CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has ordered the six-month suspension of a Welch attorney after complaints of unethical billing practices were filed against him.
Chief Justice Beth Walker authored the Supreme Court's opinion.
Attorney Ronald D. Hassan has admitted he engaged in “value billing” and “block billing” to calculate the amounts owed to him by the Public Defender Services (PDS) for his court-appointed representation of criminal defendants, according to a lawyer disciplinary proceeding filed in the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
Hassan’s billing practices resulted in "impractical absurdities" such as billing 30 or more hours on multiple days. He was charged with violating two provisions of the West Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct.
Following a hearing, the Hearing Panel Subcommittee (HPS) recommended that Hassan be suspended from the practice of law for 18 months, while Hassan objected and argued that he should instead be subjected to a three-month suspension.
"We find that the HPS’s recommendation of a one-and-one-half year suspension is overly harsh, but that Mr. Hassan’s proposed sanction of three months is inadequate to fully effectuate the goals of the disciplinary process," Walker wrote. "Accordingly, we modify the HPS’s recommendation and order that Mr. Hassan be suspended from the practice of law for six months, and we adopt the remainder of the HPS’s recommended sanctions."
In June 2015, Hassan contacted the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) about billing issues he was having with the PDS and requested an opinion as to whether he needed to self-report his value and block billing practices. The ODC advised him to self-report, but he advised them he would seek an outside opinion.
On Sept. 23, 2015, Hassan entered into a conciliation agreement with PDS that detailed billing discrepancies, including billing 30 or more hours on three dates, 24 to 30 hours on four dates, 20 to 24 hours on 11 dates and 15 to 20 hours on 26 dates.
"The conciliation agreement further described Mr. Hassan’s billing practices," Walker wrote. "He disclosed that although he recorded time for each particular matter, he billed in increments of .5 hours — regardless of actual time spent — and did not have a system for accumulating the daily total of time."
In the conciliation agreement, Hassan further explained that he had been billing in this manner over a course of years without ever being told it was improper, had always gained the approval of the circuit court without ever being questioned, and was unaware that PDS had published guidelines regarding the method for billing services.
"To resolve the matter, the PDS and Mr. Hassan agreed that he would reduce the vouchers held by PDS for payment by one-half of the total amount of each voucher," Walker wrote. "The total amount of the reduction was $9,880.17."
The ODC then filed a complaint against Hassan on Feb. 24, 2016 regarding the overbilling.
"In Mr. Hassan’s March 31, 2016 response, he reiterated the points made in the conciliation agreement regarding voucher approval and his apparent misunderstanding of the illegality of value billing and unawareness of PDS billing guidelines," Walker wrote. "On the other hand, Mr. Hassan acknowledged that West Virginia Code § 29- 21-13a(g) (2018) provides that '[v]ouchers submitted under this section shall specifically set forth the nature of the service rendered, the stage of proceeding or type of hearing involved, the date and place the service was rendered and the amount of time expended in each instance' and that '[a]ll time claimed on the vouchers shall be itemized to the nearest tenth of an hour.'"
Upon review of the complaint, the Investigatory Panel of the Lawyer Disciplinary Board filed a formal statement of charges on Dec. 27, 2016 against Hassan.
"The HPS found that there were four mitigating factors in this matter — the first being Mr. Hassan’s lack of disciplinary history," Walker wrote. "Second, Mr. Hassan has expressed remorse. While we recognize that Mr. Hassan has been remorseful, we are concerned by his testimony regarding his inability to make money on court-appointed criminal defendants as it appears to be an attempt to rationalize the inaccurate billing. Third, based upon testimony throughout the underlying proceedings, it is evident that Mr. Hassan is of good character and maintains a solid reputation in his local community."
Walker wrote that although the HPS found Hassan’s prompt entry into a conciliation agreement to be a mitigating factor, the court declined to do so.
"Although the conciliation agreement resulted in a 50% reduction of his pending vouchers and the completion of the rest of his criminal cases on a pro bono basis, this amounts to compelled restitution," Walker wrote. "Mr. Hassan said as much during the hearing when he informed the HPS that he agreed to the reduction in vouchers 'because that’s what [he] needed to do to get [Dana Eddy] to sign the conciliation agreement and settle the issue.'"
The Supreme Court agreed with the HPS that there are two aggravating factors present — the first being Hassan’s substantial experience in the practice of law and the second stemming from the financial benefit Hassan received while engaging in the underlying misconduct.
"Mr. Hassan’s conduct was neither as aggravated as that in (Lawyer Disciplinary Board v.) Cooke, nor as mitigated as that in (Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel v.) Ansell; therefore, we must craft a punishment proportionate to the underlying conduct," Walker wrote. "Upon consideration of this court’s precedent, along with the mitigating and aggravating factors present in this case, we find that a suspension of six months is adequate discipline."
The court also ordered that Hassan complete an additional six hours of Continuing Legal Education in ethics and that he pay all costs of the proceedings.
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 16-1210