances, as opposed to declining the engagement, based on the client’s stated objectives. If the attorney has captured in writing the scope of the mutually agreed representation at the beginning of the engagement, that attorney will be in a far better position should the client later challenge the attorney on this front.

Certain types of engagements may be permitted under the Rules, but not under the Standards of Professional Conduct of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. Attorneys should be aware that the U.S. District Court has declined to adopt the state’s “unbundling” rule, Colo. RPC 1.2(c), which allows the provision of limited representation to pro se parties, as described in Colo. RPC 11(b) and Rule 311(b) of the County Court Rules of Civil Procedure.[4] For example, in state court matters, an attorney may provide assistance to a pro se litigant without entering an appearance. The same attorney, however, is prohibited from “ghost writing” a pro se party’s filings in federal court. The attorney should turn away a potential client who is seeking the type of behind-the-scenes assistance that the U.S. District Court does not permit.

On October 10, 2014, the U.S. District Court promulgated proposed amendments to its local rules that include an opt-out from comment 14 to Colo. RPC 1.2(d). The comment, which the Colorado Supreme Court adopted on March 24, 2014, states that a Colorado attorney may counsel clients “regarding the validity, scope, and meaning” of the medical marijuana and recreational marijuana provisions of the state constitution, and “may assist a client in conduct that the lawyer reasonably believes is permitted by these constitutional provisions” and the laws implementing them, as long as the attorney also “advise[s] the client regarding related federal law and policy.” If the District of Colorado ultimately decides not to adopt comment 14, attorneys admitted to practice in that court would need to carefully consider whether they could accept engagements involving advice regarding the state’s marijuana laws.

In sum, thorough screening provides a double benefit to the prudent attorney. It decreases the attorney’s exposure to malpractice suits and fulfills several ethical obligations.

2. Consider what’s expected.

An attorney should inquire about the prospective client’s expectations—of both the representation and the attorney. Some clients simply expect their attorney to achieve a successful result on their behalf, without consideration as to how that end is achieved. These attorney-client relationships rarely end well. A candid conversation about what is possible, along with a description of what the attorney can and cannot do, is an important part of the screening process. If there are things the prospective client expects that the attorney is unable or unwilling to do, the attorney should decline the representation.

One other thing to watch for is a client who is “too good to be true.” Often, these are the same clients who expect an attorney to bend (or ignore) the rules. Their stories are full of contradictions, and they expect results regardless of means. Avoid the temptation of agreeing to represent them without conducting a thorough investigation; these may turn out to be problem clients, too.

3. Conduct some background research.

The Internet provides attorneys cost-effective tools for conducting fast preliminary background research on prospective clients. The research might turn up little, or it might disclose a prospective client with a history of problems that often extend to anyone and everyone around the client. Credit checks (with the consent of the prospective client) could reflect someone who either cannot or does not pay. A simple litigation search might reflect a prospective client who has sued his or her attorney before. These possible clients require a long look before an attorney would agree to the representation.

4. Create a client-screening system.

Inevitably, the client who creates the most problems is the one who escaped the screening filters. Effective systems make it next to impossible for potential problem clients to slip through the cracks. This means that a file cannot be opened or a matter billed unless the screening questions have been asked and the data collected. Hence, the certainty of the system is as important as the content of the screening itself.

NOTES

[1] See Colo. RPC 1.7 and 1.8. Comment 3 to Rule 1.7, which addresses conflicts with current clients, states, in part, “[a] conflict of interest may exist before representation is undertaken, in which event the representation must be declined, unless the lawyer obtains the informed written consent of each client . . .” under the conditions provided in the rule.

[2] See Colo. RPC 1.1.

[3] Colo. RPC 1.2, cmts. 6 and 7.

[4] See D.C.Colo.L.Atty.R. 2(b)(1).

 

Randy Evans is an author, litigator, columnist and expert in the areas of professional liability, insurance, commercial litigation, entertainment, ethics, and lawyer’s law. He has authored and co-authored eight books, including: The Lawyer’s Handbook; Georgia Legal Malpractice Law; Climate Change And Insurance; Georgia Property and Liability Insurance Law; Appraisal In Property Damage Insurance Disputes; and California Legal Malpractice Law. He writes newspaper columns (the Atlanta Business Chronicle, the Recorder, and the Daily Report) and lectures around the world. He served as counsel to the Speakers of the 104th – 109th Congresses of the United States. He co-chairs the Georgia Judicial Nominating Commission. He serves on the Board of Governors of the State Bar of Georgia. He handles complex litigation throughout the world. He has been consistently rated as one of the Best Lawyers in America, Super Lawyer (District of Columbia and Georgia), Georgia’s Most Influential Attorneys, and Georgia’s Top Lawyers for Legal Leaders. Along with numerous other awards he has been named the “Complex Litigation Attorney of the Year in Georgia” by Corporate International Magazine, and Lawyer of the Year for Legal Malpractice Defense in Atlanta. He is AV rated by Martindale Hubble.

Shari Klevens is a partner in the Atlanta and Washington, D.C. offices of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP. Shari represents lawyers and law firms in the defense of legal malpractice claims and advises and counsels lawyers concerning allegations of malpractice, ethical violations, and breaches of duty. In addition, Shari is the Chair of the McKenna’s Law Firm Defense and Risk Management Practice and is a frequent writer and lecturer on issues related to legal malpractice and ethics. Shari co-authored Georgia Legal Malpractice Law and California Legal Malpractice Law, which address the intricacies and nuances of Legal Malpractice law and issues that confront the new millennium lawyer. She also co-authored The Lawyer’s Handbook: Ethics Compliance and Claim Avoidance, which is an easy-to-use desk reference offering practical solutions to real problems in the modern law practice for every attorney throughout the United States.

Lino Lipinsky de Orlov is a litigation partner in the Denver office of McKenna Long & Aldridge, LLP.  He represents clients in all aspects of commercial litigation, mediation, arbitration, and appeals.  He has developed particular experience in complex business cases, particularly those involving creditor’s rights, real estate, trade secrets, and employment disputes.  Mr. Lipinsky also frequently speaks and writes on legal issues relating to technology, employment law, and ethics.   He is a member of the Colorado Bar Association’s Board of Governors and serves on the Board of the Colorado Judicial Institute.  He is a former President of the Faculty of Federal Advocates.  Among his honors, Chambers USA has recognized Mr. Lipinsky as one of Colorado’s leading general commercial litigators, and he has been included in The Best Lawyers in America.  He received his A.B. degree, magna cum laude, from Brown University and his J.D. degree from New York University School of Law, where he was a member of the New York University Law Review.

 

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

Frederick Skillern: Real Estate Case Law — Lawyers and Professional Liability

Editor’s note: This is Part 14 of a series of posts in which Denver-area real estate attorney Frederick Skillern provides summaries of case law pertinent to real estate practitioners (click here for previous posts). These updates originally appeared as materials for the 32nd Annual Real Estate Symposium in July 2014.

frederick-b-skillernBy Frederick B. Skillern

Gibbons v. Ludlow
Colorado Supreme Court, July 1, 2013
2013 CO 49

Professional negligence; transactional “case within the case”; causation of damage; “better deal” test.

This case was mentioned in last year’s “supplement” to our outline, and is repeated here for convenience, as it is an important case in the professional liability circles. It involves liability claims against both brokers and transactional attorneys, and the key element of causation. If one is negligent in advising a client in a transaction, and the client gains less from a deal than is anticipated, must the plaintiff prove that a “better deal” could be had? The court is required to find the analog to the “case within a case” that is tried in legal malpractice actions arising out of the litigation process. Although the case addresses the liability of a seller’s broker, the same principles apply to a claim against a seller’s attorney.

The trial court answered the presented question affirmatively, and dismissed a negligence claim against the seller’s broker on summary judgment. The court of appeals reversed, but the supreme court reverses and reinstates the summary judgment ruling. To sustain a professional negligence claim against a transaction real estate broker (or attorney), a plaintiff must show causation of damage, in addition to negligence. That is, it must be shown that but for the alleged negligent acts of the broker, the seller either (1) would have been able to obtain a better deal in the underlying transaction, or (2) would have been better off by walking away from the underlying transaction. In the court’s view, the sellers failed to present evidence that any negligence of the broker caused the seller to suffer damage. They did not establish beyond mere possibility or speculation that they suffered a financial loss as a result of the transactional broker’s professional negligence. Because no injury could be shown, the trial court properly granted summary judgment as a matter of law.

The underlying deal was documented in a contract with a set price, with adjustments for construction of infrastructure and cost-sharing with other developers. The sellers claim that the brokers failed to explain that the net income from the transaction could be substantially less than the stated purchase price as a result of the cost-sharing provisions. The brokers argued that their sellers submitted no evidence that they could have sold the property to someone else for more. This is termed the “better deal” test. The sellers respond that they presented evidence that the property was worth the contract price, or $1.6 million more than the net proceeds of the deal. They argue that they can recover in negligence for this “no deal” scenario. The court of appeals agreed and held that the general measure of damages for a total loss of property is the fair market value of the property at the date of loss. In effect, the Supreme Court says — you must prove you could have sold the property for more, or that you would have made more had you walked away from the deal.

 

Baker v. Wood, Ris & Hames

Petition for Writ of Certiorari GRANTED February 3, 2014.

Summary of the Issues:

  • Whether the court of appeals erred in determining that third-party intended beneficiaries of a deceased testator’s estate plan lack standing to pursue a claim for professional malpractice against the testator’s estate planning attorneys based on either breach of contract or professional negligence.
  • Whether the court of appeals erred in confusing petitioners’ claim for fraudulent concealment with the distinct tort of fraudulent misrepresentation in applying the heightened pleading requirements of C.R.C.P. 9(b) to petitioners’ concealment claim as if it were a claim for fraudulent representation.
Frederick B. Skillern, Esq., is a director and shareholder with Montgomery Little & Soran, P.C., practicing in real estate and related litigation and appeals. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with real estate, professional responsibility and attorney fees, and acts as a mediator and arbitrator in real estate cases. Before joining Montgomery Little in 2003, Fred was in private practice in Denver for 6 years with Carpenter & Klatskin and for 10 years with Isaacson Rosenbaum. He served as a district judge for Colorado’s Eighteenth Judicial District from 2000 through 2002. Fred is a graduate of Dartmouth College, and received his law degree at the University of Colorado in 1976, in another day and time in which the legal job market was simply awful.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Defendant’s Right to Testify Not Unconstitutionally Usurped by Counsel

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Thomas on Thursday, February 26, 2015.

Self-Defense—Right to Testify—Prejudice.

Thomas had opposed self-defense, and throughout the trial he remained consistent that he wanted to testify to his actual innocence. His attorneys had told him that choosing self-defense was their prerogative, and they told him that once they advanced this defense in opening statement, his testifying to actual innocence would destroy the credibility of the defense. Thomas alleged that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by pursuing a self-defense theory over his objection.

Thomas argued that trial counsel’s self-defense strategy usurped his constitutional right to testify because, if not foreclosed by this strategy, he would have testified that he had not shot the victim.Even assuming that counsel’s decision to proceed with self-defense constituted deficient performance, Thomas made no showing of prejudice. Therefore, his argument fails.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Fourth Amendment Does Not Require Judge’s Signature on Search Warrant

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Cruz on Monday, December 22, 2014.

Raul Cruz was convicted by a jury of knowingly and intentionally possessing methamphetamine with intent to distribute and sentenced to 63 months’ imprisonment. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. Cruz subsequently filed a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence, alleging his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to move to suppress evidence uncovered during the search of his residence pursuant to an unsigned search warrant. The district court denied relief on this assertion, and Cruz appealed.

The Tenth Circuit found, upon examination of the record, that the affidavit and warrant had been presented to a New Mexico district judge on March 26th, 2010. The judge signed the signature lines on the affidavit but neglected to sign the warrant at that time. Officers executed the warrant on March 29, 2010, and found methamphetamine, horse steroids, cash, and false identification. Officers found no evidence of drug use in the home or by Cruz. Cruz admitted to possession of the drugs but not intent to distribute. Approximately a month later, the judge signed the warrant, dated it March 26, 2010, and wrote “Nunc Pro Tunc on this April 23, 2010″ below the date line.

Cruz asserted that his counsel should have moved to suppress the evidence seized during the search of his residence, as well as his subsequent statements to police about the fruits of the search, because the unsigned warrant was not “issued” by a judge. Cruz claims that such motion would have been meritorious and would ultimately have led either to dismissal of the charges against him or his acquittal at trial. The Tenth Circuit disagreed, finding instead that nothing in the text of the Fourth Amendment conditions the validity of a warrant on its being signed. The First Circuit recently dealt with surprisingly similar facts and rejected the defendant’s argument, concluding that nothing in the Fourth Amendment required the judge who made the probable cause determination to also sign the warrant. The Tenth Circuit exhaustingly examined the meaning of the term “issue” under the Fourth Amendment, and found no reason to impose conditions on a validity of a warrant that were not set forth by the Fourth Amendment itself. The Tenth Circuit therefore concluded that there was no support for an inference that Cruz’s counsel’s motion to suppress would have been meritorious, and found no deficient performance of his counsel.

The district court’s judgment was affirmed.

Compensation During Dissolution of Law Firm LLCs

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Colorado Bar Association Business Law Section’s January 2015 newsletter. Click here for the Business Law Section webpage.

HerrickLidstoneBy Herrick K. Lidstone, Jr., Esq.

The Colorado Limited Liability Company Act was front-and-center in a January 2015 decision from the Colorado Supreme Court. The case, LaFond v. Sweeney, 2015 CO 3 (January 20, 2015) involved the dissolution of a law firm organized as a two-member LLC with no written agreement regarding the treatment of assets and liabilities on dissolution. Richard LaFond brought a contingent fee case into the law firm and performed a significant amount of work on that case before the firm dissolved. He continued his work on the matter after dissolution. His now former partner, Charlotte Sweeney, claimed an interest in the contingent fee.

Mr. LaFond brought a declaratory judgment action against Ms. Sweeney to obtain a judicial determination regarding her right to any portion of the contingent fee. The trial court entered judgment for Ms. Sweeney, finding that she would be entitled to one-half of the fees earned from the contingency case, up to a maximum of $298,589.24 potentially to be paid to Ms. Sweeney (based on the time spent by the LaFond & Sweeney law firm before dissolution and assumed billable rates).

Ms. Sweeney appealed the trial court’s decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals. Ultimately, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that absent an agreement to the contrary, all profits derived from winding up the LLC’s business belong to the LLC to be distributed in accordance with the members’ or managers’ profit sharing agreement, and the LLC Act does not grant winding up members or managers the right to receive additional compensation for their winding up services.

Court of Appeals Decision

In its decision (2012 WL 503655, Feb. 16, 2012), the Court of Appeals recognized that it would have to decide:

[That since] there was no written agreement that specifically described how the contingent fee generated by the case should be distributed[,] we must look to other authority to decide the ultimate issue raised by this appeal: should the contingent fee be divided between LaFond and Sweeney, and, if so, how?

The Court of Appeals went on to decide that:

  1. Cases belong to clients, not to attorneys or law firms;
  2. When attorneys handle contingent fee cases to a successful resolution, they have enforceable rights to the contingent fee; and
  3. A contingent fee may constitute an asset of a dissolved law firm organized as a limited liability company.

The important conclusion by the Court of Appeals and affirmed by the Supreme Court was that when a limited liability company formed under Colorado law dissolves, the members/managers owe a duty to each other to wind up the business of the LLC, and unless otherwise agreed between the parties, no additional compensation is paid for winding up activities.

Supreme Court Decision

The statute in question is § 7-80-404(1)(a), which provides that members in a member-managed LLC and managers of a manager-managed LLC have a duty to:

Account to the limited liability company and hold as trustee for it any property, profit, or benefit derived by the member or manager in the conduct of winding up of the limited liability company business or derived from a use by the member or manager of property of the limited liability company, including the appropriation of an opportunity of the limited liability company.

The Supreme Court noted that, in 2006, the General Assembly added C.R.S. § 7-80-803.3 (entitled “Right to wind up business”) to Colorado’s limited liability company act, but did not include any provision allowing the person winding up the business of the LLC to be compensated for such actions, absent an agreement for such compensation. The Supreme Court also noted that the 1996 version of the Uniform Limited Liability Company Act did contemplate compensation to members who engage in winding up activities: (“A member is not entitled to remuneration for services performed for a limited liability company, except for reasonable compensation for services rendered in winding up the business of the company.” See Unif. Ltd. Liab. Co. Act § 403(d) (1996)). Colorado did not adopt this provision even though, as the Supreme Court noted, “the General Assembly’s 2006 amendments to the LLC Act incorporated some elements from the Model Act.”

The Supreme Court also noted that, in 1997, the General Assembly enacted the Colorado Uniform Partnership Act which, in C.R.S. § 7-64-401(8) “explicitly states that a partner is entitled to additional compensation for services performed in winding up the business of the partnership.” The Supreme Court went to the next logical conclusion:

If it wished, the legislature could have included language that would give members or managers the right to additional compensation for their services in winding up the LLC, but did not do so in the original LLC Act or its subsequent amendments.

Based on its analysis of the Colorado limited liability company act, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision and concluded that:

  1. an LLC continues to exist after dissolution to wind up its business;
  2. upon dissolution, pending contingency fee cases are an LLC’s business;
  3. absent an agreement to the contrary, all profits derived from winding up the LLC’s business belong to the LLC to be distributed in accordance with the members’ or managers’ profit sharing agreement; and
  4. the LLC Act does not grant winding up members or managers the right to receive additional compensation for their services in winding up LLC business.

Members and Managers Fiduciary Duties?

In another portion of the opinion (at paragraphs 36–37), the Supreme Court addressed fiduciary duties in the LLC context in a manner that is inconsistent with the Colorado LLC Act. While acknowledging that the client has the right to choose legal counsel and to enter into and to terminate engagements with counsel, the Supreme Court said:

Under Colorado law, members and managers of an LLC cannot act to induce or persuade a client to discharge the LLC for the benefit of a particular member or manager of the LLC to the exclusion of the others; they breach their fiduciary duties to the LLC if they attempt to do so.

Unfortunately this misinterprets the Colorado LLC Act which carefully does not use the term “fiduciary duty” to define the duties of the members and managers. Furthermore the Supreme Court’s language treats the duties of members and managers as being identical, whether or not the LLC is member-managed or manager-managed. For example, the duty to “account to the limited liability company and hold as trustee for it any property, profit, or benefit derived by the member or manager in the conduct or winding up of the limited liability company business” (C.R.S. § 7-80-404(1)(a)) only applies to members of a member-managed LLC, not to members of a manager-managed LLC. Members of a manager-managed LLC only owe the obligation to “discharge the member’s … duties to the limited liability company and exercise any rights consistently with the contractual obligation of good faith and fair dealing.” (C.R.S. § 7-80-404(3)) The Supreme Court’s ultimate conclusion is not dependent on the fiduciary duty analysis which may, in fact, be applicable in other forms of ownership (such as a general partnership).

In this case, the articles of organization reflect that LaFond & Sweeney was, in fact, organized as a member-managed LLC and, therefore, the members did in fact have the duties to “hold as trustee” for the benefit of the LLC. In a trust as described in C.R.S. § 15-16-302, a trustee “shall observe the standards in dealing with the trust assets that would be observed by a prudent man dealing with the property of another, and if the trustee has special skills or is named trustee on the basis of representations of special skills or expertise, he is under a duty to use those skills.” This arises to a higher duty than the “contractual obligation of good faith and fair dealing. ” The Court should have reached a similar conclusion in the context of this case without using the overly-broad language referring to fiduciary duties.

In the end, Mr. LaFond is obligated to share the contingent fee with his former law partner under the same sharing ratio as the two had shared things during the existence of their law firm, and he was not separately compensated for his efforts in finishing the case as part of his obligation to wind up the business of the LLC. Is it fair that Richard LaFond took the case to a successful conclusion after the dissolution of LaFond & Sweeney while his former partner shares on a 50-50 basis in the award? Is it fair that had the decision been under CUPA or the Uniform Limited Liability Company Act the decision would likely have been different? Whether the Colorado LLC Act should be amended to provide for “reasonable compensation for services rendered in winding up the business of the limited liability company” is an open policy question.

Herrick K. Lidstone, Jr., Esq., is a shareholder of Burns Figa & Will, P.C. in Greenwood Village, Colorado. He practices in the areas of business transactions, including partnership, limited liability company, and corporate law, corporate governance, federal and state securities compliance, mergers & acquisitions, contract law, tax law, real estate law, and natural resources law. Mr. Lidstone’s work includes the preparation of securities disclosure documents for financing transactions, as well as agreements for business transactions, limited liability companies, partnerships, lending transactions, real estate and mineral property acquisitions, mergers, and the exploration and development of mineral and oil and gas properties. He has practiced law in Denver since 1978. He writes for many publications, including the Colorado Bar Association Business Law Newsletter, where this article originally appeared.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.