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Trial Lawyer Chief's Fee Dispute Will Go to Bar

October 07, 1987|JOHN KENDALL | Times Staff Writer

Charges that the president of the California Trial Lawyers Assn., Los Angeles attorney R. Browne Greene, collected an excessive fee from clients in a medical malpractice suit will be heard in a California State Bar hearing set for December.

Bar spokeswoman Ann Charles said the Bar scheduled a disciplinary hearing for Dec. 8, 9 and 10 after Greene and his lawyer and a Bar attorney were unable to agree on disposition of the charges in a closed mandatory settlement conference Monday in Los Angeles.

The charges involving Greene were filed by Bar examiner Karen Prather in June. Prather found "reasonable cause" to examine allegations that the well-known lawyer had charged a fee in excess of that permitted by state law and had failed to keep the money in dispute in a client's trust fund until the issue could be settled.

The case involved Judith and Richard Shepherd, a San Fernando Valley couple who retained Greene and his law firm in July, 1982, to represent them in a medical malpractice suit against Kaiser Permanente Health Plan.

Judith Shepherd went to Kaiser Permanente in Panorama City early in 1982 with a headache and was treated with aspirin. When she later lapsed into a coma, she was found to have suffered a brain aneurysm that had burst. Her attorney, Josh Needle, says she is still gravely disabled.

Prather said Greene had accepted the Shepherds as clients in the summer of 1982 on a contingency fee basis, calling for the law firm to receive 40% of any settlement. In 1984 Kaiser settled the couple's malpractice action for $650,000.

Limited by State

But, according to the Bar examiner, before the settlement was paid in July, 1984, Greene was advised by the Shepherds and their lawyer, Needle, that the proposed contingency fee of $260,000, plus more than $30,000 in costs, was about $153,350 in excess of that permitted under the state Business and Professions Code.

Under the law, contingency fees are limited to 40% of the first $50,000 recovered in a medical malpractice case, 33 1/2% of the next $50,000, 25% of the next $100,000 and 10% of any recovery in excess of $200,000.

In his response filed with the State Bar in late July, Greene said that the Shepherds had agreed, upon advice of Needle, to waive their rights to the fee limit. Greene charged that the couple and Needle had "agreed to create a fee dispute" and "to divide the amount obtained" from him as a result.

Prather said the Shepherds denied that they had agreed to waive the fee limit.

Greene would not discuss the charges with a reporter, but his attorney, George Rosenberg, said Tuesday, "We are of the opinion that these charges have no validity and will be dismissed."

Needle said the lengthy fee dispute was settled in January when his clients were paid $157,000 that had been withheld by Greene's law firm as legal fees from the original settlement of $650,000. Needle said that the payment brought to a little more than $516,000 the total amount his clients had received in damages.

The final payment ended a long legal battle between the Shepherds and Greene over the disputed funds.

Arbitration Sought

In 1984, when Greene and the couple could not agree on what the legal fee should be, Needle filed for non-binding arbitration by the State Bar, which awarded the Shepherds $101,450 of the disputed fees held by Greene.

Greene challenged the arbitrator's award in a Superior Court action filed in February, 1985, but lost when the court upheld a demurrer filed by Needle in March, 1985. Then, Needle asked the court to correct the Bar arbitrators' award, and the court agreed, increasing the Shepherds' share of the disputed funds to $137,969. With interest, that amount increased by about $20,000 when the legal battle ended.

While waging the fee battle, the Shepherds also filed a complaint against Greene with the State Bar in 1984. The Bar's findings in the matter will be heard at the December hearing.

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