The Lawyer as Escrow Agent
Opinion rules that the fiduciary relationship that arises when a lawyer serves as an escrow agent demands that the lawyer be impartial to both the obligor and the obligee and, therefore, the lawyer may not act as advocate for either party against the other. Once the fiduciary duties of the escrow agent terminate, the lawyer may take a position adverse to the obligor or the obligee provided the lawyer is not otherwise disqualified.
Editor's Note: See 99 Formal Ethics Opinion 8 for additional guidance.
Attorney A closed the sale of residential property by Seller to Buyer. Before closing, Attorney A notified Seller that he represented only the interests of Buyer. At the time of closing, it became apparent that there were certain repairs that still needed to be done to the house. Seller and Buyer agreed to place $2,000 of the purchase price in escrow until the repairs were completed by Seller at which time the money would be released to Seller. Attorney A agreed to act as escrow agent. The escrow agreement was not memorialized in writing. Seller made some repairs to the house and has demanded that Attorney A release the money to him. Buyer contends that the repairs were shoddy and incomplete and has instructed Attorney A not to release the money. What can Attorney A do?
Like the role of a lawyer serving as a trustee under a deed of trust, the responsibilities of and limitations on a lawyer acting as an escrow agent arise primarily from the lawyer's fiduciary relationship in serving as an escrow agent as opposed to any client-lawyer relationship. See, e.g., RPC 82 and Rule 1.15-1(b)(3) of the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct. The fiduciary relationship demands that the escrow agent be impartial to both the obligor and the obligee under the escrow agreement. Therefore, the lawyer/escrow agent may not act as an advocate for either party against the other in any dispute regarding the release of the escrowed funds. The lawyer must carry out the terms of the escrow agreement with regard to the release the escrowed funds upon the happening of the agreed contingency or the performance of the agreed condition. If the lawyer/escrow agent cannot determine whether the contingency has occurred or there has been performance—either because the terms of the escrow agreement are too vague or the parties have a factual dispute—he may not release the funds until both parties consent or there is a court order directing that the funds be released. RPC 66.
In the present situation, Attorney A must be impartial in carrying out the terms of the escrow agreement. If he is unable to determine that the condition for release of the funds has been met, he may not release the funds to either Buyer or Seller until they have reached an agreement between themselves or until there is a court order instructing Attorney A to release the funds to one party or the other. As long as he serves as escrow agent, Attorney A must be impartial and he may not be an advocate for Buyer even though Buyer was formerly his client.
May Attorney A resign as escrow agent, turn the funds over to a third party, and represent Buyer in his dispute with Seller over the release of the escrowed funds?
Yes. Former service as an escrow agent does not disqualify a lawyer from assuming the role of advocate for one party in a dispute over escrowed funds. Cf. RPC 82 (former service as trustee under deed of trust does not disqualify a lawyer from assuming partisan role in foreclosure proceeding). Of course, in the present inquiry, because of his prior representation of Buyer at closing, Attorney A may only assume the role of advocate for Buyer. See Rule 1.7.