Bar association and court back doctor who says lawyer overbilled him

By: - July 7, 2021 5:41 pm
nterior of an empty courtroom with gavel and sounding block on the desk.

The state of Iowa has agreed to pay $125,000 to settle a long-running lawsuit over the 2016 suicide of an inmate housed in the  Waterloo Residential Correctional Facility. (Photo by Getty Images)

An Iowa attorney and his physician client are battling in court over the lawyer’s six-figure fees, which an arbitrator found to be excessive and the result of “wasteful activities.”

The case pits Mike Sellers, a well-respected Des Moines attorney who specializes in medical-misconduct cases, against a former client, Dr. Amit Gupta, who now lives and works on the west coast. The case also sheds new light on Sellers’ interaction with the Iowa Board of Medicine, where he’s often the opposing counsel, representing doctors facing licensing sanctions.

According to Sellers, it is his “working relationship” with the board that helped ensure a domestic-violence charge against Gupta didn’t result in licensing sanctions.

Court records indicate Gupta hired Sellers in late 2016 shortly after a jury found Gupta guilty of a misdemeanor domestic abuse offense. Although Gupta received a deferred judgment that would result in the criminal case being expunged from the public record, he sought Sellers’ guidance on what he needed to report about the matter to the Board of Medicine.

Gupta later claimed Sellers reviewed the criminal case, as well as the actions taken in his then-pending divorce case, and then persuaded him his lawyers were doing a poor job.

“Sellers convinced me that my professional existence was at stake,” Gupta said in his complaint to the Polk County Bar Association. He cited a June 2017 email in which Sellers allegedly wrote: “We need to discuss the big picture about this so-called divorce case. I cannot stand seeing abuse of process in the court system which is what this is. You might lose hundreds of thousands of dollars for nothing. This is sickening and I am not even involved … Let’s start this discussion from scratch over the weekend and map out some kind of strategy for you to take over control of your case.”

According to Gupta, Sellers took over the divorce case and soon began working on an effort to reopen the criminal case in order to have the jury verdict overturned or vacated.

The legal bills quickly mounted and, according to Gupta’s subsequent complaint to the bar association, they eventually totaled more than $300,000. “The vast majority of this fee was billed for work Mr. Sellers claims to have done to overturn the jury verdict in the simple misdemeanor case,” Gupta alleged.

According to Gupta, Sellers had emailed him in August 2017 and acknowledged that “as a matter of law, you cannot retry a completed criminal case when it was not appealed. WATCH me do it anyway!!!” Then, after that effort failed, Sellers allegedly emailed Gupta again, refusing to concede defeat and writing, “I am going to do whatever it takes to get that jury verdict set aside.”

Those efforts spilled into Gupta’s hotly contested divorce proceedings, which the Iowa Court of Appeals would later characterize as a “scorched-earth … race to the bottom” by Gupta and his wife. Court records indicate that at one point, the judge in the case, Andrew Chappell, warned Sellers he was “not going to issue some ruling that somehow overturns a jury’s verdict in any way, shape, or form.”

In Gupta’s divorce decree, the judge addressed the issue again, writing that Sellers appeared be asking that the court “somehow overturn” the conviction. “That case is not something that is properly before the court, and the court declines to do so,” the judge wrote.

By that time, Gupta later alleged, Sellers’ billings had exceeded a quarter of a million dollars. In his complaint to the bar association, Gupta alleged Sellers billed him $100 to leave a voice-mail message for someone, and $100 to send a one-line email.

At the conclusion of the divorce proceedings, in May 2018, Gupta advised Sellers he could no longer afford his legal representation and that he objected to any further billings. At that point, Sellers claimed the outstanding balance owed to him was $57,120.

Gupta filed his complaint with the Polk County Bar Association’s Fee Arbitration Committee in late 2018, claiming Sellers had billed him for services never rendered, obfuscated the billing statements and engaged in wasteful activities. He asked that the $57,120 in unpaid billings be voided, and that he be reimbursed for the $255,000 in legal fees already paid.

Gupta and Sellers agreed to binding arbitration before a committee panel that included Mark Weinhardt, a lawyer who had taken over from Sellers the legal representation of an Iowa doctor who was suing her former employer. At the time, Weinhardt informed all of the parties that he was aware his client, like Gupta, was involved in a fee dispute with Sellers.

In November 2019, the panel ruled against Sellers on the issue of the $57,120 in unpaid billings, and also ordered Sellers to refund $111,000 in legal fees already collected from Gupta.

In the criminal matter, the panel determined Sellers had billed Gupta for $62,000 worth of time spent on the unsuccessful effort to vacate the court’s decision. “Almost all of the time spent by Sellers was unnecessary, wasteful, unreasonable and of no value to Gupta,” the panel ruled.

As for the divorce, the panel said, that case involved a marriage of only five years with no children involved, so the matter entailed a relatively simple division of property. Sellers had billed Gupta $220,000 for his work on that case, the panel found, and while there was evidence Gupta had encouraged Sellers to pursue the “scorched earth” legal strategy, Sellers’ billing records showed evidence of what the commission called “questionable and wasteful legal work.”

Sellers’ fees, the panel said, were excessive or unreasonable, noting that the opposing counsel representing Gupta’s wife had billed his client only $90,000 for his work on the case.

After the arbitration panel issued its decision, Sellers sought a new hearing before a different panel of the committee, arguing that his efforts to vacate the criminal-court decision were justified.

“Dr. Gupta needs this criminal conviction to go away,” Sellers told the committee. “Any physician with a criminal assault conviction faces intense scrutiny and extraordinary diminished opportunities in their career moving forward … A conviction by a jury of criminal assault on a human being is a serious offense to all medical boards across the country. The fact that (I) was able to arrange and obtain Gupta’s medical license renewal in Iowa despite his conviction was due to my four decades of managing such cases and my constant working relationship with Iowa Board of Medicine officials.”

After the committee denied Sellers’ request, he appealed the arbitration decision to a district court judge, arguing that Weinhardt was biased against him and should not have been a member of the panel. As evidence, he cited a memo in which Weinhardt had questioned the work Sellers performed for the physician they had each represented. In that memo, Weinhardt noted that Sellers billed the client $293,000, spent a year in litigation, had taken no discovery and had not brought his client “meaningfully closer” to a successful resolution of the case.

Last month, the court denied Sellers’ motion to vacate the arbitration award. Both Sellers and Gupta are now appealing the court’s ruling.

Sellers could not be reached for comment Tuesday and Wednesday. Gupta declined to comment on the matter.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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