The Iowa Supreme Court Friday showed mercy on an attorney who failed to refund $500 to clients who had overpaid him.
The attorney, Roscoe Ries Jr. of Des Moines, had claimed he couldn’t afford to repay the money.
In the first case of its kind in Iowa, the court ordered Ries to serve a 30-day suspension and warned he would not be reinstated unless he refunded the money plus interest. Justices rejected a six-month suspension proposed by its grievance commission, ruling Ries did not deserve tougher sanctions even though he ignored a court order to repay the money and falsely assured regulators he would.
A husband and wife who got divorced - Michael and Shelly Weigel - accidentally overpaid Ries by $500 in January 2010 for his work handling the proceeding. He explained in an email they would be credited for a $500 retainer paid at the beginning of the case, but they overpaid because the invoice he attached didn’t include the credit.
After learning of the mistake, they tried to contact Ries to get their money back. Ries did not respond to a letter they sent in February 2011 threatening legal action, and he did not contest a small claims lawsuit filed the next month in which he was eventually ordered to pay the refund. After the Weigels filed a complaint with the Attorney Disciplinary Board, Ries promised regulators he would repay the money but again failed to do so.
The board in August filed a complaint alleging Reis' conduct violated a rule requiring lawyers to "promptly deliver" any funds to which clients are entitled. Ries did not answer. He did show up at an October hearing where the grievance commission considered his punishment to explain he simply did not have "the wherewithal" to issue the refund.
He said the money had already been spent to pay bills and he was so broke he had considered filing for bankruptcy and was being supported by his girlfriend and friends. He said he didn't have $100 extra, let alone $500.
"To be honest with you, you know, it's an embarrassment. I mean, for a 42-year-old attorney not to have $500 to make that refund, it's just embarrassing," Ries said, according to the opinion. He did not return a message left at his law office.
Justice Edward Mansfield wrote that the case marked the first time the court had to decide whether attorneys commit an ethical violation by failing to refund mistaken overpayments brought to their attention.
He said Ries did not commit "any misrepresentation or dishonesty" and was not aware he'd been overpaid until the Weigels told him. "Also, while it seems difficult to believe that a practicing attorney could not come up with $500 to repay a client obligation, we share the commission's view that we are ‘forced to take Mr. Ries at his word' concerning his indigence," Mansfield wrote.
Mansfield noted that Ries had recently been reprimanded for allowing two clients' appeals to be dismissed and ignoring repeated inquiries about the status of another case.
Nonetheless, the court ultimately showed leniency to Ries, who has practiced law in Iowa since 1994.
"Although some aggravating factors are present, including a recent reprimand for neglect, a failure to initially respond to the Board, and the absence of any attempt to make even a partial refund, this matter nonetheless involves a single violation without proven dishonesty or fraudulent conduct," Mansfield wrote.
By Ryan J. Foley, The Associated Press