By H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
May 20, 2023
This story serves as a lesson in how to deal with a lawyer who refuses to honor a letter of protection and pay up after a settlement.
Today’s story will not only be of special interest to healthcare providers — physicians, chiropractors, physical therapists and psychologists — who treat auto accident victims on a lien basis, but will also offer suggestions on how not to get ripped off by a deadbeat lawyer who is supposed to protect your bill.
And if you are wondering how often this happens, just ask Southern California attorney Shawn Steel, who says, “Nationwide, over three-quarters of lawyers who handle personal cases on a lien basis flagrantly refuse to honor the lien — and, in my experience, especially those attorneys who spend millions of dollars on television ads. Far too many health care professionals just don’t know what to do when they are stiffed, or their bill is cut to shreds.”
Your reputation matters
The last paragraph of my October 2022 article A Lawyer’s Reputation Begins in Law School — which shared how my classmate tried to deny the entire first-year Loyola Law School class an important final exam study aid — reads: “Our reputation — with classmates who will become colleagues, partners and the judges before whom we will stand — is one of the most fragile things we possess. Handle it with care. Across my years of practice, I’ve found that most do.”
In the City of Good Neighbors — also known as Buffalo, N.Y. — resides “Eric,” an attorney who doesn’t care much about protecting his own reputation as much as fattening his wallet by attempting to steal personal injury settlement funds intended to pay for his clients’ medical treatment.
As you will see, Eric finally agreed to pay, a result of the outrage of “Kitty,” the doctor’s new office manager, upon discovering Eric’s deceit. She researched how to deal with a thief who is a member of the New York State Bar Association and found my February 2019 article When Lawyers Refuse to Pay a Doctor’s Bill
She phoned me — and to quote from the 1980s TV show The A-Team, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Because, typically, when a lawyer — or, in my case, a lawyer-journalist — calls someone who has not performed under their contract, magical things happen afterward. I told Kitty that I would phone Eric and talk to him, as the bare fact of my call should prompt him to either pay up or provide proof of payment.
An accident, lack of insurance and a letter of protection
In mid-2019, “Rocky” was stopped for a red light and was rear-ended by a driver found to be at fault by the Buffalo Police Department. He had no auto-medical insurance or private medical insurance. The collision resulted in a worsening of Rocky’s pre-existing spinal stenosis and caused extreme pain — so much so that he sought legal counsel, hired Eric, who was able to get pain specialist “Dr. S” to treat him based on a so-called letter of protection, which read:
“Our office will protect the interests of all medical providers who agree to wait for payment until such time as the case is settled. We will need your chart and progress notes, results of all tests establishing the extent of our client’s injuries.”
It should be noted that Dr. S initially refused to accept the case but admitted, “I really felt sorry for the poor guy and just had to help him, keeping my fingers crossed that I would be paid.”
Case settled, but where’s our money?
As often happens, the insurance company representing the at-fault driver refused to make any sort of a reasonable offer. The matter was litigated, and along came COVID-19, postponing a final settlement until mid-2022. Then things got interesting.
Kitty sent me correspondence and phone messages from Eric’s office that claimed the bill had been paid, but no proof — no canceled check — ever was produced.
“We were given a host of excuses and promises to have payment next week, and next week, and next week, until I was fed up and filed a complaint with the New York State Bar and called you, Mr. Beaver,” Kitty said.
Hi, Eric, I’m doing a story on lawyers who stiff doctors. Can you help me?
Kitty’s sense of fundamental morality and right and wrong motivated me on top of my contempt for members of the legal profession who are just plain thieves.
When I phoned Eric and explained that I was looking into what appeared to be a case of a lawyer who failed to honor his letter of protection, it was clear I was dealing with an indignant thief who’d been caught. His initial reaction was laughable, as if he were saying, You dare question the great and powerful Oz?
His excuse? “It’s the patient’s bill. The doctor should get his money from Rocky.”
“But Rocky spoke with you, and you promised to pay the bill months ago, so where’s the doctor’s money?”
Eric then said, “Well, possibly we overlooked payment, but I will take care of it next week, and you can tell them that. But don’t dare use my name in a story!”
“I never use real names without permission, so don’t worry, Eric, and certainly don’t worry one bit about the fact that I am looking at letters from you promising to pay the bill next week. Several letters all say the same thing.”
Kitty phoned me after that call. “He called my boss and promised to pay us. But if he does not, what should we do?”
“You have lodged a complaint with the state bar, so file against his law firm in small-claims court. Lawyers hate both things, and a check should magically appear. But next time, tell your boss to go with his gut feelings about accepting a patient on a letter-of-protection basis,” I recommended. (See more ways to deal with a deadbeat lawyer in the previously mentioned article When Lawyers Refuse to Pay a Client’s Doctor Bill)
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