The Seattle Times reports that the U.S. District Court in Spokane has awarded a man who was held in Grant County Jail for seven months $3 million dollars for legal malpractice in a civil suit. In making the award, the jury found that the public defender for Felipe G. Vargas, who was falsely accused of child molestation, did not mount a proper defense.
Vargas was arrested and placed in jail in November 2003 where he remained for seven months although his accuser recanted three days later. Vargas’ court-appointed attorney was Grant County Public Defender Thomas Earl. Earl was working under a contract which paid him $500,000 annually. In finding Earl negligent in his representation of Vargas, the court heard testimony that Earl did not hire experts and investigators to clear Vargas, in part because of his case load, but also because he had a financial incentive not to spend money on services to defend Vargas. Earl was eventually disbarred.
A legal ethics professor at Seattle University, John Strait, testified in the trial calling flat fee contracts, “illegal and unethical for any attorney to enter into.” Court watchers across Washington State believe that flat fee contracts for people needing court-appointed lawyers does not provide indigents a fair representation because defenders like Earl may not properly defend a client due to their own profit motive. In September, the Washington State Supreme Court barred any Washington lawyer from working under a contract such as Earl’s.