Network television is awash with hard-hitting, well-investigated true crime shows, including 48 Hours, Dateline, American Greed and others. I am a fan of true crime and enjoy all these programs, but I never once thought I could bill a client for watching them.
Not like a lawyer in Knoxville, Tennessee who thought it was just fine to charge her clients for time spent watching TV. Yarboro Sallee agreed to act for the parents of a young woman, Lori Noll, who died in 2009 when she fell down the stairs in her home. The death was ruled accidental but Lori’s parents were convinced that her husband, Adam Noll, who cashed his wife’s $1 million dollar insurance policy, was responsible for her death.
Ms. Sallee met with Frances Rodgers and Harley Vearl Bible, quoted an hourly rate of $250.00 an hour and advised them her legal fees would not exceed $100,000. She filed three separate court proceedings: a wrongful death suit; an action regarding their daughter’s dependent children, and an estate action to prevent Adam Noll from liquidating the family assets.
About three months later her clients requested a formal retainer agreement. She provided them with several draft agreements, however, while the proposed fee agreement quoted Ms. Sallee’s hourly rate, it contained a provision that she would also receive a percentage of the total compensation she recovered for them, known as a contingency fee agreement. By this time, they had not yet received a bill from their lawyer but had already paid her $54,000.
Lori’s parents balked at Ms. Sallee’s new terms and requested she provide a final bill as they would retain new counsel. To their utter shock they received a bill for $140,000. They complained to the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, complaints that now included allegations that Ms. Sallee threatened criminal charges against them when they refused to pay her bill, and that she would not deliver her file to their new counsel.
The Board concluded that Ms. Sallee had overcharged her clients by “engaging in a prodigious amount of wheel-spinning, spending countless hours, charged at her lawyer rate, in activities such as watching 48 Hours television episodes, waiting in hospitals for medical records and doing internet research on strangulation.”
She had taken no witness statements, prepared no expert statements, had not done depositions, and made no requests for document disclosure. In short, she had done “diddly squat”.
The Board noted that she remained adamant throughout the discipline proceedings that she had done nothing wrong. In one of several appeals to higher courts she told an appellate judge:
“Since when is television not a respectable avenue for research anyway?”
Ms. Sallee’s time entries included five hours for watching a five-hour documentary on the Peterson Staircase Murder in North Carolina. She also billed 12.5 hours for watching 48 Hours episodes featuring spousal murders and 7.5 hours for twice watching a 48 Hours show on asphyxiation.
The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the one-year suspension from the practice of law ordered by the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility.
The Court determined that her communication with her clients was lacking as she did not tell them that her original estimate was flawed; that she was charging them a “time-and-a-half” rate of $375.00 an hour; and that she would bill for administrative tasks and watching TV at her lawyer’s billing rate.
Mr. Bible and Mrs. Rodgers sued Yarboro Sallee seeking reimbursement of the funds already paid, and $1 million dollars in punitive damages. Ms. Sallee avoided service of their court action but was eventually personally served. On the appointed date for the hearing of their lawsuit, Ms. Sallee did not appear. The trial judge proceeded in Ms. Sallee’s absence and awarded her former clients the sum of $54,000 and $500,000 in punitive damages. In early February Ms. Sallee succeeded in overturning the default judgment and a new hearing is scheduled.
As for the life insurance policy on Lori Noll, half of it went to Adam Noll, while the other half was secured for Lori’s children.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang