Contract lawyer described as 'superb advocate' is suspended for overbilling state public defender

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An Iowa lawyer described as a “superb advocate” has been suspended for overbilling the state public defender for her legal services and car mileage.

Lawyer Jennifer Meyer was well regarded, but her billing practices require a one-year suspension, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in a May 15 opinion.

Bloomberg Law has coverage, while the Legal Profession Blog has highlights from the decision.

Meyer provided services to the state public defender as a contract attorney. She billed the agency for more than 24 hours in a day on 30 different days, according to an audit spanning four years. During the same period, Meyer had duplicated reimbursement requests for mileage, attributing trips to a location to multiple clients 147 times.

Meyer was among 14 lawyers audited. Two other Iowa lawyers were suspended for overcharging the state public defender last term.

Meyer had told the state public defender that she dictated her billings to her secretary, according to the opinion. She said billing errors could happen when her secretary billed for a letter or document on the day that it was mailed out, rather than the day that Meyer worked on the document.

Before the grievance commission, Meyer consistently argued that she did the legal work and was entitled to payment, despite billing irregularities. She often worked beyond customary hours and on weekends, she said.

After the audit, Meyer entered an Alford plea to a criminal charge of third-degree theft by deception in the amount of $1,000, an aggravated misdemeanor. In April 2018, she was ordered to pay nearly $103,000 in restitution and given a deferred sentence of two years of probation.

Meyer was credited nearly $54,000 for legal services provided after the audit. She entered into a plan to pay $250 per month until the remainder is paid.

A division of the Iowa Supreme Court’s grievance commission had recommended only a 60-day suspension, but the Iowa Supreme Court said the penalty was too low.

Although the Alford plea set the theft amount at $1,000, the actual overcharged amount was much higher, the supreme court said.

In mitigation, Meyer was described in superlative terms. The state public defender “never questioned the quality of Meyer’s representation of her clients or claimed any of her clients were harmed,” the state supreme court said.

“To the contrary, a retired district court judge stated in an affidavit that Meyer was ‘always extremely well-prepared, on time and a superior professional, caring advocate for the children she represented.’ He noted foster care support groups had urged him to continue appointing Meyer as guardian ad litem for children because of her diligence, responsiveness, and ‘that she always went above and beyond what other guardians ad litem did to help the children she served.’

“A district associate judge also submitted an affidavit stating that Meyer was her ‘first choice when appointing counsel’ in juvenile court matters and described her as a ‘superb advocate.’ ”

The court also cited other mitigating factors. Meyer was never disciplined before. She volunteered for pro bono cases at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown and through the Polk County and Iowa Legal Aid Volunteer Lawyer Projects. And she has already reimbursed the state public defender more than $53,000 in attorney time and is continuing to make restitution payments.

Meyer did not immediately respond to the ABA Journal’s voicemail seeking comment.

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