Payment Of Client Funds To Medical Providers
Opinion rules that a lawyer must obey the client's instruction not to pay medical providers from the proceeds of settlement in the absence of a valid physician's lien.
Attorney A represents Client C in a personal injury action. Client C directs Attorney A to seek the cooperation of various medical providers and to inform them that their fees will be paid from the proceeds of any settlement.
Attorney A writes the medical care providers and requests the medical records of Client C. He also requests a statement of charges from the medical providers. Subsequently, the medical providers send copies of Client C's account to Attorney A.
After settlement of the personal injury claim, Client C instructs Attorney A not to pay the medical providers, but to pay those sums directly to her. Client C claims she has a dispute with the medical providers as to the amount owed.
May Attorney A ethically refuse to pay the subject funds directly to Client C?
Would there be a different response to this question if Client C had never directed Attorney A to inform the medical providers that their fees would be paid following Client C's recovery in the personal injury action?
Rule 10.2(E) of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct provides that, "[A] lawyer shall promptly pay or deliver to the client or to third persons as directed by the client the funds, securities, or properties belonging to the client to which the client is entitled in the possession of the lawyer." A lawyer is generally obliged by this rule to disburse settlement proceeds in accordance with his 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.
In those cases where the client has authorized the lawyer to represent to the medical provider that the provider's fees will be paid from the proceeds of settlement and thereafter forbids the lawyer to pay the physician, the lawyer is, as the client's agent and trustee of the client's funds, under an obligation to comply with the client's instructions. If the lawyer is of the opinion that he might thereby be facilitating his client's fraud, it would not be inappropriate for the lawyer to advise the medical provider of the client's change of heart in sufficient time for the medical provider to pursue any remedies it might have in anticipation of the disbursement of the settlement proceeds. See Rule 4(c)(4). Should no action be taken by the medical provider within a short specified time, the lawyer would then be obligated to comply with his or her client's instructions. See also N.C. Baptist Hospitals v. Mitchell, 323 N.C. 528 (1989).