Aug. 5, 2020 – It can happen: circumstances in a lawyer’s life interfere with their ability to properly represent clients.
Ben Kurten, chair of the Wisconsin Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection Committee, has a simple request for those lawyers: Stop taking cases and seek help. “The State Bar has resources to help you,” he said.
The committee’s task is to pay back funds taken dishonestly from clients by their lawyer. During the past fiscal year (2019-20), the committee paid $46,670 to 14 clients who were victims of dishonest conduct by seven lawyers. While past claims include cases involving unearned advanced fees, misappropriation of funds, and trust account conversions, the 2019-20 claims all involved unearned advanced fees.
Multiple Claims, Few Lawyers
Committee members carefully review and consider all claims – which is no small task. Over the past year, committee members reviewed 47 new claims.
“It doesn’t mean there are 47 lawyers involved,” Kurten said. “There are typically just a few who rack up multiple, large claims.” One deferred case “was over $100,000 alone,” he noted.
The amount paid back each year varies. In 2018-19, the committee approved claims totaling more than $207,000.
Committee members continue to monitor claims from prior years, awaiting additional information or progress on litigation or with the Office of Lawyer Regulation. Multiple claims brought to the committee in the past fiscal year were deferred for similar reasons. “Some of these claims can drag on for years until they are at the point where we can make an informed decision on them,” Kurten said.
Kurten is now in his fourth year on the committee, including his second term as chair. During his tenure, he has seen a rise in the per-claim amount. “There are several attorneys with claims being investigated that could easily reach $100,000 or more by themselves.”
For each committee meeting – they meet three times per year, most recently via video conferencing due to the pandemic – members review hundreds of document pages. “We can spend days reading cases,” Kurten said.
The task, while demanding, has its rewards. Committee members often seek out another term, once theirs comes to an end.
“The committee does good work. We work together to address serious issues, and try to right the wrongs committed by others in the profession,” Kurten said.
The vast majority of attorneys are very professional, Kurten said. Which makes it all the more frustrating and dismaying to see multiple claims involving the same attorney.
“I wish we could identify them earlier and tell them to stop taking cases,” Kurten said. “If you’re not showing up for client meetings and hearings, don’t take people’s money.
“Instead, call the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program,” or WisLAP, he said.
Compensating Victims of Lawyer Misconduct
Since 1981, more than $6.5 million has been returned to 989 victims of lawyer misconduct in Wisconsin.
Each claim is individually investigated, and reimbursement decisions are made at the discretion of the committee, which meets three times a year. Some of the money is returned to the fund via court-ordered restitution or voluntary payments from the lawyers who have approved claims against them.
The Wisconsin Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection, created by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1981, reimburses clients who incur financial losses from the dishonest conduct of their attorneys.
Wisconsin lawyers share in the efforts to make victims whole: the fee of $20 is assessed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court and collected by the State Bar of Wisconsin with annual dues statements. The amount of the assessments determined by the committee each year by Supreme Court Rule.
The Details: Claims for 2019-20
Between July 1, 2019, and June 20, 2020, the Wisconsin Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection Committee considered 47 new claims, and approved 14, reimbursing a total of $46,670.
The 14 approved claims were reimbursements for unearned advanced fees. Claims were approved for clients of:
Sean D. Cooper: 1 claim for $1,500;
Stanley W. Davis: 1 claim for $5,000;
Courtney K. Kelbel: 1 claim for $3,000;
Sarah EK Laux: 2 claims for $5,490;
Christopher S. Petros: 1 claim for $1,000;
Ryan P. Thompson: 2 claims for $2,500; and
Cole J. White: 6 claims for $27,680.