Q: A few years ago, I hired a lawyer to collect money from a deadbeat renter. He handled the case badly, and let it drag on forever.
The renter moved to Massachusetts, where it is apparently very hard to collect on a judgment. I finally found a collection agency and tried to collect, but they had no luck and the guy moved again.
The collection agency claims that the deadbeat renter went “underground” and they could not find him.
Before the judgment, when I hadn’t heard from the lawyer for some time, I called to find out if there was any progress, and he admitted that he had forgotten about us. At this point I have just about given up on collecting from the renter, but is there any way I can go after the lawyer for the fees I paid him? He clearly didn’t do the job and has admitted forgetting about us.
A: I’m sorry that you haven’t had any luck collecting from your deadbeat renter. There are a lot of people who have suffered severe financial harm during this recession and simply have had to leave town when they couldn’t afford to pay their bills.
There are a couple of things you can do. The first is to request that the attorney return the money you paid him. If he is honest and believes that you were harmed by his actions, he may decide to return the fees you paid him. But, if you were not harmed by him and he was able to obtain a judgment against the renter, you may not have much of a claim against the attorney. While his actions may have delayed your case, you may not be better or worse off because of it.
The key is whether the attorney committed malpractice in his representation in your case. If he filed all the right forms, did not miss deadlines, but the case was delayed due to his timing, you may not have a case. But if he failed to file the case on time, missed deadlines or otherwise was negligent in his representation in your case, you can file a complaint against the lawyer for malpractice with the state attorney disciplinary board.
Even though the attorney said that he had forgotten about you, the real issue is whether you were harmed along the process due to his forgetfulness. The attorney was able to obtain a judgment against the renter. Had he not forgotten about you and you had gotten the judgment any earlier, would you have collected money? If the debtor did not pay you then and does not pay you now may not be something that this attorney should bear the risk on.
Keep in mind that you have to decide before filing suit whether the costs of the suit will outweigh the return that you might receive and whether you will be able to recover money if you receive a judgment. Some people believe that once they sue someone and receive a judgment, the debtor will automatically pay. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. In some cases attempting to collect the debt may cost more than what you might be owed.
Whether the state disciplinary board agrees with you will be another story. But if he missed deadlines, they should get involved. If he did not miss deadlines, they may view your case as a fee dispute and may not look into it in great detail.
You should look over your case and then decide first whether to ask the attorney to return the fees, file a complaint, or do nothing.