Disbursements to Medical Providers in Absence of Medical Lien
Opinion rules that when a client authorizes a lawyer to assure a medical provider that it will be paid upon the settlement of a personal injury claim, the lawyer may subsequently withhold settlement proceeds from the client and maintain the funds in her trust account, although there is no medical lien against the funds, until a dispute between the client and the medical provider over the disbursement of the funds is resolved.
Attorney settled Client's personal injury claim. Client is now demanding Attorney disburse all proceeds to her, even though there are outstanding medical bills to be paid. For two medical providers, Client signed written assignments of proceeds in the amount of the providers' bills. For one of these providers, Attorney also signed a "letter of protection," with Client's knowledge and authorization, in which Attorney represented that the provider's bill would be paid from the proceeds of any settlement or liquidated judgment. If Client insists that all of the settlement proceeds be paid to her, what should Attorney do?
Rule 1.15-2(m) generally requires a lawyer to disburse settlement proceeds in accordance with the client's instructions.
The only exception to this rule arises when the medical provider has managed to perfect a valid physician's lien. In such a situation the lawyer is relieved of any obligation to pay the subject funds to his or her client, and may pay the physician directly if the claim is liquidated, or retain in his or her trust account any amounts in dispute pending resolution of the controversy.
RPC 69. A number of ethics opinions hold that settlement funds belong to the client who has the right to determine how to disburse the funds unless there is a valid lien against the funds. See RPC 69, RPC 75, and RPC 125. Thus, if Client instructs Attorney to pay the proceeds to Client rather than the medical providers, Attorney may ignore this instruction if there is a valid lien against the proceeds or other valid legal assignment of the rights in the proceeds. See Revised 2000 FEO 4. Attorney must determine whether the assignments given by Client to the medical providers are valid and whether they create liens against the proceeds. If Attorney determines that liens are created, he may hold the funds in his trust account or pay the providers, over the client's objections, if the providers' claims are liquidated. If the assignments do not create valid liens against the proceeds and no representation of payment was made to the medical provider, then Attorney must give the settlement proceeds to Client.
The ethics opinions have not previously addressed a lawyer's professional responsibility when, in the absence of a valid medical lien or assignment, a client instructs a lawyer to disregard a "letter of protection" or some other specific representation to a medical provider that it will be compensated, in whole or in part, from settlement proceeds or a liquidated judgment. This opinion clarifies when a lawyer may withhold settlement funds from a client in this situation. To the extent that this opinion is inconsistent with previous opinions of the Ethics Committee, the prior opinions are overruled.
When a lawyer makes a representation to a third party with the knowledge and authorization of a client, the representation should be honored. See Rule 4.1 which prohibits a lawyer, in the course of representing a client, from knowingly making a false statement of material fact or law to a third party. However, between the time that a medical provider is told that it will be paid and the time that settlement or judgment proceeds are received, a dispute may arise between the client and the medical provider over the medical bill, or the client may decide to defer payment of the medical provider and instruct the lawyer not to pay the medical provider. In the absence of a liquidated medical lien against the funds, the lawyer may not unilaterally decide whether the funds rightfully belong to the medical provider or to the client. Therefore, the lawyer may hold the portion of proceeds allegedly owed to the medical provider in her trust account until the impasse between the client and the provider is resolved by agreement of the parties, by court order, or by interpleading the funds to the court. See G.S. §1A-1, Rule 22. To insure that medical providers are not mislead, any "letter of protection" or other assurance of payment given to a medical provider must explain that the lawyer will hold disputed settlement funds in the trust account in the event the client subsequently instructs the lawyer not to pay the medical provider.