Attorney Mary Schultz agreed to represent Melissa and Geoffrey Robbins in a medical malpractice action. The fee agreement made the client responsible for the costs but authorized the attorney to advance the costs if she desired. The client was then required to reimburse the attorney as the client was able to do so.
The Robbinses paid $52,000 toward their costs in 2008 and 2009. By January 2012, Schultz had advanced the Robbinses an additional $34,000. She advised the Robbinses that the case would not move forward unless they complied with the fee agreement and paid costs. She gave them 60 days’ notice that she would file a formal notice of withdrawal and she attempted to find the Robbinses another attorney. Schultz’s notice of withdrawal was filed on April 4, 2012.
Shortly after the notice of withdrawal was filed, two of the medical defendants moved for summary judgment. The Robbinses retained an attorney for the limited purpose of objecting to Schultz’s withdrawal. After they filed their objection, Schultz asked the court for permission to withdraw. Permission was denied. The court ordered that Schultz stay in the case at least through summary judgment, adding that it would release her after she helped the Robbinses find a new attorney. The trial court threatened Schultz with contempt if she failed to comply.
Schultz filed a motion for discretionary review which was granted. A few months later, the Robbinses retained a new attorney, withdrew their objection to Schultz’s motion to withdraw, and subsequently moved to vacate the June 2012 order and to discharge Schultz. Schultz opposed the Robbinses’ motion but argued that the trial court should grant her motion to withdraw as of the June 2012 hearing date instead of the March 2013 hearing date on the Robbinses’ motion.
The Court of Appeals held that the trial court had abused its discretion by refusing Schultz’s permission to withdraw. Further representation would result in an unreasonable financial burden on the attorney and the Robbinses rendered Schultz’s representation unreasonably difficult given their dispute over fees and the resulting professional conflict. Counsel gave her clients ample notice of her intent to withdraw and ample time to find a new attorney. Schultz’s withdrawal would not have materially affected the Robbinses because of the withdrawal of the summary judgment motion.
Accordingly, the trial court was directed to enter an order granting Schultz’s motion to withdraw as of the original hearing date and awarding her costs.
Christina A. Meserve and Charles E. Szurszewski practice family law in Olympia, Washington with the law firm of Connolly Tacon & Meserve.