The Texas 14th Court of Appeal in March issued reversed a decision disbarring a Houston attorney for failing to return an advance payment of “unearned” fees.
It was attorney Robert Bennett’s appeal of a decision by an arbitration panel to refund $27,500 in fees to one of his clients that ultimately grabbed the attention of the State Bar of Texas
The case stemmed from Bennett’s retainment in February of 2011 by Gary Land. Land paid a $50,000 retainer to Bennett after a conversation about legal troubles. Over the next few months, Land accumulated $70,998.38 in legal fees, of which $50,000 was to be paid from the retainer. Upon learning of the charges, he terminated his relationship with Bennett and immediately hired another attorney to challenge the charges.
In arguing for a return of money for the fees, Land’s attorneys argued that Bennett had taken advantage of his client, scheduling time and testimony with doctors and experts that regularly work with people who believe they are suffering persecution by the government.
According to the complaints, Bennett agreed to represent the client even after Land discussed legal issues with the government, such as poisoning of his land with acid, implanting things under his skin and attacking him with invisible energy beams.
“A lawyer in [Bennett’s] position should have counseled Mr. Land against spending significant sums investigating and pursuing most of the matters about which he was concerned,” the arbitration panel wrote in January of 2012. “Once [he] undertook the representation, [Bennett] billed substantial sums without ever advancing the matter to any significant degree.”
The arbitration panel ruled that Bennett was to return $27,500 in fees to Land. At that point, Bennett appealed the decision in what State Bar lawyers would later say was a violation of rules requiring the return of those fees and not create a further burden in resolving the arbitration.
Bennett was originally disbarred in a 2014 ruling by a specially-assigned judge out of San Antonio. In its case, the judge found that the appeal, and the fact that the funds were not returned during that time, were violations.
In the latest appeals court ruling, however, Justice J. Brett Busby said there was insufficient ground to rule that an overpayment fee was not returned “upon termination of his contract” in August of 2011, since the fee was not affirmed until almost a year later in the district court ruling.
Though the court ruling temporarily stays the disbarment, it did not immediately comment on whether this meant Bennett could return to practicing law. Instead, the court also affirmed that Bennett had, in fact, violated rules unnecessarily delaying the resolution of the fee matter, and called up the lower court to revisit the issue with appropriate evidence.