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Iowa Attorney Suspended Over $2,500 Nonrefundable Retainer Agreement

According to the ABA Journal, the Iowa Supreme Court has suspended the law license of Bill Vilmont for 30 days after ruling late last week that his nonrefundable retainer agreement was a violation of ethical conduct under Iowa case law and Iowa Ct. R. 45.9(2) (see also ABA Model R. Prof. Conduct 1.5(a)). Vilmont had been hired in January of 2010 to represent a client on a state charge of enticement of a minor, and included in the agreement a retainer of $2,500 to be placed in trust, as well as a minimum fee of $2,500. Essentially, the retainer became nonrefundable as a minimum fee in the litigation, and as such, constituted an unethical nonrefundable advance-fee contract.

The charge against the client was dismissed by the District court after a federal charge was filed, and the client retained different counsel to represent the action in federal court. However, just 5 days after the dismissal Vilmont withdrew the $2,500 from the trust without notifying the client and ignored all requests from the client and client’s family to return the retainer and provide an accounting.

It is reported by the Quad-City Times that Vilmont ignored the requests for the return of the retainer until June of 2010, a month after closing his law office and retiring from the practice of law. He eventually provided to the Iowa Supreme Court Disciplinary Board a timekeeping record, indicating he spent only a total of 3.7 hours on the case at hand, which included one hour for providing the accounting.

The court’s ruling referred to the minimum fee contract as “clearly unethical” and found Vilmont to be “uncooperative and unapologetic” at the disciplinary hearing. Specifically, the commission found Vilmont had violated the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct for collecting an unreasonable fee, for withdrawal of the fee from the trust account without having earned it, and for failure to timely notify the client of the withdrawal. The opinion added, “[t]he amount of the fee charged and collected by Vilmont for performing the limited and insignificant services in representing his client was, without question, unreasonable.” The court noted that the reasonable fee for services in this case “would have been $607.50.”

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