In New Hampshire, what happens when a lawyer acts unethically and harms clients financially? The rest of the legal profession rallies to provide a measure of relief to the victims and help restore faith in the legal system through the Public Protection Fund.
“There is no other profession that I am aware of anywhere… that has anything like this,” says Kevin Collimore of CullenCollimore, who recently stepped down as chair of the NHBA’s Public Protection Fund Committee. “When one steals from somebody, all of the others get together and compensate them.” The Public Protection Fund, established in 1998 by Supreme Court Rule 55, is supported by a mandatory court fee. The PPF is administered by a nine-member Bar Association committee, under the oversight of the Supreme Court.
The PPF recently experienced its biggest influx of claims against one attorney in its history, following the suspension in December 2010 of former Exeter bankruptcy attorney Brian McCaffrey, an attorney in NH since 1978.
By many accounts, McCaffrey was seen as an upstanding and friendly local guy. But after a complaint was filed, the New Hampshire Attorney Discipline Office launched an investigation that revealed that in scores of cases, fees for bankruptcy filings had been collected, but little or no legal work had been done, according to the ADO. It alleges that funds placed in client trust funds were mishandled. McCaffrey was suspended on an emergency basis.
The ADO turned over files for approximately 300 clients to attorney Philip Pettis, of the Boynton and Waldron firm in Portsmouth, who was appointed by the court to review the files and notify clients about McCaffrey’s suspension.
“I was just in a position to answer their questions and help them either transition to a new attorney or help them understand how to handle their case on their own,” Pettis said. “In many cases, I had to assure the client that I, the ADO, and other lawyers would do everything we could to help them address any pending issues with their cases or transition to a new attorney.” (See related story about how attorneys rallied to help many of McCaffrey’s former clients.)
Pettis also informed the affected clients about the Public Protection Fund and the opportunity to recoup the money they had paid to McCaffrey. The clients couldn’t claim against McCaffrey’s professional liability insurance, because he stopped paying on the policy around the time of his suspension. While some chose not to file claims with the PPF or didn’t meet the statutory deadline, 94 clients filed claims that averaged about $1,500 each. Many of the claimants were particularly vulnerable, relying on Social Security income, some suffering with disabilities or in the midst of a divorce. Members of the PPF committee, which included Kevin Collimore, Thomas Irwin, Keith Diaz, and Thomas Quarles, who recently moved from vice chair to chair, investigated and/or voted on each claim. Also, the late Roland Morneau, a longtime member of the committee, assisted in reviewing many claims before his retirement from the committee last year. The committee also includes public members Jay Haines and Sandra Keans, a longtime member of the NH House of Representatives, who voted on the claims. Because of the extraordinary workload, the committee sometimes operated remotely using a secure online spreadsheet, via technology supported by the NHBA, to track the progress of the many claims.
Some of the claims were rejected, because there was no proof of wrongdoing, but the majority of them were approved. In all, 81 claims totaling $120,000 were paid to former clients of McCaffrey. Most of the claims were investigated, approved and paid within six months.
This was only possible because of a new claims process for PPF claims of less than $2,500 that the New Hampshire Supreme Court approved not long before McCaffrey’s suspension.
There are several option available if a client believes his/her attorney has done wrong. Sometimes the issue can be a simple misunderstanding and a lack of communication between the client and the attorney. Sometimes attorneys do make mistakes, in which case filing a claim against his or her malpractice insurance may protect the client (IF they have insurance!). In the rare instance that an attorney defrauds a client, the Public Protection Fund is a safety net.
The Lawyer Referral Service of the New Hampshire Bar Association can help with a referral to a competent attorney who specifically handles Legal Malpractice. All LRS attorneys are required to carry malpractice insurance. A consultation with an attorney may be all you need to determine which option makes the most sense for your particular circumstances. Call 603-229-0002 or request a referral online.