Disciplinary Board benches Assistant County Attorney
A Spirit Lake attorney's handling of a $1.16 million estate drew the attention of the Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board and has resulted in a 30-day suspension.
Lonnie Saunders serves as an Assistant Dickinson County Attorney in addition to his private practice. The disciplinary board filed its decision to suspend Saunders on Friday, Nov. 9.
Saunders was counseling two siblings as they worked to settle their father's estate in January 2015. The court authorized Saunders to collect a statutory fee of $23,297.04 — 2 percent of the value of the estate — as the estate attorney. The administrator of the estate wrote Saunders a check for $11,648.50 at the start of the process. The remaining portion of the attorney's fees is kept in a trust until the estate work was completed.
"In September, Saunders recalculated the value of the estate and determined it was $982,013.36," the Iowa Supreme Court said in a summary of the disciplinary ruling.
Saunders then emailed the estate administrator with the revised amount — plus a bill for the revised unpaid balance of $8,111.74. That caused the administrator to raise questions about the bill.
On Dec. 16, the court said Saunders told the client: "In an effort to get this matter closed as soon as possible, I would agree to compromise my fee to the sum of $7,500 if paid before the end of the year."
Saunders received and deposited the $7,500 check at the end of December — even though work was not complete.
"It is well-established that the attorney may not take the second half of a probate fee until the final report has been filed," the disciplinary board said in its ruling.
Saunders continued to work on the estate after receiving the second payment and ultimately met his obligations as the estate attorney.
"I can't go into much detail, but I will just say it was the end of the year and it was to get it paid so they could take a tax deduction," Saunders said. "The timing was just off."
The review board also said "there is no indication that Saunders failed to maintain a proper client trust account," but it pointed to a June 2014 ruling when Saunders was reprimanded "for essentially the same conduct."
"We agree with the parties and the commission that a public reprimand might be appropriate for this conduct standing alone, but Saunders' prior reprimand for identical misconduct renders it inapt here."
Saunders learned about the suspension on Friday.
"I know people are going to hear about it, and I'm embarrassed by it," he said. "But, we'll go on with things."
Saunders said he will be reinstated automatically on Dec. 10. He can't meet with the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors — or with clients — face-to-face during the suspension.
"I'm going to continue to do some things at the county attorney's office that the Bar Association says I can do," he said. "Other than that, I'm not going to be the 'public face' for four weeks."