Disbursement of Settlement Proceeds
Opinion rules that a lawyer may not pay a medical care provider from the proceeds of a settlement negotiated prior to the filing of suit over his client's objection unless the funds are subject to a valid lien.
Lawyer A represents a plaintiff in a personal injury action. During the course of settling the case, the attorney receives medical bills from medical care providers which treated the client for the personal injuries. Settlement is reached without the filing of a lawsuit. There is no dispute over the medical bills. The client instructs Lawyer A to pay all proceeds of the settlement over to her and to not pay the medical bills. The medical care providers have not taken the steps set forth in G.S. §44-49 to perfect the lien provided in that statute, but Lawyer A has actual notice of the bills (see G.S. §44-50). Does RPC 69 mandate that the attorney pay the settlement proceeds to the client rather than following the distribution scheme set forth in G.S. §44-50?
RPC 69 ruled that an attorney has an ethical obligation to disburse funds belonging to the client as instructed by the client in the absence of a valid lien in favor of a health care provider. Rule 10.2(e). From the standpoint of the Rules of Professional Conduct, the situation is the same regardless of whether the case is settled before or after the initiation of litigation. The interpretation of G.S. §44-50 is beyond the purview of the ethics committee. Suffice it to say that if that statute has the effect of imposing a lien upon settlement proceeds in the hands of an attorney when the attorney has received actual notice of the medical care provider's claim and suit has not been filed, then the attorney may pay the medical care provider's undisputed claim in spite of his client's objection. If, on the other hand, a lien is not perfected by the attorney's acquisition of actual notice under such circumstances, the attorney would have to abide by the instructions of the client in regard to the disbursement of the proceeds of settlement.