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Board of Professional Responsibility, Wyoming State Bar v. Crawford-Fink

Supreme Court of Wyoming

December 4, 2019

BOARD OF PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY, WYOMING STATE BAR, Petitioner,
v.
KARA CRAWFORD-FINK, WSB # 6-3966, Respondent.

          ORDER OF ONE-YEAR SUSPENSION

          MICHAEL K. DAVIS, CHIEF JUSTICE

         [¶ 1] This matter came before the Court upon the Board of Professional Responsibility's '"Report and Recommendation for One-Year Suspension," filed herein November 20, 2019, pursuant to Rule 12 of the Wyoming Rules of Disciplinary Procedure (stipulated discipline). After a careful review of the Report and Recommendation and the file, the Court finds the Report and Recommendation should be approved, confirmed and adopted by the Court, and that Kara Crawford-Fink should be suspended from the practice of law for one year. It is, therefore, [¶ 2] ADJUDGED AND ORDERED that the Board of Professional Responsibility's "Report and Recommendation for One-Year Suspension," which is attached hereto and incorporated herein, shall be, and the same hereby is, approved, confirmed, and adopted by this Court; and it is further

         [¶ 3] ADJUDGED AND ORDERED that, as a result of the conduct set forth in the Report and Recommendation for One-Year Suspension, Respondent Kara Crawford-Fink shall be, and hereby is, suspended from the practice of law for one year, with the period of suspension to begin December 13, 2019; and it is further

         [¶ 4] ORDERED that, during the period of suspension. Respondent shall comply with the requirements of the Wyoming Rules of Disciplinary Procedure, particularly the requirements found in Rule 21 of those rules. That rule governs the duties of disbarred and suspended attorneys; and it is further

         [¶ 5] ORDERED that, pursuant to Rule 25 of the Wyoming Rules of Disciplinary Procedure, Respondent shall reimburse the Wyoming State Bar the amount of $50.00, which represents the costs incurred in handling this matter, as well as pay an administrative fee of $750.00. Respondent shall pay the total amount of $800.00 to the Wyoming State Bar on or before February 3, 2020. If Respondent fails to make payment in the time allotted, execution may issue on the award; and it is further

         [¶ 6] ORDERED that the Wyoming State Bar is authorized to issue the stipulated press release contained in the "Report and Recommendation for One-Year Suspension"; and it is further

         [¶ 7] ORDERED that the Clerk of this Court shall docket this "Order of One-Year Suspension," along with the incorporated "Report and Recommendation for One-Year Suspension" as a matter coming regularly before this Court as a public record; and it is further

         [¶ 8] ORDERED that, pursuant to Rule 9(b) of the Wyoming Rules of Disciplinary Procedure, this "Order of One-Year Suspension," along with the incorporated "Report and Recommendation for One-Year Suspension" shall be published in the Wyoming Reporter and the Pacific Reporter; and it is further

         [¶ 9] ORDERED that the Clerk of this Court cause a copy of this "Order of One-Year Suspension" to be served upon Respondent Kara Crawford-Fink.

         [¶ 10] DATED this 4th day of December, 2019.

         REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION FOR ONE-YEAR SUSPENSION

         THIS MATTER came before a Review Panel of the Board of Professional Responsibility via telephone conference call on the 13d1 day of November, 2019, for consideration of the parties' Stipulation for One-Year Suspension pursuant to Rules 9 and 12 of the Wyoming Rules of Disciplinary Procedure. Present on the call were Review Panel members Debra J. Wendtland, Katherine A. Strike and Carolyn Orr. Mark W. Gifford, Bar Counsel appeared on behalf of the Wyoming State Bar. Complainant Trayce Harris appeared. Respondent Kara Crawford-Fink did not appear. The Review Panel having reviewed the Stipulation, the supporting Affidavit and being fully advised in the premises, finds, concludes and recommends as follows:

         Findings of Fact

         1. The present complaint against Respondent, a Casper lawyer who was admitted to practice in 2006, was submitted in October 2018 by Respondent's former client, Trayce Harris of Casper. At the time Ms. Harris' complaint was received, there were two active disciplinary investigations of complaints that were filed against Respondent; one by Alaina Stedillie, a Casper lawyer, involving litigation misconduct by Respondent (WSB 2017-024) and the other by Stephanie Smith, one of Respondent's clients, involving negligence and lack diligence by Respondent in a divorce matter (WSB 2017-116). As a result of these complaints, Respondent ultimately received a 120-day suspension effective December 15, 2018.

         2. In her complaint, Ms. Harris reported that she hired Respondent on July 14, 2017, to represent her in riling a divorce action against her husband. On that date, Ms. Harris signed an engagement agreement with Respondent that required an up-front payment of $3, 500.00. The engagement agreement provided in relevant part that Respondent's time would be charged at the rate of $200.00 per hour and that Respondent's office would "send out monthly statements for fees and services incurred for that month."

         3. Respondent's billing records indicate that Respondent drafted the complaint on August 10, 2017. Ms. Harris signed it and Respondent's legal assistant, Rita Martin, notarized it the same day. Respondent's signature was added to the complaint on August 16, 2017. The divorce complaint was filed October 27, 2017.

         4. Between July 14, 2017, the date of Respondent's initial meeting with Ms. Harris, and October 27, 2017, the day the divorce complaint was filed, Respondent recorded 12.0 hours of time on the matter. Respondent concedes that this is an unreasonable amount of time for the work connected with preparing and filing a 1½ -page, pro forma divorce complaint. However, the parties have differing recollections regarding the number of times they met.

         5. On April 30, 2018, Ms. Harris sent Respondent an email terminating her services. The email closed with the following request: "Please remit a refund of the total amount I have paid less the amount for service rendered thus far and thank you." Respondent did not respond to the request.

         6. On March 30, 2018, a stipulation for a public censure in the Smith matter, WSB 2017-116, was submitted to the BPR. In the stipulation, Respondent admitted that she violated Rule 1.5 (billing errors/unreasonable charges) and Rule 1.16 (failure to refund unearned portion of fee) in her representation of Smith. The proposed public censure was rejected by the BPR.

         7. On June 20, 2018, Ms. Harris sent another email with a second request: "Please remit and return to me, to the address indicated below, the amount I paid ($3500) less the cost of your service rendered at your earliest convenience." The "address indicated below" for Ms. Harris is P.O. Box 521, Casper, WY 82602. This is the same mailing address shown on Respondent's office's Client Information Sheet and on Ms. Harris' complaint against Respondent in this matter. Respondent did not respond to the request.

         8. On October 3, 2018, the BPR, which had earlier rejected a public censure in the Smith matter, approved a stipulated 30-day suspension. In the stipulation, Respondent again admitted that she violated Rule 1.5 (billing errors/unreasonable charges) and Rule 1.16 (failure to refund unearned portion of fee) in her representation of Smith.

         9. On October 9, 2018, Ms. Harris filed a complaint with Bar Counsel. Bar Counsel mailed a copy of the complaint to Respondent with a request for her written response by October 25, 2018. The deadline to respond to the complaint passed without any word from Respondent, prompting Bar Counsel to send a follow-up request by certified mail on October 30, 2018.

         10. In her initial response to Ms. Harris' complaint, dated November 6, 2018, Respondent stated:

As for a refund, Ms. Harris called my office asking for her full refund, however I do not have a current address for Ms. Harris. I show there is a refund she is due which is about $750. I would be happy to send that to Ms. Harris. The address on the Bar Complaint shows a third address for Ms. Harris different from any other address I have seen. If Ms. Harris could confirm that is her current address, I would gladly refund the $750.

         11. On November 28, 2018, the Wyoming Supreme Court issued an order of 120-day suspension of Respondent, effective December 15, 2018. In the order, the Court approved and adopted the BPR's recommendation that Respondent receive a 30-day suspension for her conduct in the Smith matter, 12. On December 11, 2018, Bar Counsel mailed a copy of Ms. Harris' supplemental response to Respondent. The supplemental response also showed Ms. Harris' mailing address as P.O. Box 521, Casper, WY 82602. Still, Respondent did not send Ms. Harris a refund.

         13. In Bar Counsel's December 11, 2018 letter, Bar Counsel asked Respondent to produce her entire file in the Harris matter, including emails and billing records, by December 28, 2018. Respondent did not comply with the request for billing records until January 18, 2019 - after yet another follow-up reminder from Bar Counsel's office - when Respondent produced a billing statement dated November 5, 2018. That billing statement - the first and only invoice Respondent has produced for her work on Ms. Harris' case (Respondent never did send Ms. Harris a bill for her work on the case, though the fee agreement provided that monthly statements would be sent) - shows a refund due to Ms. Harris in the amount of $749.00. Still, Respondent did not send Ms. Harris a refund.

         14. Of relevance to the present proceeding is that on March 26, 2018, Respondent signed an affidavit of conditional admission in the Stephanie Smith matter which included the following admissions:

I further acknowledge that in my representation of Ms. Smith I violated Rule 1.5(a), which provides, "A lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an unreasonable fee or an unreasonable amount for expenses." The Wyoming Supreme Court has held that a lawyer may only charge a client for work actually performed, and that a lawyer's invoices must "accurately describe the legal services and amounts charged to the client." Bd. of Prof I Responsibility v. Casper,318 P.3d 790, 795 (Wyo. 2014). In addition, a lawyer is required to exercise "billing judgment" in the fees charged, which is usually demonstrated "by the attorney writing off unproductive, excess or redundant hours." Casper, supra, 318 P.3d at 796 (quoting In re NRF,294 P.3d 879, 883 (Wyo. 2013)). I acknowledge that I failed in my Rule 1.5 duties to Ms. Smith in at least the following respects: I charged 5 hours at $200.00 per hour for the preparation of the letter of April 3, 2017. That letter could not have taken me more than one-half hour to write and as I look at it now, it is clearly an error. I charged .4 hours to prepare the motion to withdraw. Having been terminated by Ms. Smith for my failure to discharge my obligations ...

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