Aug. 2, 2023 – The Wisconsin Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection is an important and vital way to restore faith in the legal system for clients who are victims of lawyer theft and misconduct.
The committee’s task is to pay back funds taken dishonestly from clients by their lawyer. Over the past fiscal year (2022-23), the committee paid $286,382 to eight clients, victims of seven Wisconsin lawyers due to unearned advanced fees and dishonest conduct.
Compensating Victims, Elevating Lawyers in the Public’s Eye
The fund is administered by the State Bar of Wisconsin, per Wisconsin Supreme Court Rule. The Wisconsin Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection Committee has five lawyer members and two non-lawyer members.
Steve Chiquoine, retired Reedsburg lawyer and chair of the
Fund for Client Protection Committee, has served on the committee in various capacities for many years, because he believes in the fund’s purpose.
This fund is important not only to the victims of lawyer misconduct, but to the reputation of the profession as a whole, Chiquoine said. “The ability to set right even some of the ‘wrong’ things that happen to our clients is integral to the integrity of the Bar.”
Chiquoine and the committee members dedicate “a sometimes alarming amount of time plowing through the often voluminous amount of paperwork that a claim entails,” he said.
“Each of us takes their responsibility – to both the public at large and the integrity of the fund – very seriously. And each of us, in our own small way, helps the goal to elevate lawyers in the public eye.”
It’s an issue that has bothered Chiquoine since he became a lawyer. “When I first started practicing (in 1977!) a friend told me that he figured lawyers were only just a click more trustworthy than used car salesmen and realtors. Over the years, I heard that repeated again and again. I don’t think we do enough to improve that feeling in the public.
“In my mind, the Client Protection Fund is one of the State Bar's efforts to address those issues. Anything lawyers can do to let the general public know that, with limited exceptions, we all try to do the right thing is a personal responsibility we all share.
“My service on the committee is just my small contribution to that cause,” he said.
Compensating Victims of Lawyer Misconduct
Since 1981, more than $6.75 million has been returned to more than 1,028 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 per 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.
According to the ABA's most recent report, Lawyers’ Funds for Client Protection across the U.S. took in about $45.2 million from fees assessed to lawyers and $41.4 million was disbursed ($33.5 million in awards and $7.9 million in administrative costs) from 2017 to 2019.
Wisconsin lawyers share in the efforts to make victims whole: the fee of $25 is assessed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court and collected by the State Bar of Wisconsin with annual dues statements. The amount of the assessments is determined by the committee each year by Supreme Court Rule.
The fee ensures the fund remains solvent. “That could change with just one bad claim, but for now we have been able to pay claims as they come in,” Chiquoine said.
In prior years, some claim payouts had to be delayed. “None of us (committee members) were comfortable with claims that should have been paid but could not be because of the lack of funds.”
A Request to Colleagues: Spread the Word
Chiquoine says it is frustrating when he hears that colleagues aren’t aware of the Client Protection Fund. For those who do, he has a request: Get the word out.
“There are countless valid claims out there that never see the light of day because the aggrieved party doesn’t even know we exist,” he said.
“Talk to your local service organizations. Talk to victim-witness coordinators in prosecutors’ offices. Give the
email address for the fund to anyone who might even theoretically have a claim. I have yet to tell someone about the existence of the fund who didn’t express surprise and pleasure to hear of its existence. We should all be proud of the Bar for its efforts to make things right!”
Find out more about the Client Protection Fund
through its website on Wisbar.org, by
reading the FAQs about the fund. The Wisconsin Lawyer Assistance Program (WisLAP) – which offers free and confidential assistance – as well as
Practice411 for practice management help.
The Details: Claims for 2022-23
Between July 1, 2022, and July 1, 2023, the Wisconsin Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection Committee considered 27 new claims involving 26 attorneys. During the fiscal year, the committee approved eight claims reimbursing a total of $286,382.
“Most of our claims are just lawyers who, for one reason or another, forgot their oath and in the process hurt one or more of their clients,” Chiquoine said.
The approved claims were reimbursements for unearned advanced fees and dishonest conduct against eight attorneys. Claims were approved for clients of:
Melinda Alfredson: $250 paid out based on Supreme Court Restitution Order;
Julie Anderl: $17,500 paid out for theft/misappropriation of funds;
Harlan Haukaas: $150,000 paid out for theft/misappropriation of funds; and $52,082.38 paid out for theft/misappropriation;
Joseph Kiley: $1,300 paid out for unearned advanced fee;
Courtney Kelbel: $1,500 paid out for unearned advanced fee;
Emmanuel Muwonge: $5,000 paid out for unearned advanced fee; and
Willie Nunnery: $20,850 paid out for theft/misappropriation of funds; and $38,200 paid out for defalcation.