Friday, May 22, 2020
The Alaska Supreme Court upheld a contingent fee forfeiture as a result of ethics issues in the representation.
If the link does not work, the case is Kenneth P. Jacobus, P.C. and Kenneth P. Jacobus v. Uwe Kalenka, Personal Representative of the Estate of Eric Wayne Kalenka, decided today.
The court sets out the story
After a conflict of interest between an attorney and a long-time client arose during settlement negotiations, the attorney filed a confidential motion with the superior court criticizing his client. The client discharged the attorney and hired new counsel. But the attorney continued to control the settlement funds and disbursed himself his fee, even though the amount was disputed by the client. The court found that the attorney’s actions had violated the rules of professional conduct and ordered forfeiture of most of his attorney’s fees. We affirm the holding of the superior court.
Kenneth Jacobus represented the estate of Eric Kalenka for over a decade after Eric Kalenka was murdered in 2004. Eric’s divorced parents, Uwe Kalenka and Dorcas Teall, were the estate’s beneficiaries; Uwe Kalenka was the personal representative. Uwe Kalenka retained Jacobus to represent him in the administration of his deceased son’s estate and to bring claims against insurance companies and third parties. Kalenka agreed to pay Jacobus’s fees by a combination of an hourly rate for work relating to the administration of the estate and a share of any recovery from the claims against insurance companies and third parties.
Three cases arose fromEric’s murder: a criminal case in which Jack Morell was convicted of second-degree murder; a civil suit against an automobile insurer; and a civil suit for wrongful death against the bar that had served alcohol to Morell (the Jadon litigation). Jacobus prevailed in reversing summary judgment for the bar in the Jadon litigation and entered into settlement negotiations.
In 2015 Jacobus filed an ex parte “Confidential Status Report” with the superior court. In it he stated that although the Jadon litigation appeared to be near settlement, he was concerned that Kalenka was unable “to reasonably evaluate any settlement offer.” Jacobus believed that Kalenka’s emotional state and desire for revenge would lead him to “refus[e] to accept a reasonable settlement offer,” and result in a trial with a “substantial chance of a defense verdict.” Jacobus believed that refusing to settle would be contrary to the best interests of the estate and the estate’s other beneficiary, Teall. Jacobus was also concerned he would not collect his fee given the low likelihood of success at trial. He therefore concluded that he could no longer assist Kalenka.
The trial judge ordered disclosure of the report to the client and held a hearing
The hearing was held in September 2015. Jacobus and Kalenka were present; Kalenka had retained a new attorney, Alfred Clayton. The court ordered the substitution of counsel, replacing Jacobus with Clayton. The next day Jacobus filed an attorney’s lien on funds related to his representation of Kalenka.
Kalenka, represented by Clayton, then settled the Jadon litigation. Following the settlement Clayton wrote Jacobus. This October 2015 letter advised Jacobus that “[t]he settlement check should soon be delivered to [Jacobus’s] office” and authorized him “to deposit [it] into [Jacobus’s] trust account.” The letter also stated that Jacobus was “not authorized to disburse any of the settlement funds from trust until disputes relating to [his] claim for fees and costs are resolved.”
Clayton’s letter then addressed Jacobus’s “claim for a . . . contingent fee from the settlement.” The letter listed events that had occurred since “the confidential probate filing” and stated that as a result “it is . . . Kalenka’s position you are entitled only to a fee in the amount of $83,333.33” rather than the $112,500 Jacobus claimed he was owed.
Clayton sought an accounting but
Jacobus responded a few days later in a lengthy letter with a number of attachments. The letter informed Clayton that Jacobus had already acted regarding the settlement proceeds and had created a new trust account, the “Kalenka Settlement Proceeds Trust,” with himself as trustee. Attached to the letter were an ethics opinion from the Alaska Bar Association and the Declaration of Trust for the newly established trust. The Declaration stated that the trust was created because “it appears necessary to protect the interests of all people who are involved with . . . Kalenka.” The trust’s purposes included protecting Teall’s share of the inheritance and Jacobus’s and Clayton’s fees and costs from interference by Kalenka.
On November 23 Clayton responded to Jacobus’s “astonishing letter.” He again requested the formal accounting of Jacobus’s costs and fees he had sought in his first letter. He then objected to Jacobus’s “extraordinary” actions in creating a new trust, unilaterally determining its purposes, and declaring himself its sole trustee, serving without bond. He accused Jacobus of “usurp[ing] the role of [the judge] who actually presides over the Probate proceeding.” Clayton described as “[e]ven more astonishing” Jacobus’s declaration that the “first thing” he intended to do was “communicate with . . . Teall” after the court had expressly denied his request for permission to do so.
A month after receiving Clayton’s letter, Jacobus filed a “Notice of Intent to Violate Court Order,” asserting that Alaska Rule of Professional Conduct 1.15(d) required him to violate the August order that forbade him from disclosing any confidential information to Teall without Kalenka’s permission. Jacobus claimed that he was ethically required both to promptly notify Teall that he had received funds and to distribute the amount to which Teall was entitled as a beneficiary of the estate.
The superior court ruled against the attorney
Jacobus appeals the superior court’s orders prohibiting him from revealing confidential information to Teall; its findings that he violated his duties to his client; and the order forfeiting the majority of his fees.
Here as to the superior court order
But Jacobus misinterprets both Rule 1.15(d) and the court’s order regarding communication with Teall. Rule 1.15(d) directs an attorney to promptly notify a client or third party upon receipt of funds or property in which the client or third party has an interest. The order prohibiting Jacobus from speaking with Teall only proscribed the “disclos[ure of] any confidential information.” Jacobus could thus have complied with both the order and Rule 1.15(d)’s directive simply by notifying Teall of the existence of settlement funds.
And contrary to Jacobus’s arguments, the December 2015 order made clear he was permitted to communicate with Teall or others. This order reiterated that Jacobus was ordered in August to refrain only from disclosing confidential information unless authorized by Kalenka; it did not prohibit Jacobus from revealing non-confidential information. Noting that the Jadon file was not confidential, the court stated that nothing in its August order prevented Jacobus from sharing information with Teall that a settlement had been reached.
And as to loyalty
The superior court found that Jacobus “continually violated” the duty of loyalty to his client, Kalenka. Jacobus filed pleadings that were directly adverse to Kalenka, ignored Kalenka’s instructions, and urged the court to take actions that were contrary to the instructions he had received from Kalenka.
The superior court did not err by concluding that Jacobus violated his duty to Kalenka when he disbursed funds to himself. Clayton’s October 2015 letter explicitly directed Jacobus to refrain from disbursing funds because of the ongoing dispute over the amount to which he was entitled. Jacobus therefore violated his duty of loyalty by paying himself $83,333.33. By filing pleadings and requesting authorization to take actions that were contrary to Kalenka’s interests and instructions to him, Jacobus also violated his duty of loyalty to his client. Further, by creating a trust for the specific purpose of protecting himself and third parties from his client after his client discharged him, and by paying himself from the trust funds despite an ongoing dispute over fees, Jacobus committed additional violations of his duty of loyalty to Kalenka. The superior court did not err by concluding that Jacobus had committed “egregious” violations of his ethical duties.
The court upheld forfeiture of the contingent fee. (MIke Frisch)