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Disengaging from Long-Standing Clients

Rice v. Forestier,  414 S.W.2d 711 (Civ. App. 1967)

TX. underlying bankruptcy proceeding

Student contributor: Cheryl Neuman

Facts: Plaintiff retained defendant attorney for various matters, both in business and personally. Plaintiff suffered damages as a result of a default judgment filed against him in a bankruptcy proceeding. The plaintiff was served with citations. There is conflicting testimony regarding whether plaintiff delivered the citations (from the underlying cause of action) to the defendant’s office. Nevertheless, defendant was aware that the citations were in his office and defendant’s secretary actually prepared answers to the citations but was told not to file them because the business was in bankruptcy. The secretary placed the documents in a file and stored them away. These documents were then given to another attorney hired by plaintiff, in another matter. The new attorney testified that he received two citations from defendant’s file.

Issue: Whether defendant had a duty to inform plaintiff that he was not going to file an answer on plaintiff’s behalf?

Ruling: Yes. Since defendant knew that the citations were in his possession, he was obligated to inform plaintiff that he decided not to answer the citations. Defendant did, however, have the right to decline representation in this matter, but should have told plaintiff of his decision. The failure of the defendant to file the answer on plaintiff’s behalf and notify plaintiff that he would not be representing him was the proximate cause of the monetary loss as a result of the default judgment taken against him.

Lesson: A lawyer is free to choose his clients, but if the lawyer decides not to represent a longstanding client in a subsequent matter, it is prudent to inform the longstanding client of this decision. This is especially true, because, as seen in this case, a lawyer can be held liable to a client who he doesn’t inform that he will not be representing him.

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Posted in: Commercial, Disengagement, Duties: Communicate, Litigation, Texas