IMAGINE THIS SCENARIO: you recently took on a new client in a litigation matter. The client’s case is definitely not front-page news, but notice of the case itself is available in many public databases.
You are handling the case on an hourly fee basis. You ask
the client to pay an advance fee deposit, which you deposit
into your trust account. Shortly after that, you receive a writ of
garnishment from a third-party creditor of the client based
on an unrelated judgment that the creditor obtained against
the client before you ever took on the client. The creditor’s
lawyer learned of the client’s present case by seeing it in a
public database report and guessed correctly that you might
be holding an advance fee deposit in your trust account. Because you just got the case in, the amount sought remains
less than the fees that you were planning to charge against
the deposit at the end of the month. What now?
A perverse by-product of the tough economic times over
the past few years is that law firm trust accounts have become
Garnishment of Trust Accounts
by Mark J. Fucile
targets for creditors trying to collect against clients. The phenomenon is by no means unique to Washington. Recent cases
from around the country reflect this unusual trend, including
Arizona (Sports Imaging of Arizona, L.L.C. v. Meyer Hendricks
& Bivens, P.A., 2008 WL 4516397 (Ariz. App. Oct. 2, 2008) (
unpublished)), Colorado (In re Marriage of Rubio, 313 P.3d 623
(Col. App. 2011), and Ohio (Hadassah v. Schwartz, 966 N.E.2d
298 (Ohio App. 2011)).
In this column, we’ll look at a lawyer’s duties when confronted with a writ and the exceptions.
Lawyers who have not had the unhappy experience of hav-
ing a writ of garnishment served on them sometimes assume
that client funds in trust accounts are “off limits.” There is,
however, no general exemption for such funds under either
statutory law (see RCW Chapter 6. 27, which governs gar-
nishments) or the RPCs (see RPC 1.15A, which defines duties © I S