Roberts v. Va. State Bar, Record No. 180122

Docket NºRecord No. 180122
Citation818 S.E.2d 45, 296 Va. 105
Case DateSeptember 06, 2018
CourtSupreme Court of Virginia

296 Va. 105
818 S.E.2d 45

Thomas Hunt ROBERTS
v.
Virginia STATE BAR

Record No. 180122

Supreme Court of Virginia.

SEPTEMBER 6, 2018


Andrew T. Bodoh (Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, P.C., on briefs), Richmond, for appellant.

Madeline M. Gibson, Assistant Attorney General (Mark R. Herring, Attorney General; Samuel T. Towell, Deputy Attorney General; Nicholas F. Simopoulos, Senior Assistant Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.

PRESENT: All the Justices

OPINION BY JUSTICE D. ARTHUR KELSEY

296 Va. 109

Thomas Hunt Roberts appeals a decision of the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board (the ‘‘Disciplinary Board’’ or the "Board") sanctioning him with a

296 Va. 110

public reprimand with terms after finding that he violated Rules 1.15(a)(3)(ii) and 1.15(b)(5) of the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct ("Disciplinary Rules"). Finding no error in the Board’s decision, we affirm.

I.

On appeal, "we view the evidence and all reasonable inferences that may be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the Bar, the prevailing party below." Green v. Virginia State Bar, ex rel. Seventh Dist. Comm. , 274 Va. 775, 783, 652 S.E.2d 118 (2007).

A. THE REPRESENTATION AGREEMENT

In December 2014, Lauren Hayes engaged Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, P.C., to represent her regarding a personal injury claim arising out of a vehicle collision. On behalf of the firm, Roberts entered into a Representation Agreement, see 2 J.A. at 332-37, which, among other things, provided that the firm would receive a contingency fee of "33 1/3 percent of the gross ... of any and all judgment and/or recovery, computed before any deductions, including but not limited to expenses or costs," id. at 332.

The agreement stated that the contingency fee would increase to 40% "[i]f the recovery is within 45 days of the first trial date or thereafter." Id. It also provided that "any settlement or award" that included attorney fees "shall be paid to the law firm in addition to the contingency fees provided for above." Id. In addition to the stipulated fees, the agreement required Hayes to pay "all costs and expenses" of the firm, including charges for word processing, computerized research, travel, copying, court reporters, and other similar expenditures. Id. at 333.

Another provision of the agreement required Hayes "to maintain a balance of $150.00 in trust with the law firm" and stipulated that "[t]his money held in trust belongs to the client." Id. (emphasis omitted). The firm reserved the right, however, to "draw against the money held in trust for costs and expenses and also for payment of fees for services performed" and similarly advised that "[a]t such time as the law firm ceases to represent the client, any amount remaining in trust will be returned to the client, after deduction for costs & expenses and fees for service." Id.

296 Va. 111

In the event that Hayes terminated the representation, the agreement instructed her that "any such termination shall not in any way affect the client’s obligation to pay" for all bills that the firm had incurred as well as "interest, costs and attorney’s fees on the terms and conditions set forth in this Agreement." Id. at 334-35. In bold print, the agreement added:

Additionally, client understands and agrees that if the client terminates the representation where all or part of the firm[’]s fee for services was to be computed based on some contingency, the law firm will be entitled to a fee quantum merit [sic] for services rendered. Client agrees that the reasonable value of the services rendered
818 S.E.2d 48
to it by the law firm shall not be less than the fees set forth in this Agreement.

Id. at 335 (emphasis omitted). Finally, the agreement permitted an additional minimum charge of "25% of the amount owing" if the firm had to engage in collection efforts against Hayes. Id.

B. THE TERMINATION

Hayes eventually became dissatisfied with the firm’s handling of her claim. In August 2015, she notified the firm that she was terminating the representation. See id. at 375. She understood "that any cost[s] incurred or expenses paid" by the firm would be "deducted" from the balance in the trust account. Id. She added: "It is also my understanding that if there is a remaining balance from the money held in trust after all expenses are paid that the remaining balance will be returned to me." Id.

An associate with the firm replied via letter titled Notice of Attorneys’ Lien to advise Hayes that she could "collect [her] file and the balance of [her] trust account" anytime during the following week and that she had "a trust balance of $150.00 with th[e] firm." Id. at 377. The associate’s letter also informed Hayes that, pursuant to the Representation Agreement, the firm was "entitled to a fee quantum meruit for services rendered, and that the reasonable value of the services rendered by th[e] firm shall not be less than the fees set forth in th[e] Agreement." Id. The letter added: "The firm has expended $5,532.00 of its time representing you." Id.

296 Va. 112

Hayes wrote back requesting "a breakdown of the $5,532.00 lien" and stating that she intended "to dispute the amount of the lien." Id. at 378. Writing an email in reply, Roberts quoted to her the quantum meruit provision of the agreement and restated the firm’s assertion of a lien. See id. at 379-80. The email also warned Hayes that "should the firm be required to undertake efforts to collect its fees in this matter that it will be entitled to recover an additional 25%." Id. at 380. The email included a ledger showing a balance of $150 in the trust account.

In October 2015, Hayes advised Roberts’s firm by letter that she had retained another attorney, Mark Esposito, and directed that her file be forwarded to him. She also asked that the firm send her a check for the balance in the trust account. See id. at 382.1 Roberts did not directly respond to this letter. Instead, the firm transferred $6.70 from the trust account into its operating account to cover the cost of mailing the file to Esposito, leaving a balance of $143.30. See id. at 373. The associate attorney also made a new time entry in the ledger noting that he had received Hayes’s demand for a return of her trust funds and was sending a check to her.2 See id. at 371. Hayes never received any refund, however. Roberts then wrote Esposito and advised him that the firm asserted a lien of $5,744.503 in the case and that "[t]he last offer we received from the insurance company was $7,800." Id. at 383 (emphasis omitted).

When it became clear that there would be no resolution of the lien issue, Esposito filed a suit against Roberts’s firm on Hayes’s behalf in general district court. The warrant in debt inexplicably claimed that Roberts’s firm "owe[d] [Hayes] a debt in the sum of" $5,744.50. Id. at 386. A bill of particulars, however, later stated that the warrant in debt was meant to seek a declaratory judgment declaring the asserted lien to be unreasonable and setting forth the

296 Va. 113

reasonable value of Roberts’s services. Roberts’s firm responded with a motion to dismiss, a motion

818 S.E.2d 49

to strike, grounds of defense, and a motion for sanctions. On June 2, 2016, the general district court dismissed the warrant in debt for lack of jurisdiction and denied the motion for sanctions. See id. at 403.4

In April 2016, Roberts transferred $143.30, the remaining balance in the trust account, to his firm’s operating account, claiming that it was a partial payment for his firm’s fees. The firm did not notify Hayes of this transfer. At that time, Hayes had received no settlement, judgment, or recovery of any kind on her personal injury claim. A notation on the ledger stated: "Paid to Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, P.C. Applied to Quantum Meruit—Fees Earned $143.30." Id. at 373. The ledger showed a trust balance of $0 and a balance due to the firm of $5,783.70, which appears to represent an amount including additional charges for travel to the post office and communication with Esposito but with a credit for the $143.30 that Roberts had transferred. See id. at 371-74.

C. THE BAR’S INVESTIGATION

In June 2016, Hayes executed a "Lawyer Inquiry Form" complaining that Roberts’s firm had asserted a "ridiculous" lien, failed to return her trust funds, and failed to handle her claim expeditiously. See id. at 404-07. The Bar received the complaint and began an investigation. During the investigation, the Bar provided Hayes with the ledger that showed the transfer of the $143.30 from the firm’s trust account to its operating account. See 1 id. at 69-70; 2 id. at 373. Hayes had only seen an earlier version of this ledger, displayed in a different format, that did not include any notation of the transfer.

Also during the investigation, Hayes provided the Bar with an annotated copy of the earlier ledger (provided by the firm to Hayes in September 2015) on which she...

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2 practice notes
  • Baumann v. Va. State Bar, Record No. 191723
    • United States
    • Virginia Supreme Court of Virginia
    • July 30, 2020
    ...Committee's decision on appeal. The interpretation of disciplinary rules is subject to de novo review. See Roberts v. Virginia State Bar , 296 Va. 105, 115, 818 S.E.2d 45 (2018). Applying this standard, we conclude that Baumann's argument conflicts with the plain language of the relevant di......
  • City of Norfolk v. Burns, CIVIL NO.: CL18-8403
    • United States
    • Virginia Circuit Court of Virginia
    • August 20, 2019
    ...a number of judgments the Commonwealth held against Banoro and Gren. 4. It is doubtful it now exists. Roberts v. Virginia State Bar, 296 Va. 105, 117, 818 S.E.2d 45, 51 (2018). 5. Gren died intestate in 2016. This Court appointed a guardian and conservator for him by order dated August 2, 2......
2 cases
  • Baumann v. Va. State Bar, Record No. 191723
    • United States
    • Virginia Supreme Court of Virginia
    • July 30, 2020
    ...Committee's decision on appeal. The interpretation of disciplinary rules is subject to de novo review. See Roberts v. Virginia State Bar , 296 Va. 105, 115, 818 S.E.2d 45 (2018). Applying this standard, we conclude that Baumann's argument conflicts with the plain language of the relevant di......
  • City of Norfolk v. Burns, CIVIL NO.: CL18-8403
    • United States
    • Virginia Circuit Court of Virginia
    • August 20, 2019
    ...a number of judgments the Commonwealth held against Banoro and Gren. 4. It is doubtful it now exists. Roberts v. Virginia State Bar, 296 Va. 105, 117, 818 S.E.2d 45, 51 (2018). 5. Gren died intestate in 2016. This Court appointed a guardian and conservator for him by order dated August 2, 2......

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