85-F-96 - Settlement Negotiations including attorney fees

 

BOARD OF PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY OF THE SUPREME COURT OF TENNESSEE

FORMAL ETHICS OPINION 85-F-96


Inquiry is made concerning the ethical consequences of settlement negotiations which include provisions relating to attorney's fees.

The subject of this inquiry arises with increased frequency following the advent of structured settlements, class actions and the Civil Rights Attorney's Fee Award Act of 1976, 72 U.S.C. Section 1988.

Formal Ethics Opinions 80-F-1, 80-F-1(a), 84-F-61 and 84-F-77 have addressed the matter relating to structured settlement. Formal Ethics Opinion 84-F-77 states:

There is a potential, if not an actual, conflict of interest between the attorney and client in every instance where structured settlements are discussed or considered as a settlement option. It is recognized that, in some instances, an immediate cash settlement would be more beneficial to the client, whereas the attorney may prefer to receive the payment of his attorney fee periodically; or, vice versa. The preferences of the attorney or client are often dependent or based upon their respective ages, economic station or tax consequences. These factors will seldom, if ever, be viewed from the same perspective by the attorney and the client.

Formal Ethics Opinion 80-F-1 states:

... any arrangement by which the opposing party participates in the setting of the fee charged by the attorney to his client conflicts with the language and intent of DR 5-107 and EC 5-22 of the Code. (emphasis added)

The matter of civil rights attorney's fee awards has not been addressed in a Formal Ethics Opinion. It appears the conflict in such instances may be more severe than in cases involving structured settlements. For example, in the case of Jeff D. et al v. Evans, 743 F.2d 648 (9th Cir. 1984), during the settlement negotiations, the defendants offered virtually all of the relief sought by plaintiff's conditioned upon waiver of attorney's fees by plaintiff's counsel.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in considering the matter states:

The crux of the problem is the possibility of diverging interests of the lawyer and the class. The attorney may be tempted with a generous fee offer as a quid pro quo for less than optimal settlement. Alternatively, the defendant may condition settlement on the attorney's waiver of fees, creating a particularly severe conflict when important interests of class members are at stake....

To avoid this conflict, this circuit has ... disapproved simultaneous negotiation of settlements and attorney's fees.

In such instances, settlement negotiations which include provisions for attorney's fees are not inherently improper and may be appropriate, provided plaintiff's counsel:

(i) Fully advises the plaintiff or plaintiffs concerning each and every step and aspect of the negotiations;

(ii) Advises that independent legal advice may be obtained regarding the matter; and

(iii) The client should be allowed to approve or disapprove of the entire settlement, including provisions relating to attorney's fees. When consent, approval or permission of a court is required, the court should be fully advised of all matters relative thereto, including the provisions of attorney fees.

This 31st day of May, 1985.

ETHICS COMMITTEE:

W. J. Flippin, Chairman
Edwin C. Townsend
Henry H. Hancock

APPROVED AND ADOPTED BY THE BOARD