It may seem obvious. But the state Court of Appeals has affirmed the right of attorneys to drop clients who aren’t paying their bills.
In a new ruling, the judges rebuffed Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gerald Porter for refusing to let the lawyers at the firm of Mead and Associates withdraw from a child custody case. In an unsigned opinion, the appellate judges said Porter was off base in rejecting the nonpayment of fees as a legitimate reason.
“An attorney has a right to be paid for his services,” the appellate court wrote. The judges also said that Michelle McFarland, the client in the case, has a duty to pay her attorney.
“Although withdrawal is not automatically allowed, a client’s failure to pay reasonable attorneys’ fees may qualify as a good and valid reason justifying withdrawal,” the opinion states.
Court records show the law firm agreed last November to represent McFarland in a post-divorce custody matter. She paid a retainer and signed an agreement — an agreement that included a provision saying the firm could stop representing her if she did not pay legal fees and expenses when due.
A friend of McFarland’s agreed to act as a guarantor and began paying her fees. But he withdrew the guarantee in April and stopped making payments soon thereafter.
McFarland represented there would be future payments or at least guarantees, ostensibly through her father.
On May 16, the court set the matter for trial on July 31. But on May 27, McFarland’s father told the law firm he could not pay the outstanding bill or guarantee future payments.
McFarland refused to allow the law firm to withdraw from representation, with the result that, by the end of May, she owed about $24,900 for work already done.
That led the firm to ask court permission to drop McFarland as a client, arguing that, as a small firm, it could not afford to continue representing her.
The attorneys also noted McFarland never offered a payment plan. And they said that Terrance Mead, the lead attorney, just had eye surgery, limiting his ability to work, meaning he had to devote his limited time to other clients’ matters.
But Porter refused.
“Money is not a good cause to grant withdrawal of counsel,” he wrote in his brief order.
That decision, the appellate judges said, was wrong.
The judges acknowledged that, generally speaking, once a case has been set for trial, an attorney can quit without the client’s consent only if the trial court finds “good cause.”
They acknowledged that the rules governing the conduct of attorney do not define what is “good cause.”
But they said there are other sections of the rules which talk about an “unreasonable financial burden on the lawyer.” And they concluded the evidence presented shows that is the case here.
“Moreover, McFarland has not disputed the reasonableness of (the lawyers’) fees,” the appellate judge wrote. And they said it was not until after the case was set for trial that McFarland and her family made it clear they had no funds to pay.
The judge also said there is no prejudice to McFarland.
They said she was told of the motion to withdraw two months before the trial. And they pointed out that the case has since been moved to Aug. 29.