Responsibility to Client Who Has Disappeared
Opinion rules that when a lawyer's reasonable attempts to locate a client are unsuccessful, the client's disappearance constitutes a constructive discharge of the lawyer requiring the lawyer's withdrawal from the representation.
On July 7, 1993, Attorney A entered into an agreement to represent Client A in regard to minor injuries she sustained in an automobile accident. Attorney A met with Client A on that date and subsequently spoke with her by telephone on a couple of occasions. In these phone conversations, Client A informed Attorney A that she planned to see other health care providers.
Attorney A has not heard from Client A since 1993 although she has tried on numerous occasions and by a variety of methods to contact Client A. Initially, Attorney A called Client A but Client A did not return her phone calls. Last year, Attorney A wrote to Client A but the letters were returned without a forwarding address. Client A's telephone number was disconnected and there is no new listing for her. She no longer works for the company that employed her in July 1993. Attorney A asked Client A's former employer to forward a letter to Client A at the last address the employer had on file for Client A. She received no response to this letter. Attorney A tried to get Client A's new address from one of the doctors Client A was seeing in 1993. The doctor's office had her old address. The insurance company for the prospective defendant in the automobile accident has not heard from Client A and has closed its file. Client A's own automobile insurance policy was canceled in April 1994. The company does not have a new address for Client A. Finally, Attorney A checked the county property listings. The last listing for Client A was in 1993.
The statute of limitations on Client A's claim will expire in ten months. A complaint has not been filed. A representative of Attorney A's malpractice insurance carrier recommended that she file a complaint on behalf of Client A and then immediately make a motion to withdraw. What is Attorney A's ethical responsibility to Client A?
When a client stops communicating with his or her lawyer, the lawyer must take reasonable steps to locate and communicate with the client. In the present inquiry, Attorney A's efforts to locate Client A were more than reasonable. However, if the lawyer is still unable to locate the client and the client has made no effort to contact the lawyer, the client's failure to contact the lawyer within a reasonable period of time after the lawyer's last contact with the client must be considered a constructive discharge of the lawyer. Rule 2.8(b)(4) of the Rules of Professional Conduct requires a lawyer to withdraw from the representation of a client if the lawyer is discharged by the client. Therefore, Attorney A must withdraw from the representation.
Attorney A may not file a complaint on behalf of Client A although filing suit might stop the running of the statute of limitations. The determination of the objective of legal representation is the client's prerogative. As the comment to Rule 7.1 observes, "[t]he client has ultimate authority to determine the purposes to be served by legal representation within the limits imposed by law and the lawyer's professional obligation." If a client disappears, the lawyer cannot know whether the client wanted to proceed with the lawsuit, who the client was prepared to sue, and whether the allegations in the complaint are accurate. Therefore, if a client disappears and the lawyer is unable to locate the client after reasonable efforts to do so, the lawyer should withdraw from the representation without taking further action on behalf of the client.