Bifurcated Attorney Fee Agreement Gets Thumbs Up

Posted by NCBRC - April 16, 2019

A Utah bankruptcy court upheld a chapter 7 debtor’s attorney’s bifurcated fee agreement in the face of a motion for sanctions by the U.S. Trustee. In re Hazlett, No. 16-30360 (Bankr. D. Utah Apr. 10, 2019).

Attorney Russell B. Weekes, of Capstone Law, entered into a fee agreement with the chapter 7 debtor, Brett Hazlett, under which Mr. Hazlett would pay no retainer fee, but would pay post-petition costs and expenses in the amount of $2,400 in ten monthly installments. Capstone had an arrangement with BK Billing, under which BK Billing would buy the account from Capstone for $1,800 and collect the fee payments from Mr. Hazlett. Mr. Weekes explained that arrangement to Mr. Hazlett. Mr. Weekes filed all the necessary bankruptcy papers and Mr. Hazlett received his chapter 7 discharge without complications in March of 2017.

In September, 2017, the U.S. Trustee reopened the case and moved for sanctions based on the fee agreement. Specifically, the UST challenged: “(1) the marketing of Zero-Down Chapter 7 bankruptcy services; (2) the bifurcation of bankruptcy services into pre-petition and post-petition fee agreements; (3) filing the petition and the Initial Bankruptcy Papers for purportedly no charge; (4) the reasonableness of the $2,400 post-petition fee; (5) the use of BK Billing to factor and collect the fee; and (6) the propriety of utilizing electronic signatures in bankruptcy.”

In its preliminary discussion, the court noted several factors contributing to the problem of fees for chapter 7 representation, not least of which is the fact that chapter 7 debtors tend not to have the funds to pay a retainer. Adding to the difficulty, the Supreme Court held in Lamie v. United States Trustee, 540 U.S. 526 (2004), that a chapter 7 debtor’s attorney cannot be paid out of estate funds and that any fee still owed at the time of the petition is dischargeable along with other debts. The court reviewed the various, less-than-optimal, choices chapter 7 debtors have, beginning with the pro se route (or use of petition-preparers who often overcharge and underperform), which typically results in needlessly complicated chapter 7 cases and a low discharge rate of 70%.

In the absence of established law in the district on the topic of bifurcated fee agreements, the court found guidance in an ethics opinion issued by the Utah State Bar which emphasized that any such agreement must be for post-petition service, must be entered into after full disclosure and evidence of an understanding on the part of the debtor, and must be permissible under bankruptcy law.

The court found that Capstone’s fee agreement procedures—which included verbal explanation of the ramifications of all the payment options; extensive documents to be signed by the client laying out the disclosures, warnings and explanations; a general information document requiring the client’s initials on each paragraph; and more—satisfied the requirements of full disclosure and informed consent.

The court turned next to whether such agreements are permissible in bankruptcy. Section 329 requires that fees be reasonable, and Rule 2016(b) imposes disclosure requirements on attorneys. Evidence of compliance with both requirements must be presented to the court in the Form B2030 Disclosure of Compensation. The court found that bifurcated fee agreements are not per se prohibited and set forth the following “prime directives” for their use:

  1. The agreement must be in the debtor’s best interest.
  2. All fees must be reasonable and necessary. Where the attorney charges more for the post-petition agreement, he or she must justify the increased fee other than by work performed pre-petition.
  3. The fee arrangement must be revealed in Form B2030 within fourteen days of the petition.
  4. If the debtor opts to proceed pro se or with different counsel, the attorney must comply with the Local Rule pertaining to withdrawal or substitution of counsel.

The court acknowledged that Local Rule 2091-1 essentially requires a lawyer to complete all aspects of a bankruptcy case, but noted that in this case, the attorney fee agreement contemplated just that; Mr. Weekes was obligated under the agreement to complete the bankruptcy case unless the debtor opted to proceed pro se or hire new counsel.

Finding that Mr. Weekes’s fees were reasonable and necessary, the court went on to examine Capstone’s use of BK Billing for collection of payments. The court expressed concern about the use of such services due to systemic issues of overcharging debtors and creating a conflict of interest for the debtor’s attorney between the debtor and the collector. It noted, however, that the Utah Ethics Opinion found that such arrangements were permissible so long as all the requirements of full disclosure, informed consent, and reasonable fees were met. The court found that to be the case here.

The same was true for Capstone’s use of electronic signatures for some of the documents Mr. Hazlett signed. Though Local Rule 5005-2(e), which pertains to documents an attorney must retain, refers to “original signatures,” various rules and statutes in Utah sanction the use of electronic signatures, and it was therefore not unreasonable for Capstone to use e-signatures. Moreover, from a practical standpoint, the court noted that it is not always feasible to obtain wet signatures when financial pressures require immediate action.

The court concluded that Mr. Weekes provided valuable and ultimately successful services to Mr. Hazlett, that the terms of the fee agreement were fully disclosed, that the fee itself was reasonable and necessary and that, for all these reasons, sanctions were not warranted.

Hazlett Opinion Bankr Utah April 2019




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