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In re Disciplinary Proceedings Against Alfredson

Supreme Court of Wisconsin

February 1, 2017

In the Matter of Disciplinary Proceedings Against Melinda R. Alfredson, Attorney at Law:
v.
Melinda R. Alfredson, Respondent. Office of Lawyer Regulation, Complainant,

         ATTORNEY disciplinary proceeding. Attorney's license suspended.

          PER CURIAM.

         ¶1 We review a stipulation filed pursuant to Supreme Court Rule (SCR) 22.12 by the Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR) and Attorney Melinda R. Alfredson. In the stipulation, Attorney Alfredson admits that she committed professional misconduct, and she agrees with the OLR's request that her license to practice law in Wisconsin be suspended for a period of 60 days. Attorney Alfredson also agrees that she should pay restitution totaling $1, 809.71 to two parties, divided as set forth below.

         ¶2 After careful review of the matter, we accept the stipulation and impose the requested discipline. Because Attorney Alfredson entered into a comprehensive stipulation before the appointment of a referee, we do not require her to pay the costs of this proceeding.

         ¶3 Attorney Alfredson was admitted to practice in Wisconsin in 2009. She has no prior disciplinary history.

         ¶4 In July 2016, the OLR filed a complaint alleging that Attorney Alfredson had engaged in sixteen counts of misconduct arising out of her representation of two clients (K.H. and N.W.), her violations of trust account rules, and her failure to cooperate with the OLR's investigation into these matters. In September 2016, the OLR and Attorney Alfredson filed a stipulation pursuant to SCR 22.12. We take the following facts from the parties' stipulation.

         CLIENT K.H.

         ¶5 In January 2013, K.H. hired Attorney Alfredson to represent him regarding two claims he had unsuccessfully pursued with the Social Security Administration (SSA). Attorney Alfredson filed an appeal on behalf of K.H. and attended a video hearing with K.H. before a SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in May 2013. In June 2013, the ALJ denied K.H.'s claims.

         ¶6 K.H. and Attorney Alfredson received a notice of the ALJ's decision, which included instructions that a written appeal must be filed within 60 days of June 30, 2013. K.H. instructed Attorney Alfredson to file an appeal. Although Attorney Alfredson claimed to the OLR that she sent a letter to the local SSA office on August 9, 2013, informing the SSA of K.H.'s intent to appeal, the SSA office received no such letter.

         ¶7 On August 13, 2013, Attorney Alfredson drafted an appeal in letter form and reviewed the draft with K.H. K.H. requested revisions to the appeal letter. Although Attorney Alfredson claimed to the OLR that she made K.H.'s requested revisions and submitted the appeal letter to the local SSA office on August 13, 2013, the SSA office received no such letter.

         ¶8 Between August 2013 and October 2014, K.H. asked Attorney Alfredson to check the status of the appeal multiple times. Although Attorney Alfredson claimed to the OLR that she contacted the local SSA office multiple times, and that each time she was told the appeal was open and pending, the SSA office has no documentation of any phone calls from Attorney Alfredson. The SSA's file also shows that no appeal was filed and that the case was closed. Had Attorney Alfredson called the SSA office to request the status of K.H.'s case, she would have been informed that the case was closed.

         ¶9 In October 2014, K.H. contacted the SSA office to check on the status of his appeal. He was told that the case was closed because no appeal was filed.

         ¶10 K.H. left Attorney Alfredson a voicemail informing her that the SSA office had closed his file. Attorney Alfredson claimed to the OLR that she called the SSA office to check on the status of K.H.'s appeal, and that she was told that the matter was still open and that she should file the appeal again if there was uncertainty about whether the appeal had been filed. Attorney Alfredson also claimed to the OLR that she filed a duplicate copy of the appeal letter on October 20, 2014. However, the SSA office has no documentation of any phone calls from Attorney Alfredson in October 2014, nor of an appeal letter from Attorney Alfredson dated October 20, 2014. Despite requests for a copy of the purported appeal letter, Attorney Alfredson did not provide it to the OLR.

         ¶11 In the stipulation, Attorney Alfredson admits that she committed the following counts of professional misconduct during her representation of K.H.:

• Count One: By failing to pursue the appeal as agreed upon with K.H., Attorney Alfredson violated SCR 20:1.3.[1]
• Count Two: By failing to provide accurate case status information upon K.H.'s request, Attorney Alfredson violated SCR 20:1.4(a)(3) and (4).[2]
• Count Three: By providing false case status information to K.H., Attorney Alfredson violated SCR 20:8.4(c).[3]
• Count Four: By providing false information regarding the filing of the appeal to the OLR, Attorney Alfredson violated SCR 22.03(6), [4]enforced via SCR 20:8.4(h).[5]

         CLIENT N.W.

         ¶12 In mid-April 2014, N.W. retained Attorney Alfredson to represent him in a custody and paternity matter. This matter arose after a domestic incident occurred between N.W. and the mother of his children, D.N. As a result of the incident, N.W. was taken into custody. D.N. moved to the State of Oregon with the children.

         ¶13 D.N. filed for, and obtained, a restraining order against N.W. After being served with the restraining order, N.W. entered into a retainer contract with Attorney Alfredson, which provided that she would represent him on custody and placement issues for an advanced fee of $1, 500. N.W. also entered into a fee agreement with Attorney Alfredson, which provided that the advanced fee would be placed into Attorney Alfredson's business account. N.W.'s mother made an initial payment of $400 by credit card, which was deposited into Attorney Alfredson's business account. The remaining $1, 100 of the advanced fee was later paid to Attorney Alfredson and deposited into her business account.

         ¶14 Attorney Alfredson drafted court papers, including a petition for custody, placement, and child support, but did not file the paperwork in a Wisconsin circuit court until almost three months later, in July 2014. Attorney Alfredson told the OLR that she delayed filing the paperwork because she did not know where to serve D.N.

         ¶15 Attorney Alfredson and N.W. never discussed the delay in filing the legal action. Had Attorney Alfredson told N.W. that she did not know where to serve D.N., N.W. would have provided Attorney Alfredson with an address at which he had recently and successfully served D.N. in a different legal matter. In addition, both N.W. and Attorney Alfredson were aware of D.N.'s address in Oregon because it was included on the restraining order that had been served upon N.W.

         ¶16 After filing the petition for custody, placement, and child support, Attorney Alfredson made no effort to obtain service on D.N. Nevertheless, she claimed that a process server in Oregon had twice attempted to obtain service on D.N., and she billed N.W. $75 for a service fee in August 2014. In a letter to the OLR, Attorney Alfredson claimed that "service was not delayed" until August 2014; rather, that was "simply when the bill was paid." In a subsequent letter to the OLR, Attorney Alfredson stated that she never received a bill from a process server and that she was unable to provide proof of attempted service.

         ¶17 In late August 2014, N.W. requested that Attorney Alfredson refund the full advanced fee of $1, 500. Attorney Alfredson responded that she was unable to return the fee and that "monies have to be transferred from the trust account (where your retainer sits) and a grace period is required to be waited." This statement was false, as the funds had been deposited into Attorney Alfredson's business account.

         ¶18 On August 28, 2015, Attorney Alfredson sent a letter to N.W. stating that she was terminating her representation of N.W. and closing her file. She did not include in the closing letter any information about the ability to contest the fee.

         ¶19 During the course of the OLR's investigation, Attorney Alfredson told the OLR in an email that N.W. "never contested" his bill, even though she had sent him "a letter upon closing that stated that he had 30 days to let me know if he contested his bill, per the terms of our retainer agreement." This statement was false, as Attorney Alfredson did not include in the closing letter any information about N.W.'s ability to contest the fee. Moreover, far from having "never contested" his bill, as Attorney Alfredson claimed, N.W. had requested a full refund of the $1, 500 advanced fee. Although Attorney Alfredson acknowledged to the OLR during the course of its investigation that N.W. is entitled to some sort of refund, Attorney Alfredson has not refunded any portion of the $1, 500 fee to N.W.

         ¶20 In early September 2014, N.W. asked a different attorney to take over his case in place of Attorney Alfredson. On September 9, 2014, successor counsel sent Attorney Alfredson a Consent and Order for Substitution of Attorneys. On September 14, 2014, N.W. sent Attorney Alfredson an email asking her to "sign off on my case." Attorney Alfredson replied to N.W.'s email by stating that she had received the Consent and Order for Substitution of Attorneys on September 11, 2014, and that she had "turned it in" on September 12, 2014. However, Attorney Alfredson did not file the Consent and Order for Substitution of Attorneys until October 9, 2014. Her signature on the document was dated September 8, 2014-a day before successor counsel sent her the document and three days before she received the document.

         ¶21 In the stipulation, Attorney Alfredson admits that she committed the following counts of professional misconduct during her representation of N.W.:

• Count Five: By failing to ever serve D.N. and delaying the filing of the court papers in the Wisconsin circuit court case until July 2014, Attorney Alfredson violated SCR 20:1.3.
• Count Six: By failing to provide written notice to N.W. regarding his ability to dispute the fee and participate in binding arbitration to resolve any dispute over the amount of the fee at the termination of her representation, Attorney Alfredson violated SCR 20:1.15(b)(4m)(b).[6]
• Count Seven: Having acknowledged that N.W. is entitled to a refund of an unspecified amount, by failing to refund to N.W. any portion of the advanced fee, Attorney ...

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