June 2, 2006
Issue: Is an unexecuted trust or will or an unfiled extraordinary writ prepared by a lawyer for a client part of the “client’s file” within the meaning of Rule 1.16 which must be delivered to the client at the termination of the representation.
Opinion: An unexecuted legal instrument such as a trust or will, or an unfiled pleading, such as an extraordinary writ, is not part of the “client’s file” within the meaning of Rule 1.16(d). The lawyer is not required by Rule 1.16 to deliver these documents to the client at the termination of the representation.
Facts: An attorney accepted a fixed fee engagement to prepare for a client a trust, a will and a petition for extraordinary writ. The lawyer sent a retainer agreement to the client reflecting the fixed fee engagement, but the client did not sign the retainer agreement. The lawyer prepared the trust, will and petition for extraordinary writ, but the client refused to pay the lawyer for the services, and the client terminated the attorney-client relationship. The client is now demanding that the lawyer deliver to the client as part of the “client’s file” the unexecuted trust and will, and the unfiled extraordinary writ.
Analysis: Rule 1.16(d) of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct differs from the ABA Model Rule 1.16(d) in that the Model Rule permits the lawyer to retain the “client’s file” following the termination of the attorney-client relationship if state law affords the lawyer a retaining lien against the client’s file for purposes of securing the lawyer’s fee. Model Rule 1.16(d) states: “The lawyer may retain papers relating to the client to the extent permitted by other laws.”
Utah Rule 1.16(d) was amended to delete from Rule 1.16(d) the right of the lawyer to assert a retaining lien against the “client’s file”. Utah Rule 1.16(d) states: “The lawyer must provide, upon request, the client’s file to the client. The lawyer may reproduce and retain copies of the client file at the lawyer’s expense.”
Comment 9 to Rule 1.16(d) explains the amendment to Utah Rule 1.16(d) as follows: “The Utah Rule differs from the ABA Model Rule in requiring that papers and property considered to be part of the client’s file be returned to the client notwithstanding any other laws or fees or expenses owing to the lawyer.”
The amendment of Utah Rule 1.16(d) followed the Utah Supreme Court’s decision in Jones Waldo Holbrook & McDonough v. Dawson, 923 P.2d 1366 (Utah 1996). In Dawson the plaintiff law firm sued its client for payment of its attorney’s fees. In a “postscript” to its decision, the Utah Supreme Court stated that it disapproved of the plaintiff law firm’s assertion of a retaining lien in the defendant’s file during on-going litigation following the termination of the attorney-client relationship. Although the Court affirmed in part a judgment in favor of the plaintiff law firm for unpaid fees and costs, the Court stated that the plaintiff law firm had failed to “take steps to the extent reasonably practicible to protect the client’s interest, such as surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled (quoting from Rule 1.16(d))” when the law firm refused to surrender to defendant her file during the course of on-going litigation. 1 (more…)
December 2, 2004
Amendment of Opinion No. 04-01: On March 29, 2004, the Utah Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee issued Utah Ethics Advisory Op. No. 04-01, 2004 WL 870583 (Utah St. Bar).1 The Office of Professional Conduct of the Utah State Bar filed a petition for review with the Board of Bar Commissioners pursuant to § III(e)(1) of the Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee Rules of Procedure and § VI(a)(1) of the Utah State Bar Rules Governing the Ethics Advisory Opinion Committee. The Commission asked the Committee to reconsider Opinion No. 04-01. Having reviewed the issues raised by the Office of Professional Conduct, we issue this amended opinion, which revises the conclusion and analysis of Opinion No. 04-01. Accordingly, this amended opinion replaces and supersedes Opinion No. 04-01.
Issue: What action, if any, may a lawyer for an employer ethically undertake on behalf of a vanished former employee who, along with the employer, has been named as a defendant in an action arising when the person was an employee?
Opinion: The lawyer may not act on behalf of or purport to represent the vanished former employee unless the lawyer has an existing attorney-client relationship with the former employee or the former employee agreed to the representation prior to vanishing and, in either case, the lawyer complies with Rules 1.7 and 1.8(f) of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct. The lawyer who represents the employer may engage in acts that may benefit the vanished former employee provided the lawyer makes it clear that he is acting on behalf of the employer as the employer’s lawyer and not on behalf of the vanished former employee as the former employee’s lawyer.
Facts: Plaintiff filed suit naming a company and its former employee as defendants. The company concedes that the former employee was acting in the course and scope of his employment and has asked the company’s lawyers to represent the missing former employee. The company is concerned that absence of a formal answer to the complaint by the former employee may result in a default judgment being entered against the absent former employee. We have no information about the reasons for the employee’s absence, but we assume that a reasonable effort has been made to locate the person and determine the reason for the absence. We also assume that, at this early stage of the proceeding, the interests of the employer and employee are not directly adverse with respect to the matter.2 The lawyer requesting this opinion also indicated that the employer has liability insurance that covers the incident giving rise to the lawsuit.3 The company has requested that the lawyer represent the vanished former employee.
Analysis: This case presents two competing concerns: On the one hand, a basic ingredient of the representation of a client is that, under Rule 1.4, the lawyer communicate with the client, keep the client informed about the status of the case, and provide sufficient information to the client that the client may make informed decisions; and, under Rule 1.2, the lawyer must abide by the client’s decisions regarding the goals of the representation. On the other hand, the interests of a party missing from a proceeding will go unprotected with an application of the Rules. The Rules of Professional Conduct are rules of reason,4 to be interpreted to further the administration of justice when the Rules are unclear. However, in this instance, we conclude the Rules are clear and must be applied despite arguments of countervailing public policy.5 (more…)
Opinion No. 00-06
(Approved September 29, 2000)
What are the ethical obligations of an attorney who, unaware his client will lie, hears the client commit perjury or otherwise materially mislead a tribunal?
2 Opinion: Counsel who knows that a client has materially misled the court may not remain silent and continue to represent the client; to do so would be “assisting” the client in committing a fraud on the court. Rather, counsel is obligated to remonstrate with the client and attempt to persuade the client to rectify the misleading or untruthful statements to the court. If this is unsuccessful, counsel must seek to withdraw. If withdrawal is denied, counsel must disclose the fraud to the court.
3 Facts: This issue came to the Committee in the narrow setting of a criminal sentencing hearing in which the court asks the lawyer’s client, who is not under oath, about the client’s prior criminal history. The defendant misleads the court and gives false material information that counsel knows to be untruthful. Counsel is now confronted with ethical considerations.
A. Counsel may not remain silent and continue to represent the client; to do so would be “assisting” the client in committing a fraud on the court.
4 Rule 3.3(a)(2) provides that “[a] lawyer shall not knowingly . . . fail to disclose a material fact to a tribunal when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by the client.”1The issue on the facts presented here is whether a lawyer, by remaining silent in response to unanticipated false client testimony not presented by the lawyer, is “assisting” the client in committing a fraud on the court.
5 Ethical dilemmas arising under Rule 3.3 present difficult issues requiring balancing of competing duties. A lawyer’s duty of candor to the court must be balanced against the duty of loyalty to and zealousness on behalf of a client and the duty to maintain confidential client information.2
6 After the adoption of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct by the American Bar Association, the ABA’s Committee on Professional Ethics reconsidered its prior opinions regarding a lawyer’s duties in response to false testimony by a client. In ABA Formal Opinion 87-353, the ABA Committee stated that Model Rules 3.3(a) and 3.3(b) were a “major policy change with regard to a lawyer’s duty . . . when his client testifies falsely. It is now mandatory under [Model Rule 3.3] for a lawyer who knows the client has committed perjury, to disclose this knowledge to the tribunal if the lawyer cannot persuade the client to rectify the perjury.”3That opinion considered the same facts presented here: “judge asks the defendant whether he has a criminal record and he falsely answers that he has none.”4The opinion states that “where the client has lied to the court about the client’s criminal record, the conclusion of Opinion 287 [decided in 1953 under the 1908 Canons of Professional Ethics] that the lawyer is prohibited from disclosing the client’s false statement to the court is contrary to the requirement of Model Rule 3.3. This rule imposes a duty on the lawyer, when the lawyer cannot persuade the client to rectify the perjury, to disclose the client’s false statement to the tribunal . . . .”5
(Approved April 26, 1996)
Issue: How long must an attorney retain a client’s file after the attorney’s representation of the client has been completed or terminated?
Opinion: The Utah Rules of Professional Conduct require that an attorney retain or otherwise dispose of a client’s file so that all property is returned to its owner, the client’s foreseeable interests are protected, and other legal and ethical requirements are met. The attorney’s precise ethical obligations will vary depending upon several factors discussed below.
Discussion: Two principles should guide an attorney’s disposition of a client’s file upon completion of representation or termination.1
Client Property. An attorney must return all property to its owner.2What constitutes “property” is a matter addressed by other laws and rules and constitutes an issue beyond the scope of this opinion.3Generally speaking, however, a client’s property is likely to include at least the material the client has given the attorney, the material the client has directed the attorney to obtain or procure and for which the client has paid, as well as that which constitutes the primary object of the representation.4
Client Interests. An attorney must dispose of a client’s file so that the client’s foreseeable interests are protected.5In addition to “property,” as discussed above, a client is especially likely to be interested in materials related to an ongoing matter or one that might foreseeably arise in which the applicable statute of limitations has not run, especially when the materials (1) have not previously been given to the client, (2) are not readily available from other sources, or (3) are those the client reasonably expects the attorney to retain.6
The obligation to protect client interests is intimately related to discussing disposition of the client’s file with the client (or with the client’s legal representative, if the client is deceased or incapacitated). Such discussions should better define the client’s interests as well as the client’s reasonable expectations regarding, and reliance upon, the attorney’s disposition of the file.7
One method by which an attorney might discharge the obligation of protecting all foreseeable client interests is to tender the entire file to the client (or to the client’s legal representative, if the client is deceased or incapacitated).8The propriety of such an offer depends upon whether the client is capable of appropriately securing or disposing of the file and whether the client reasonably expects that the attorney will continue retaining the tendered materials. Defining what must be returned to the client in such situations is the subject of other rules and opinions and lies beyond the scope of this opinion.9
Another method of protecting client interests vis-à -vis the client’s file is to retain the file for as long as necessary to protect those interests. Such considerations lie within the sound judgment and discretion of the attorney.10The period of retention might depend upon numerous factors, including applicable statutes of limitations for actions that might foreseeably affect the client (including statutes that might be tolled for interested minors), the uses for which the materials might be put, and client expectations. An attorney, for example, is likely to retain probate or adoption files longer than a file related to eviction of a month-to-month tenant. (more…)