Must Lawyer Consult With “Agent” Before Complying With Elderly Client’s Request to Terminate POA?

In Runge v. Disciplinary Board, the Supreme Court of North Dakota reversed a disciplinary board “admonishment” of an attorney for “violating” the Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.14.  North Dakota’s Rule 1.14, addressing representation of a “client with limited capacity,” is similar to the ABA Model Rule 1.14 on clients with “diminished capacity.”

At issue in the disciplinary proceeding was the lawyer’s representation of a 79-year-old man who was residing in a “Care Center.” The man wished to leave the nursing home, against “medical advice” and, apparently also in opposition to his daughter’s apparent belief about what was best for him. The man had, before experiencing a heart attack, named his daughter as an agent under a durable POA.

By the time the attorney met with the man, the man had been living in the care center for several months.  After meeting with the older man (and a female friend of the man), at the man’s request the attorney prepared a revocation of the POA.  The lawyer explained to the care center that absent someone holding a guardianship or custodianship for the man, and as long as the lawyer was persuaded his client had sufficient capacity, the revocation of the POA was effective and neither the center nor the daughter had grounds to prevent him from leaving.

 Unhappy with this outcome, the daughter filed a Disciplinary Board complaint against the attorney, asserting the lawyer had acted improperly by failing to consult with her as her father’s named agent, and taking the position her father’s “incapacity” for purposes of an earlier “emergency care” statement was conclusive of his incapacity.  The Court, however, observed:

 “Here no guardianship or conservatorship existed that withdrew Franz’s authority to act for himself. Rather, Franz shared his authority to act and he remained free to withdraw the authority conferred under that power of attorney, which, in any event, precluded anyone from making his medical decisions. This record reflects [Lawyer]Runge talked with Franz by telephone and in person to ascertain his wishes before Franz revoked the power of attorney. Runge’s recitation of his conversations with Franz does not clearly and convincingly establish Franz was incapacitated in April 2013. This record does not reflect any subsequent attempt to obtain a court-ordered guardianship or conservatorship for Franz, which belies any suggestion that he was incapacitated in April 2013.”

Therefore, the North Dakota Supreme Court dismissed the daughter’s Disciplinary Board complaint.

Significantly, the Court observes that although the lawyer “could” have contacted the daughter before executing the revocation of the POA, the provisions of Rule 1.14 did not “require” him to do so.

A key to the outcome seems to be the lawyer’s persuasive testimony, showing the care he took in making the decision to represent the man and to prepare the revocation.  As the court observed, “[The lawyer’s] assessment of [the man’s] capacity was within the range of a lawyer’s exercise of professional judgment.”  This case is another demonstration that lawyers hold a lot of power — and responsibility — in matters involving client capacity.   It also illustrates that an agent under a power of attorney does rule the roost.  An attorney’s obligation is to his client and the POA is a voluntary appointment that can be revoked at any time until a judge determines that the principal no longer has the ability to revoke the document.