Disclosing Confidential Information to Execute on a Judgment for Unpaid Legal Fees
Opinion rules that lawyer may not disclose financial information obtained during the representation of a former client to assist the sheriff with the execution on a judgment for unpaid legal fees.
A lawyer with Firm represents Client in a domestic matter. Client fails to pay Firm for legal services and Firm withdraws from representation. Firm provides Client written notice of the North Carolina State Bar’s Fee Dispute program. Client waives the right to participate in the program. Firm files a lawsuit against Client to recover the unpaid legal fees and obtains a default judgment against Client. Firm now wants to execute on its judgment against Client.
During the course of Firm’s representation of Client, Firm learned financial information about Client, including the location of Client’s bank accounts and the account numbers. Firm does not know if that information is still accurate. Firm would like to provide this information to the sheriff to aid the sheriff in executing on a writ of execution.
May Firm provide the sheriff with information about Client’s bank accounts to execute on Firm’s judgment for unpaid fees against Client?
No. Disclosing Client’s financial information to the sheriff would violate Rule 1.6(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Rule 1.6(a) provides that a lawyer “shall not reveal information acquired during the professional relationship with a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation or the disclosure is permitted by paragraph (b).” None of the exceptions set out in Rule 1.6(b) applies to the instant scenario.
It is true that Rule 1.6(b)(6) allows a lawyer to disclose information to “establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and the client; to establish a defense to a criminal charge or civil claim against the lawyer based upon conduct in which the client was involved; or to respond to allegations in any proceeding concerning the lawyer’s representation of the client.” Comment  to Rule 1.6 specifically addresses actions to collect legal fees and provides that “[a] lawyer entitled to a fee is permitted by paragraph (b)(6) to prove the services rendered in an action to collect it.”
The instant scenario does not fall within the Rule 1.6(b)(6) exception because the action to collect the unpaid legal fees has concluded. Firm has proven the legal services rendered and has obtained a default judgment against Client. The purpose of the exception to the duty of confidentiality having been fulfilled, Firm may not now use Client’s confidential information to collect on the judgment. Firm may utilize post-judgment procedures to obtain information about Client’s assets without breaching the duty of confidentially set out in Rule 1.6.