HELENA - The state Supreme Court has denied a petition from a veteran Great Falls attorney who argued it lacked jurisdiction over the disciplinary proceedings against him.
The court also set a Sept. 16 censure date for Joseph Engel III.
In February, the Supreme Court decided to suspend Engel from practice for 60 days for violating the rules that govern the ethical conduct of Montana attorneys, and ordered him to cover the cost of the proceedings.
The high court had previously rejected a recommendation by the Commission on Practice to dismiss the complaint against Engel, finding instead that he overcharged a 99-year-old client and mishandled $70,000 in retainer fees.
The Supreme Court then set a March 18 date for Engel's public censure; however, it vacated that date after Engel filed a petition asking the high court to withdraw its decision.
Engel, who has practiced law in Montana for more than 30 years, challenged the process by which the high court reviewed the complaint against him. He argued that under the Montana Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement, the disciplinary process should have ended when the Commission on Practice recommended that the complaint against him be dismissed.
In an opinion issued last week, the Supreme Court disagreed, saying the 1972 Montana Constitution gave it "original and exclusive jurisdiction and responsibility" in all matters involving the disciplining of lawyers in the state.
The high court said once the Office of Disciplinary Council filed a complaint against Engel, the Commission on Practice no longer had the authority to resolve the complaint without a review by the Supreme Court. The court also said the Commission's authority ended after it made a recommendation for discipline.
"The Court retains the ultimate authority to determine the appropriate discipline," the justices wrote.
Last year, the Supreme Court determined that Engel charged Alice Kloss excessive hourly and contingency fees for legal services he provided from 1998-2005. Kloss died in April 2006.
Engel received about $295,000 in fees, which the high court called "unreasonable." The Supreme Court also said the $70,000 in retainer fees Engel collected should have gone into a client trust account, rather than his operating account.
The Commission on Practice recommended dismissing the complaint against Engel, saying there was no clear evidence to support the allegations. But the Office of Disciplinary Counsel determined Engel had violated four provisions of the Montana Rules of Professional Conduct and opposed the commission's recommendation.
The Supreme Court agreed with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel on two counts but rejected two others.
Engel had argued his fees were in line with the "overall picture" of his representation of Kloss, which included a variety of legal services. He also said the retainers were exempt from rules requiring that all client funds be placed in a client trust account, saying the money represented "soon-to-be-earned fees."
Engel's suspension is to begin on the date of his public censure.