The former president of the California Trial Lawyers Assn. will be disciplined for allegedly collecting an excessive fee in a case, California State Bar officials announced Tuesday.
The decision by the Bar's Review Department reverses a decision in April by a hearing officer who found that attorney R. Browne Greene did nothing wrong in accepting 40% of a $650,000 settlement after suing Kaiser Permanente Health Plan in a medical malpractice case.
However, without elaborating publicly, Bar officials concluded that Greene's fee was in excess of that allowed by state law and that he did not properly keep the funds in a trust account until the dispute could be legally resolved.
'Amazed and Appalled'
Bar officials ordered the matter assigned again to a hearing officer to "deal with the issue of discipline," according to Anne Charles, a Bar spokeswoman in San Francisco. She would not discuss the range of potential discipline faced by Greene.
Greene, 52, a prominent Los Angeles attorney who last year served as president of the California Trial Lawyers Assn., said he was both "amazed and appalled" by the Bar's decision.
"The ultimate decider of this matter is the Supreme Court," Greene said. "I will fight this all the way and I will be vindicated."
The charges against Greene grew out of a malpractice suit he filed in 1982 for Judith and Richard Shepherd, a San Fernando Valley couple, against Kaiser Permanente. Judith Shepherd was treated with an aspirin at a Kaiser facility in Panorama City after complaining of a headache. She later lapsed into a coma and was found to have suffered a brain aneurysm that had burst.
Greene said in April that he accepted the case, which was referred to him by another lawyer, on condition that he receive 40% of any settlement. Two years later, Kaiser settled the case for $650,000.
Plaintiffs Contest Fee
Afterward, the Shepherds contested the fee, saying that it was about $153,000 higher than permitted by the state Business and Professions Code. The code limits lawyers' contingency fees in medical malpractice cases to 40% of the first $50,000, 33 1/2% of the next $50,000, 24% of the next $100,000 and 10% of any recovery thereafter.
When Greene took the Shepherds' case, the law had not been adjudicated and contingency fees of 40% were common, according to legal observers.
The Shepherds settled their case against Greene last year after he was ordered to pay them $157,000.
On Tuesday, he condemned the Bar's decision as "further evidence of (the Bar's) high disrepute among the Legislature and the public."
The Bar monitors and enforces professional conduct among about 114,000 attorneys who belong to the California State Bar. Last year, Bar officials disciplined more than 200 lawyers for various infractions of professional codes and state laws.
Meanwhile, in another action announced Tuesday, Bar officials said Edward LeLouis, a Bakersfield attorney accused of soliciting murder, has been suspended indefinitely from practicing law. LeLouis was arrested last year after he allegedly tried to hire two Bakersfield men to kill two people, one of whom is a Los Angeles resident LeLouis is suing.