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Utah Supreme Court Upholds Sanctions for Charging Excessive Legal Fees

In late June 2011, the Utah Supreme Court upheld multiple ethical sanctions issued by the court’s Ethics and Discipline Committee (the “Committee) against attorney Larry Long. Among other violations, the Committee had found two violations of Rule 1.5(a) of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, which prohibits attorneys from making an agreement for, charging, or collecting an unreasonable fee. For these violations the Committee ordered a nonpublic admonition and a public reprimand.

The Rule 1.5(a) violations
The first Rule 1.5(a) violation involved the attorney agreeing to a $6,600 flat fee arrangement to represent a client on a DUI charge. After the initial court appearance the client decided to retain different counsel. Despite being discharged the attorney sent the flat fee agreement to a collection agency who eventually filed a lawsuit against the former client. This lawsuit was dropped after a complaint was filed with the Utah Office of Professional Conduct. The Committee determined that the attorney seeking this amount, when he admitted he only performed six hours of work, was a violation of Rule 1.5(a) and thus issued a nonpublic admonition.

The second Rule 1.5(a) violation involved an ethical complaint filed by a Utah judge. Judge Stephen L. Henriod alleged that Long charged two clients appearing before him unreasonable legal fees. In both these cases the Judge believed that Long performed insubstantial work before withdrawing from the cases. In total Long received $16,650 from these clients. The Committee determined that there was insufficient evidence to support the fees charged by the attorney and issued a public reprimand for violating Rule 1.5(a).

The Supreme Court’s review of the Rule 1.5(a) violations
After determining that the Committee did not violate the attorney’s due process rights the Supreme Court reviewed the Committee’s ethical violation findings. On the first Rule 1.5(a) violation charged the Court determined that the sanction was appropriate even though the flat fee agreement on its face was not improper and Long never collected any money. The Court concluded that the action of sending the agreement to a collection agency while knowing the amount to be unreasonable could constitute an ethical violation.

The Court also upheld the second Rule 1.5(a) violation, finding there to be sufficient evidence to support the Committee’s sanction. The Court did give credence to the narrative of services submitted by Long to the Committee. The Court found though that since this description of services was not provided contemporaneously it should be given little weight.

This case shows that regardless of the fee agreements between the attorney and his client, attorneys’ fees still must be reasonable. Attorneys that charge unreasonable fees can be subject to ethical sanctions and possible disbarment. While this case was based on the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, Utah’s Rule 1.5(a) is identical to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which has been adopted by the vast majority of states.

Long v. Ethics and Discipline Committee of the Utah Supreme Court, — P.3d —- (2011), 2011 WL 2448913.

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