Disbursement of Client Funds
Opinion rules that a lawyer may not pay his or her fee or the fee of a physician from funds held in trust for a client without the client's authority.
Last year Lawyer L began representation of Ms. B for injuries she received in an automobile accident. Since that time Ms. B has failed to cooperate in the processing of her claim, has not given any response to numerous letters, has not returned telephone messages, and has not accepted a certified letter. Lawyer L feels that he is no longer in a position to provide representation to Ms. B based on her lack of cooperation.
The question which has arisen deals with a $353.00 balance which is maintained in the trust account on behalf of Ms. B. This represents a portion of the medical payments coverage which was received on behalf of Ms. B. Lawyer L generally obtains medical payments coverage for his clients as a courtesy with no deduction of legal fees. However, Lawyer L has spent a great deal of time on this case and feels that he should be entitled to some fee. Additionally, Ms. B has signed a doctor's lien in favor of Dr. K.
Lawyer L has on several occasions written Ms. B asking her to authorize him to disburse this amount to Dr. K for his outstanding expenses and to himself in payment for legal services performed. There has been no response. May Lawyer L ethically take a reasonable legal fee from this balance and forward the remainder to Ms. B's physician for his services?
No. Rule 10.2(E) of the Rules of Professional Conduct requires a lawyer holding client funds in trust to pay or deliver those funds only as directed by the client. In this case the client has evidently not offered any direction regarding the disbursement of the funds in question and Lawyer L should therefore continue to hold this money in trust. Although there would appear to be a valid physician's lien against some portion of the trust funds, Lawyer L should refrain from disbursing any money to Doctor K until he obtains his client's consent to pay some or all of the amount billed or is required to pay some liquidated amount by a valid court order. Any funds which are the subject of an ongoing dispute should be retained in trust.