Iowa lawyers warned they’re accountable for ‘unethical’ acts of national firm

By: - February 8, 2022 4:21 pm

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A state panel says Iowa lawyers who work with a national law firm specializing in bankruptcies cannot distance themselves from that firm’s “improper and unethical actions.”

Iowa Attorney Disciplinary Board has found that the Chicago law firm of Deighan Law, which does business nationally as UpRight Law, uses nonlawyers to apply “hard-sell” tactics on potential clients. Iowa lawyers who work for the firm are responsible for the actions of the nonlawyers working out of the Chicago office, the board has declared.

The board’s statements are contained within the recent written reprimand of a Dubuque lawyer who has worked for UpRight Law as one of its “partner attorneys.”

According to the board, UpRight Law is a multi-jurisdictional firm that promises prospective clients “affordable bankruptcy attorneys.” After prospective clients contact the firm by phone or through its website, they are routed to a nonlawyer staff member who sends out written copies of fee arrangements and accepts the payment of a retainer fee that is typically paid by credit card.

UpRight Law, which has partnered with attorneys in all 50 states, then assigns the cases to lawyers who work in the same jurisdiction as the newly signed clients.

One Iowan, identified in public records only as S.L., contacted UpRight Law on March 1, 2019 to discuss the possibility of a bankruptcy filing and was allegedly asked for a credit card number for the company’s files. She provided the number, allegedly with the understanding that her card wouldn’t be charged if she decided not to pursue a bankruptcy filing. She later discovered that UpRight Law had charged $500 to her card that same day. Although she never spoke to an attorney at UpRight Law, and first requested a refund on March 4, 2019, she did not receive a refund for 92 days, until July 12, 2019.

S.L. complained to the Attorney Disciplinary Board, which then learned that the attorney general’s office had been investigating UpRight Law. The board reviewed the investigative material collected by the attorney general.

“It became clear S.L. was not the only Iowa client who became frustrated by an experience with UpRight Law,” the board says in its reprimand of the Dubuque attorney. “There were many.”

Among the other Iowa cases cited by the board:

— In January 2017, an Iowan identified only as B.W. contacted UpRight Law about a bankruptcy, but four months later, on May 12, he decided to cancel his contract with the firm and he requested a refund of his $1,358 retainer. The last note in his client file, dated two months later, said the client “called in about refund 33 business days. Within normal timeframe” – suggesting that, at that point, a refund had yet to be issued.

— In July 2018, H.W. of Iowa hired UpRight Law and was assigned an Iowa “partner attorney” to handle the case. That attorney then resigned from her partnership with UpRight Law. Eight months later, Upright Law noted in its file that H.W. was due a refund of the full amount she had to the firm. A week after that notation, the client called UpRight Law to check on her refund status and indicated she needed the money right away due to wage garnishments she was dealing with. A month later, she called again. As of June 2019, she still had not received her refund.

— In December 2018, R.S. of Iowa requested a refund from UpRight Law. Five months later, in April 2019, and after numerous calls and emails, she was still waiting for the refund. When she informed the firm she would be filing complaints with the Better Business Bureau and Iowa attorney general, the firm allegedly responded by saying it was not “scamming anyone” and added that the firm’s staff “do not specialize in giving refunds. We file bankruptcies.”

— In April 2019, T.B. of Iowa requested a refund from UpRight Law. After making a few calls to check on the status of the request, she threatened to file complaints with the Better Business Bureau and Iowa attorney general. The firm allegedly responded by warning that such complaints would result in management launching an investigation, which could further slow the process of providing a refund. “Despite UpRight Law’s attempt to strongarm her into not filing a complaint,” T.B. filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, the board stated.

In her complaint, T.B. wrote that during her initial consultation with a nonlawyer, the employee told her she met the criteria for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing, collected her debit-card information and, before she could even speak to a lawyer, her account was billed for the cost of the retainer. She was then contacted by a local attorney who told her she didn’t come close to meeting the filing criteria for Chapter 7, but for an additional $1,100 she might be able to pursue a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. At that point, T.B. dropped the matter, but was unable to secure an immediate refund from UpRight Law.

The Attorney Disciplinary Board reported that in late 2020, UpRight Law had an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau for failure to respond to complaints “and for receiving many hundreds of complaints.” According to the board, the bureau found that a consistent theme of the complaints was the failure to refund money that was paid for services that were never provided.

The board also noted that the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Alabama has sanctioned UpRight Law for allegedly mishandling client cases, the unauthorized practice of law, and failure to provide clients with sufficient notice of charges. In addition, court-appointed trustees in bankruptcy cases throughout the nation have initiated court action against UpRight Law in cases that suggest the firm relies heavily on nonlawyers for client contacts and decision-making.

“Typically, these nonlawyer employees engage in hard-sell tactics to sign people up for bankruptcy in order to meet their sales goals and obtain a commission,” the board stated, adding that many of these tactics were still being used when it first began looking into Upright Law’s practices.

In addition, the board found that the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Virginia had revoked the privileges of UpRight Law, banning the firm from conducting any business in the district for a period of five years. As part of that same action, the firm and its Chicago lawyers were collectively fined $250,000 and two of the firm’s partner attorneys in Virginia were each fined $5,000.

After reviewing UpRight Law’s history, the Attorney Disciplinary Board concluded that Iowa-licensed attorneys who partner with the firm to represent Iowans in court “must not be permitted to distance themselves from the improper and unethical actions taken by affiliated nonlawyer staff in the Chicago main office.”

The board stated that “many of the Iowa UpRight Law clients struggled to obtain a refund of their advance in a timely manner,” and added that people seeking assistance with bankruptcy are vulnerable, experiencing a great deal of financial stress, “and cannot wait months for a refund.”

The board, which only has authority over Iowa-licensed attorneys, took no action against UpRight Law, but recently issued a public reprimand to at least one of the firm’s Iowa lawyers, Christopher Soppe of the Pioneer Law Office in Dubuque. According to the board, Soppe first entered into a contractual relationship with UpRight Law in 2014.

It’s not clear what action, if any, the Iowa attorney general’s office took as a result of its investigation into UpRight Law.

When asked for comment, a representative of UpRight Law said Tuesday he would pass the Iowa Capital Dispatch’s contact information on to the firm’s general counsel “and if they want to get back to you, they will.”

Soppe declined to comment on the matter.

Another Iowa attorney, Michael Horn of Des Moines, said he and about a half-dozen other Iowa lawyers who partner with UpRight Law have received the same reprimand from the Attorney Disciplinary Board, and all are based on the same set of findings.

Horn said he believes UpRight Law has addressed the issue of providing timely refunds to clients.

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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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