ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT ATTORNEY FOR
James E. Ayers WORKER'S COMPENSATION
Wernle, Ristine & Ayers BOARD OF INDIANA
Crawfordsville, Indiana G. Terrence Coriden
Worker's Compensation Board
Attorney General of Indiana
David L. Steiner
Deputy Attorney General
APPEAL FROM THE WORKER'S COMPENSATION BOARD OF INDIANA
Cause No. C-144302
On Civil Transfer
This appeal challenges an order of the Indiana Worker's Compensation Board ("Board") stating
that no expenses of a claimant-employee's physician shall be paid by the employee.
We hold that such a determination is within the Board's authority to
approve the fees of physicians, and that the record in this case fails
to demonstrate that the Board's ruling conflicts with the attorney-client fee agreement or
the lawyer's professional obligations regarding the payment of litigation expenses.
The designation of parties to this appeal arises from the unusual procedural history of this case. Janice Yund retained James E. Ayers of the Crawfordsville, Indiana, law firm of Wernle, Ristine & Ayers ("WR&A"), to represent her in a Worker's Compensation claim against The Kroger Company for an employment injury on November 18, 1995. The attorney-client relationship of WR&A and Yund was reflected in a written "Contract to Hire Attorney on Contingency Fee Basis for Worker's Compensation Matter." Record at 56. The contract stated, "Attorneys will be paid for their services at the formula amounts provided by current Worker's Compensation Board Rule and limited to such fees as may be approved by the Worker's Compensation Board" and recited the Board's current fee schedule, including "upon the first $10,000 of recovery, 20%." Record at 56. The contract also provided for payment of litigation expenses as follows:
Client understands that there will be expenses involved in this case. Client agrees to pay all cost of investigation and preparation, including charges for medical or other examinations, tests, consultations and testimony from expert witnesses, depositions, reporting fees, travel, long-distance phone calls, copying, postage, etc. and that all such expenses should be paid directly from any award and to the extent any such expenses have been advanced by the Attorney, to Attorney from any award. If no recovery is made, or if the amount of any recovery is not sufficient to reimburse Attorney, Client is nevertheless still liable for out-of-pocket expenses incurred by Attorney regardless of whether or not a fee is received.
Record at 56. Ayers hired Dr. Franklin D. Nash to examine Yund
and to provide expert testimony.
The matter proceeded to a hearing on April 27, 2000. Before the hearing began, Kroger increased its previous settlement offer of $4,000 to $7,500. During the hearing, Ayers called Dr. Nash, who testified briefly. He did not testify regarding his impairment evaluation of Yund, but only regarding the American Medical Association Guides for evaluating impairment. During its cross-examination of Dr. Nash, Kroger elicited his admission that, although a licensed physician, he was not an orthopedic surgeon, neurologist, physiatrist, or physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor. Dr. Nash also admitted that he had had no continuing medical education in the field of orthopedics in the last ten years, and that one hundred percent of his work in the worker's compensation arena "is for claimants and plaintiffs." Record at 160. Kroger presented evidence that the Medical Licensing Board had previously found that Dr. Nash had engaged in fraud and material deception in the course of his professional activities. A short time after the conclusion of the evidentiary hearing on May 23, 2000, Kroger increased its settlement offer to $8,500.
On June 10, 2000, Ayers advised Yund of this offer and the $2,336.63 in litigation expenses, of which $1,486 were expenses for Dr. Nash, who charged $986 for his examination of Yund and $500 for his testimony at her hearing. Two days later Yund terminated Ayers as her attorney and thereafter settled pro se directly with counsel for Kroger for $8,500. On June 20 Yund filed a complaint with the Board assailing the performance of Dr. Nash and his fees, alleging that her medical examination by Dr. Nash was conducted "in my attorney's office" and lasted only 5-8 minutes. Record at 40. Yund declared "I do not feel I owe [Ayers] the full amount he is asking." Record at 33.
The settlement was approved by Board Chairman G. Terrence Coriden on June 28, 2000, in an Award which ordered the settlement sum paid directly to Yund. Ayers then petitioned the Board for an attorney fee award of $1,700 plus $2,336.63 in expenses. The $1,700 attorney fee was consistent with the Board's fee schedule which provides for an attorney fee of 20% of recoveries under $10,000. Ind. Admin. Code tit. 631, r. 1-1-24. Yund responded with further complaints against Ayers in which she concluded: "I believe $1700.00 dollars (the 20% I agreed to pay for attorney fees[)] is more than fair. Mr. Ayers can pay whatever expenses HE has incurred out of that amount. Considering the facts of this case I feel I am being more than generous with this amount." Record at 68.
On August 4, 2000, Chairman Coriden ordered "that $1,200.00 shall be paid to plaintiff's counsel" but summarily added: "However, no expenses of Dr. Nash as they relate to the plaintiff shall be paid by the plaintiff." Record at 77. The award was silent as to the remainder of the expenses, and the attorney fees ordered were thus $500 less than the $1,700 fee to which Yund's attorney would have been entitled pursuant to the Board's fee schedule. The Full Board affirmed. Record at 111.
WR&A initiated this appeal. When both Yund and Kroger notified the Clerk of Courts of their intentions not to file any briefs, the Court of Appeals issued notice to the Indiana Attorney General and the Worker's Compensation Board, which filed a brief defending the Board's decision. Chairman Coriden personally appeared as counsel for the Board. Referring to his order regarding Dr. Nash's fees, the chairman's brief to the Court of Appeals states that, "[t]he Board found [Dr. Nash's charges for medical services] to be unreasonable." Br. of Board at 3. His brief also describes his order as a "decision to shield the plaintiff from the unreasonable charges of Dr. Nash." Br. of Board at 5. The Court of Appeals affirmed but held that the Board's ruling "does not supersede the terms of an attorney-client contract" nor does it "impair the respective rights and responsibilities of the parties under the contract, which are an ordinary civil matter." Wernle, Ristine & Ayres v. Yund, 758 N.E.2d 558, 562 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), aff'd on reh'g, 764 N.E.2d 716 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002). We granted transfer. 783 N.E.2d 691 (Ind. 2002).
In its appeal from the Board's Award, WR&A contends that: (a) the Board does not have statutory authority over an attorney's litigation expenses specifically, the expenses for Dr. Nash as an expert witness and consultant in this case; (b) the Board should have honored and enforced the contract between WR&A and Yund; and (c) the Board's order forces WR&A to violate the requirements of Professional Conduct Rule 1.8 regarding payment of client expenses. WR&A does not contest the $1,200 attorney fee award, the adequacy of the Board's findings, nor the Board's determination as to the amount of Dr. Nash's fees. Dr. Nash did not seek review.
Under the Indiana Worker's Compensation Act ("the Act"), the Board is authorized "[t]o approve claims for medical services or attorney's fees and the charges for nurses and hospitals." Ind. Code § 22-3-1-3(b)(3). In relevant part, the Act also provides:
[T]he fees of attorneys and physicians and charges of nurses and hospitals for services under IC 22-3-2 through IC 22-3-6 shall be subject to the approval of the [Board.] When any claimant for compensation is represented by an attorney in the prosecution of his claim, the [Board] shall fix and state in the award, if compensation be awarded, the amount of the claimant's attorney's fees. The fee so fixed shall be binding upon both the claimant and his attorney, and the employer shall pay to the attorney out of the award the fee so fixed, and the receipt of the attorney therefor shall fully acquit the employer for an equal portion of the award . . . .
I.C. § 22-3-4-12. Neither the Act nor the Indiana Administrative Code expressly
refers to litigation expenses, nor do they address a claimant-employee's liability to reimburse
her attorney for litigation expenses. See 631 IAC 1-1-24.
The Act does not distinguish between the fees of treating physicians and those of non-treating physicians whose services may include examinations, evaluations, expertise, testimony, etc. See footnote It expressly provides that "the fees of attorneys and physicians" are subject to the approval of the Board. I.C. 22-3-4-12. We have long adhered to the rule that "the Worker's Compensation Act should be liberally construed to effectuate the humane purposes of the Act, and that doubts in the application of terms are to be resolved in favor of the employee." Stump v. Commercial Union, 601 N.E.2d 327, 331-32 (Ind. 1992); see also Talas v. Correct Piping Co., Inc., 435 N.E.2d 22, 28. (Ind. 1982). In the absence of contrary statutory language, we conclude that the Board's authority to limit physicians' fees in worker's compensation cases encompasses all fees of physicians, including those of non-treating physicians.
We hold that the effect of the Board's order was to determine that Dr. Nash is entitled to no fee for his services in this case, and that such a determination is within the Board's authority to approve the fees of physicians.
WR&A next contends that its attorney/client contract with Yund is controlling, is not subject to the Board's approval authority, and should have been enforced by the Board. The WR&A/Yund contract itself acknowledges that the attorney fees were "limited to such fees as may be approved" by the Board. Record at 56. It has long been recognized that agreements to pay worker's compensation attorney fees contrary to the amounts approved by the Board are not enforceable. Buckler v. Hilt, 209 Ind. 541, 200 N.E. 219 (1936); Bauer v. Biel, 132 Ind.App. 224, 177 N.E.2d 269 (1961); Rickert v. Schreiber, 116 Ind.App. 621, 66 N.E.2d 769 (1946). WR&A does not challenge the Board's authority to approve its fees for services in this case, but argues that the Board may not invalidate other terms of the attorney-client agreement wherein Yund expressly agreed to be responsible for all medical and other litigation expenses. Because Dr. Nash is entitled to no fees in this matter, however, WR&A is not obligated to pay Dr. Nash and thus Yund has no contractual responsibility to WR&A for these fees. The Board's order does not improperly conflict with the attorney-client agreement.
WR&A also contends that the Board's order that Dr. Nash's expenses not be paid by Yund operates to prohibit WR&A from seeking Yund's payment of the litigation expenses for Dr. Nash's services, and thus requires payment of a client's litigation expenses contrary to the Rules of Professional Conduct.
The Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit a lawyer from providing financial assistance to a client, subject to two exceptions: "(1) a lawyer may advance court costs and expenses of litigation, the repayment of which may be contingent on the outcome of the matter; and (2) a lawyer representing an indigent client may pay court costs and expenses of litigation on behalf of the client." Ind. Professional Conduct Rule 1.8(e). Without explanation or supporting evidence, WR&A summarily alleges that these conditions "do not apply here." Br. of Appellant at 8. As observed by the Court of Appeals, it is not uncommon that, "despite a client's contractual agreement to reimburse the attorney for [litigation] expenses, the client may simply not have the funds available to pay and the attorney is forced to absorb the loss." Wernle, 758 N.E.2d at 562 n.9.
Although the Board's order prohibits WR&A from seeking repayment of Dr. Nash's fees from Yund, WR&A has not established that it necessarily requires a violation of Rule 1.8(e). As noted above, because Dr. Nash is entitled to no fees in this matter, WR&A is not obligated to pay Dr. Nash and thus there is nothing for Yund to repay.
In addition, Rule 1.8(e) expressly permits lawyers to advance expenses of litigation if the client is indigent, and the record in this case does not exclude the possibility that Yund was indigent under Rule 1.8(e), which would relieve WR&A from seeking Yund's repayment if WR&A had been required to pay Dr. Nash's fees. Rule 1.8(e) also permits lawyers to advance expenses of litigation if repayment is "contingent on the outcome of the matter." A Board decision regarding the payment of a physician's fees for examination, consultation, and testimony is part of the "outcome" and could thus fall within this exception to Rule 1.8(e)'s proscription against lawyers providing financial assistance to a client. WR&A has failed to demonstrate that the Board's order compels a violation of Indiana Professional Conduct Rule 1.8.
We hold that the Board's order that "no expenses of Dr. Nash as they relate to the plaintiff shall be paid by the plaintiff" is within the Board's statutory authority to approve the fees of physicians. We further find that WR&A has failed to demonstrate that the Board's order necessarily conflicts with the WR&A/Yund fee contract, or with WR&A's obligations under Indiana Professional Conduct Rule 1.8(e). The judgment of the Worker's Compensation Board of Indiana is affirmed.
SHEPARD, C.J., and SULLIVAN and RUCKER, JJ., concur. BOEHM, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part with separate opinion.