SCBAR
  Login
News + Press

Ethics Advisory Opinion 06-04

April 13, 2006

South Carolina Bar Ethics Advisory Opinion 06-04

RULE 1.15

Date

February 17, 2006

Facts

In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff discharged his attorney and proceeded throughout the litigation pro se. Sometime later, the defendant agreed to settle the case with the plaintiff; however, the defendant's attorney received notice that the original attorney for the plaintiff wishes to claim a charging lien in the settlement proceeds for work completed prior to termination. The defendant's attorney is afraid that if she pays the plaintiff the settlement proceeds, irrespective of the other attorney's claims, then the original attorney for the plaintiff will not get paid and will allege that the defendant's attorney is liable for the amount owed from the plaintiff. 

The defendant's attorney believes a contract between the plaintiff and the plaintiff's former lawyer exists; however, she has not seen the contract.  

Questions

  • May the defendant's attorney settle all claims arising from the lawsuit with the pro se plaintiff and disburse the settlement proceeds to the plaintiff?
  • How must the defendant's attorney distribute the settlement proceeds?
  • Must the defendant's attorney withhold the portion of the settlement proceeds in dispute and place them in a trust account until an agreement is reached between the plaintiff and his original attorney, although the defendant's attorney has no client-lawyer relationship with either?

Summary

  • The defendant's attorney may not settle all claims arising from the lawsuit with the pro se plaintiff and disburse the settlement proceeds to the plaintiff.
  • The defendant’s attorney must withhold the fees in dispute in her trust account.
  • The defendant's attorney must withhold the portion of the settlement proceeds in dispute and place them in a trust account until an agreement is reached between the plaintiff and his original attorney, although the defendant's attorney has no client-lawyer relationship with either.

Opinion

Question 1:  May the defendant's attorney settle all claims arising from the lawsuit with the pro se plaintiff and disburse the settlement proceeds to the plaintiff?

The Committee advises that defense counsel must "promptly distribute all portions of the property as to which the interests are not in dispute."  South Carolina Appellate Ct. Rule 407, Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.15(e); see also Rule 1.15(d).  The facts do not state whether the plaintiff disputes his former attorney's charging lien, which would be a reasonable assumption.  If the funds are so disputed, and if defense counsel has "received" the funds in dispute, Rule 1.15(e) likely would prohibit defense counsel from distributing the disputed portion of settlement proceeds to the plaintiff. 

Rule 1.15(e) provides in part that "[w]hen in the course of representation a lawyer is in possession of property in which two or more persons (one of whom may be the lawyer) claims interests, the property shall be kept separate by the lawyer until the dispute is resolved. . . ."  In other words, once a "person" claims an interest in the funds, they must be kept separate by the lawyer.  Here, a person, the plaintiff's former lawyer, has claimed an interest in a portion of the funds in the form of an alleged charging lien for work completed prior to his termination.  Accordingly, the Committee advises that the defendant's attorney should not disburse the disputed portion of the settlement proceeds to the plaintiff until the dispute is resolved; instead, the defendant's attorney should keep the disputed portion of the funds separate until the dispute is resolved. 

Even though the defendant apparently does not claim an interest in the funds, the Committee believes that Rule 1.15 would still apply.  Comment 4 to Rule 1.15 describes the lawyer's duty in terms of protecting disputed funds against interference by the client; however, it does not limit the application of Rule 1.15(e) to only those situations in which the client claims an interest.  Even if the comment could be argued to apply only to those situations in which a client claims an interest, the text of the rule would govern.  "The Comments are intended as guides to interpretation, but the text of each Rule is authoritative."  Preamble to Appellate Ct. Rule 407, South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct, Paragraph 21.  The text of the rule plainly applies to "property in which two or more persons" claim an interest, whether they be clients, creditors of clients or other third parties. 

The facts do not indicate whether or not the plaintiff's former lawyer's claim of a charging lien is believed to be frivolous.  Comment 4 to Rule 1.15 can be read to imply that that the rule is designed to apply when "third-party claim is not frivolous under applicable law."  As "[t]he Rules of Professional Conduct are rules of reason," as indicated in the Preamble, the Committee opines that if the plaintiff's former attorney's claim is frivolous in the professional judgment of the defendant's attorney, the settlement proceeds would not be truly in dispute and Rule 1.15 would not apply.  However, given the "significant risks generally associated with prolonged legal fee disputes," it seems unlikely that the plaintiff's attorney would assert a frivolous charging lien.  John Freeman, Ethics Watch: A-B-C's of Legal Fees, 8 S.C. Lawyer 10 (July/August 1996), cited in S.C. Ethics Advisory Opinion 05-07.

Question 2:  How must the defendant's attorney distribute the settlement proceeds?

How the dispute over the validity of the plaintiff's former attorney's claim is resolved will determine how the disputed proceeds are to be distributed.  Although the text of Rule 1.15(e) indicates that disputed funds must be kept separate by the attorney until the dispute is resolved, the text does not mandate how the dispute is to be resolved.  Comment 4 to Rule 1.15, does provide a limit on how the dispute may be resolved and also suggests litigation as a possible solution:  "A lawyer should not unilaterally assume to arbitrate a dispute between the client and the third party, but, when there are substantial grounds for dispute as to the person entitled to the funds, the lawyer may file an action to have a court resolve the dispute."  Although a technical reading of this language could limit application of the comment to disputes involving clients, the Committee would apply this comment to disputes between two third parties, such as described in the inquiry. 

The Committee interprets Rule 1.15(e) and Comment 4 as placing the choice of the means of resolving the dispute in the reasonable discretion of the defendant's attorney, as long as the defendant's attorney does not unilaterally assume to arbitrate the dispute.  As noted in S.C. Ethics Advisory Opinion 02-07, "[t]he comments to Rule 1.15 also provide that the lawyer may suggest means to resolve the dispute."  For example, "[i]n previous Advisory Opinions involving disputed healthcare provider liens, the Committee has opined that the prudent course for the lawyer would be to retain the disputed funds in trust and seek either declaratory judgment allowing the lawyer to release the funds, or pursue mediation or arbitration."  Id.  Ethics Advisory Opinion 05-07 also noted the use of interpleader actions for the resolution of disputes over legal fees and costs.  The defendant's attorney could even offer to arbitrate the dispute if the defendant's attorney does not "unilaterally" choose this method and the persons claiming an interest in the disputed proceeds agree to such an arbitration.  The Committee does not mean to suggest that these are the appropriate options for resolving this particular dispute.  Rather, the defendant's attorney should investigate possible options and choose the appropriate means to resolve the dispute using the attorney's best professional judgment and discretion in accordance with the Rules. 

Question 3:  Must the defendant's attorney withhold the portion of the settlement proceeds in dispute and place them in a trust account until an agreement is reached between the plaintiff and his original attorney, although the defendant's attorney has no client-lawyer relationship with either?

Yes.  As indicated previously in this opinion, the application of Rule 1.15(e) does not require an attorney-client relationship between a lawyer and a person claiming an interest in property in the possession of the lawyer: the Committee is unable read into the text of Rule 1.15(e) a requirement that the rule only applies to disputed funds or property in which a lawyer's client claims an interest. 

The Committee is unaware of any decision of any jurisdiction applying Rule 1.15(e) to facts identical to those of the inquirer.  More often, Rule 1.15 is implicated in situations involving the payment of settlement proceeds by an attorney when there was a dispute between his client and a third party.  For example, in South Carolina Ethics Advisory Op. 95-29, the Committee determined that "assuming the lien is valid and the assignment irrevocable, the lawyer may not disregard a third party assignee or lien holder's rights to the proceeds notwithstanding a client's directive to do so because both encumbrances create an interest in the proceeds in the medical provider."  The valid interests of certain persons (clients' medical providers) in settlement proceeds do not appear to require less protection than the interests of other persons (creditors of opposing parties). 

The Committee notes that Rule 1.15 has been applied to require lawyers to protect rights of third parties in a variety of other circumstances.  See, e.g., In re Jackson, 365 S.C. 176, 177-78, 617 S.E.2d 123, 124 (2005) (an attorney failed to timely pay a court reporter and was sanctioned for violating Rule 1.15).  It is the Committee's position that Rule 1.15 is designed, ultimately, to protect the valid interests of third parties.  If the plaintiff's original attorney's lien is indeed valid, it should not be ignored; accordingly, the dispute must be resolved as to whether the lien is valid.  The text of Rule 1.15(e) provides a mechanism for the safekeeping of funds while the dispute is resolved.print