You probably know about the ethics rule that prohibits lawyers from trying to prospectively limit their liability to clients (or at least I hope you do!).  You can find it in your state’s version of Model Rule 1.8(h).

In an interesting twist, the Utah Ethics Advisory Committee recently opined that it’s permissible to include a provision in a retainer agreement requiring the client to indemnify the lawyer against third party claims against the lawyer arising from the client’s own “behavior or negligence.”

Narrow reading — but not alone

The Utah committee said that an indemnification provision against liability, loss and expense to the lawyer caused by third-party claims arising from client’s conduct “is not specifically prohibited by the rules.”

While Utah’s Rule 1.8(h) (identical to the Model Rule) bars prospective limitation of liability to a client for malpractice, the committee said, “it does not address the specific question of whether an attorney may include an indemnification provision for claims brought by third parties.”  Therefore, such a provision “is not prohibited on its face.”

Third-party indemnification provisions might be helpful in representations involving opinion letters — for example, providing a legal opinion on behalf of a lessor, which is to be given to and relied on by the lessee.  The lawyer would be benefitted by being able to seek indemnification from the lessor client against later claims by the lessee.

Few state ethics committees seem to have addressed the issue of third-party indemnification.  But the New York State Bar Association, in a 2013 opinion, has approved the concept in the context of opinion letters.  And a 2005 Oregon opinion advised that a lawyer asked to investigate a client’s employee could seek indemnity from the client against subsequent claims by the employee against the lawyer.

Insurance deductible?  Not so fast

What about using such an indemnification provision to hold a client responsible for the lawyer’s malpractice insurance deductible if the client unsuccessfully sues the lawyer for malpractice?

The Utah committee also considered that question, and concluded that Rule 1.8(h) doesn’t expressly bar that scenario, because “requiring payment for an unsuccessful malpractice claim, on its face, does not limit liability for malpractice.”  But trying to use indemnification to extract payment from the client for your malpractice insurance deductible may be misconduct under other rules, said the committee.  Rule 8.4(d) bars engaging in conduct that is “prejudicial to the administration of justice.”  An agreement that would make a client (or, by then, presumably a former client) responsible for paying your deductible after the client loses a malpractice case against you, could “have a chilling effect on a client’s pursuit of a malpractice claim and would thus be prejudicial to the administration of justice,” the committee advised.

Client communication

In any event, client communication is key.  To say the least, “the average client may not understand what indemnification is or in what specific circumstances it could be applied.”  Sophisticated clients might, but your best bet is clear explanation and understanding.  Model Rule 1.4(b) (“Communication”) requires you to “explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”

That would seem to apply to the client’s decision to agree to indemnify you for anything.

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Note:  My co-editors and I are thrilled that the ABA Journal has again honored The Law for Lawyers Today as one of its “Web 100,” putting us among the 35 best legal blogs in the U.S.  Read the magazine’s announcement here.  We’re very proud, and we promise to keep bringing you fresh and lively news and comment from “Legal Ethics World.”  Thanks for reading!

2017 Happy New Year typeYou may have some holiday leftovers lurking in your fridge (potato latkes, Xmas goose, black-eyed peas, New Year’s Eve caviar), and we too have some interesting ethics topics that we didn’t have room for during 2016 — so here’s a potpourri, touching on positional conflicts, coercive settlements and maybe how not to use your firm’s letterhead.

Arguing damage caps, pro and con

The U.S. district court for the Middle District of Tennessee in October turned back a disqualification motion aimed at Butler Snow, ruling that the firm could  continue representing a personal injury plaintiff who was potentially contesting the constitutionality of the state’s punitive damage caps, while at the same time asserting the caps defensively in at least one pending case for another client.

In its DQ motion, the trucking company defendant said those positions were inconsistent and raised a positional conflict in violation of Tennessee’s version of Model Rule 1.7 and its cmt. [24].

Not so, said the district court.  First, the trucking company waited until two months before trial to try to disqualify the law firm; it would cause severe prejudice to the plaintiff if she had to find new counsel.  Second, the firm retained separate counsel to represent the plaintiff on all post-trial issues challenging the damage caps, an arrangement that plaintiff agreed to at the beginning of her representation.  Third, there was no evidence that the potential conflict had actually affected the injury case, or was likely to compromise the firm’s representation of clients who simply asserted the caps to limit their liability rather than expressly defending their constitutionality.

On all these bases, the court held, the firm could stay in the case, part of which has now been settled.

Threat to publicize sexual allegations

In November, an Arizona lawyer who threatened to use press releases to alert the public to sexual allegations in order to obtain a settlement consented to a 30-day suspension.

In 2015 the lawyer filed a federal sexual harassment complaint on behalf of a client.  In a letter to the defendant, he announced he had created a specific website regarding the allegations, and said he would put up a public “shame on you” banner near the defendant’s restaurants.  He also told the defendant that he had scheduled meetings with police and the federal Department of Justice about the alleged hiring of undocumented workers.  In response to a settlement offer, the lawyer told the defendant’s lawyers that he “intended to destroy” the defendant’s businesses.

The judge in the federal case insisted that the lawyer stop his unprofessional behavior; the parties settled; and the state Disciplinary Judge accepted the lawyer’s admission that his conduct violated Arizona’s versions of Model Rules 4.4 (respect for the rights of others) and 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice).  The lawyer also agreed to two years probation and to pay costs.

The rules in my home jurisdiction, Ohio, include Rule 1.2(e), a specific prohibition against threatening criminal charges or professional misconduct allegations solely to obtain an advantage in a civil matter.  Interestingly, the Model Rules lack an express prohibition, although this case illustrates that disciplinary authorities can get there via other rules.

Using firm letterhead

Last, here’s a cautionary tale about using your firm letterhead for a personal legal dispute.

According to plaintiffs in a federal complaint filed in November, a Pepper Hamilton partner entered into a lease-to-own deal with a couple for a $750,000 house he owned.  The couple terminated the contract and moved out, and the lawyer claimed that they owed about $10,000.  The lawyer sent a demand letter for the money in September, using the firm’s letterhead.

That drew a suit from the couple against both the lawyer and the law firm for allegedly violating the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.  “Once [the lawyer] sent the Sept. 19 letter … on [the firm’s] letterhead, he was no longer acting as an individual collecting his own debt, but rather a debt collector subject to the FDCPA,” the couple said in their complaint.

It remains to be seen whether that theory will fly — the case docket does not yet reflect any response to the complaint.  But it points to an issue that you should probably think about in your personal dispute before putting a piece of firm stationery in the printer.