Legal Ethics

Lawyers sanctioned for billing mentally ill vet for tasks such as shopping and moving

Two Iowa lawyers have each been suspended for 18 months for billing up to $125 an hour for “conservator services” that included nonlegal tasks such as attending birthday parties.

The lawyers are Donald Laing and Scott Railsback of Keota, Iowa, according to the Associated Press and the Iowa Supreme Court opinion (PDF) imposing sanctions. The Legal Profession Blog noted the suspensions and Above the Law noted the AP story.

Laing was appointed as conservator for a mentally ill Vietnam veteran in 1974 and spent the next 34 years helping the troubled man, according to the Iowa Supreme Court opinion. Railsback, who became Laing’s law partner in 1975, also helped out. The lawyers arranged for the man’s residential care, moving him from one institution to another when he became violent or walked away from his accommodations. They paid expenses, prepared annual reports and performed banking transactions, typical conservatorship work.

But the lawyers performed work that didn’t require legal expertise, the court said. They took their ward to medical appointments, took him shopping for clothes, helped him purchase gifts for others, attended his birthday parties, accompanied him on outings, helped him find a rental home and helped him move his furniture. The problem, according to the court, is that the lawyers billed these tasks as conservatorship services. The hourly fees ranged from $42 in the early years to $125 an hour in the later years. The lawyers also billed too many hours for preparing annual reports, the court said.

A judge approved the lawyers’ fees through 2007, until the ward sought a new conservator. A judge later found that the lawyers had overbilled the veteran by $175,000.

The Iowa Supreme Court noted some mitigating factors. The ward’s “illness and resulting volatility posed significant, complex, and time-consuming challenges for the respondents,” the court said. “We find plausible the respondents’ contention that there was a limited universe of people capable of managing [the ward’s] residential requirements, health care needs, and other routine matters of daily living. The respondents are entitled to some credit for ‘filling the gap’ when no relative did. In his testimony at the hearing before the commission, [the ward] candidly admitted the respondents had been extremely helpful to him over the years and consistently responded to his requests for much-needed assistance of all types. We are convinced the respondents sincerely attempted to make [the ward’s] life better when no family member stepped forward to help. They clearly went wrong, however, in repeatedly over-reaching in their applications for fees for services to a vulnerable ward who was disabled and kept uninformed of the amounts they were charging for their services.”

A secretary told AP that the two lawyers have retired and their firm has changed hands.

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.