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Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board v. Saunders

Supreme Court of Iowa

November 9, 2018

IOWA SUPREME COURT ATTORNEY DISCIPLINARY BOARD, Complainant,
v.
LONNIE B. SAUNDERS, Respondent.

          On review of the report of the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission.

         Grievance commission recommends the suspension of an attorney's license for violations of ethical rules.

          Tara van Brederode and Wendell J. Harms, Des Moines, for complainant.

          Lonnie B. Saunders, Spirit Lake, pro se.

          MANSFIELD, JUSTICE.

         This attorney disciplinary proceeding requires us to address the recurring problem of attorneys who take premature probate fees. Before work was completed on an estate-in fact, over a year before the final report was filed and the court costs were paid-an attorney billed and collected the second half of his probate fee. Notably, the attorney had been publicly reprimanded for the same type of misconduct just a year and a half earlier.

         The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board (Board) charged the attorney with violating several rules, including Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct 32:1.5(a) and 32:1.15(c). The parties stipulated to facts and rule violations and jointly recommended a thirty-day suspension in light of the attorney's recent, prior reprimand for the identical misbehavior. The Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission agreed with that recommendation and passed it along to us. We, too, find violations of rules 32:1.5(a) and 32:1.15(c) and agree with the recommended sanction. Accordingly, we impose a thirty-day suspension on the attorney's license to practice law in Iowa.

         I. Facts and Procedural History.

         Lonnie Saunders was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1985 and maintains a private practice in Spirit Lake.

         On or about January 23, 2015, Steven Wallace died intestate in Spirit Lake at the age of 57, leaving his son Jarrod and daughter Malia as his heirs. On January 28, Saunders filed papers with the Iowa District Court for Dickinson County for Jarrod to be appointed administrator of the estate and for Saunders to serve as the estate's attorney.

         On March 5, Saunders submitted an inventory showing a total gross estate of $1, 158, 852.36. That same day, Saunders filed an application to be allowed a statutory fee of $23, 297.04, representing two percent of the value of the estate. The court approved the $23, 297.04 fee that day, and Jarrod wrote a check on the estate's account for $11, 648.50 to Saunders also that very same day. Saunders deposited the check in his business account, not his trust account.

         In September, Saunders recalculated the value of the estate and determined it was $982, 013.36. Saunders emailed Jarrod a revised calculation that he would be entitled to a total fee of $19, 760.26, leaving an unpaid balance of $8111.74. He asked Jarrod to "send a check at [his] first convenience." Saunders did not, however, file an amended inventory.

         Jarrod raised some questions about the $8111.74 bill. On December 16, Saunders wrote, "[I]n an effort to get this matter closed as soon as possible, I would agree to compromise my fee to the sum of $7500.00 if paid before the end of the year." Jarrod responded that he would pay before the end of the year but wanted something in writing that Saunders would handle some remaining work on the estate, specifically "the splitting of the land, the . . . stock, and the transfer of the time shares." On December 30, Jarrod paid Saunders $7500.00 by check written on the estate's account.

         Five days later, Saunders deposited the $7500 check in his business account. However, the work on the estate was not complete. In November 2016, Saunders filed an interlocutory report stating that all work was complete except for the change of title and execution of a ...


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