Saturday, March 16, 2019
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has suspended an attorney for billing misconduct in court-appointed cases.
Ronald D. Hassan is a lawyer who admittedly engaged in “value billing” and “block billing” to calculate the amounts owed to him by the Public Defender Services (PDS) for his court-appointed representation of criminal defendants. Mr. Hassan’s billing practices resulted in impractical absurdities such as billing thirty or more hours on multiple days. He was charged with violating two separate provisions of the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct.
Following a hearing, the Hearing Panel Subcommittee (HPS) recommended that Mr. Hassan be suspended from the practice of law for one-and-one-half years. Mr. Hassan objected to the recommended sanctions and argued that he should instead be subjected merely to a three-month suspension. We find that the HPS’s recommendation of a one-and-one-half year suspension is overly harsh, but that Mr. Hassan’s proposed sanction of three months is inadequate to fully effectuate the goals of the disciplinary process. Accordingly, we modify the HPS’s recommendation and order that Mr. Hassan be suspended from the practice of law for six months, and we adopt the remainder of the HPS’s recommended sanctions.
The bar case
In June 2015, Mr. Hassan contacted the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) about billing issues he was having with the PDS and requested an opinion as to whether he needed to self-report his value and block billing practices. Although the ODC advised Mr. Hassan to self-report, he informed them that he would seek an outside opinion.
On September 23, 2015, Mr. Hassan entered into a conciliation agreement with the PDS that detailed the extent of Mr. Hassan’s billing discrepancies, including billing (1) thirty or more hours on three dates; (2) twenty-four to thirty hours on four dates; (3) twenty to twenty-four hours on eleven dates; and (4) fifteen to twenty hours on twenty-six dates.
The conciliation agreement further described Mr. Hassan’s billing practices. He disclosed that although he recorded time for each particular matter, he billed in increments of .5 hours—regardless of actual time spent—and did not have a system for accumulating the daily total of time. The agreement notes that Mr. Hassan explained that he had been billing in this manner over a course of years without ever being told it was improper, had always gained the approval of the circuit court without ever being questioned, and was unaware that PDS had published guidelines regarding the method for billing services.
To resolve the matter, the PDS and Mr. Hassan agreed that he would reduce the vouchers held by PDS for payment by one-half of the total amount of each voucher. The total amount of the reduction was $9,880.17.
The court balanced a number of mitigating and aggravating factors in determining an appropriate sanction. (Mike Frisch)