The Florida Bar
It is ethically permissible for an attorney to report a delinquent former client to a credit reporting service if confidential information unrelated to the collection of the debt is not disclosed and if the debt is not in dispute.
(March 1, 1991)
(March 1, 1991)
RPC: 4-1.6, 4-1.6(a), 4-1.6(c)(2)
Opinions: 81-3, 88-1
Cases: The Florida Bar v. Fields, 482 So.2d 1354 (Fla. 1986)
The inquiring attorney asks whether it would be permissible for a law firm to "subscribe to a credit reporting service and provide such service with information about clients who are delinquent in their fees." The Committee concludes that this action would be ethically permissible under these circumstances: (1) only former clients, rather than current clients, may be reported to the credit bureau; (2) confidential information unrelated to the collection of the debt must not be disclosed; and (3) the debt must not be in dispute.
An attorney (or a law firm) is ethically obligated to preserve in confidence all "information relating to representation of a client." Rule 4-1.6(a), Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. This obligation continues even after termination of the attorney-client relationship. Comment, Rule 4-1.6. The ethical duty of confidentiality ordinarily extends to information about the client's finances and the client's fee arrangements with the attorney.
There are several limited exceptions to this duty of confidentiality. For example, Rule 4-1.6(c)(2) provides:
(c) A lawyer may reveal such [confidential] information to the extent the lawyer believes necessary:
(2) To establish a claim or defense on behalf of the lawyer in a controversy between the lawyer and client[.]
The Comment to Rule 4-1.6 cautions that in fee controversy situations an attorney "must make every effort practicable to avoid unnecessary disclosure of information relating to a representation, to limit disclosure to those having the need to know it, and to obtain protective orders or make other arrangements minimizing the risk of disclosure."
The above-quoted exception to the confidentiality rule should be narrowly construed in view of the fact that ethical standards in the legal profession traditionally have permitted attorneys to pursue fee collection actions against clients only as a "last resort." See, e.g., The Florida Bar v. Fields, 482 So.2d 1354, 1359 (Fla. 1986) (attorney suing delinquent clients); Florida Opinion 81-3 (attorney using collection agency to collect delinquent fees).
As this Committee recognized in Opinion 81-3, however, there are situations in which it is ethically permissible for an attorney to pursue fee collection actions. The Committee is of the opinion that it is ethically permissible for an attorney to report a delinquent former client to a credit reporting service if confidential information unrelated to the collection of the debt is not disclosed and if the debt is not in dispute.
The attorney-client relationship is one of special trust and confidence and, therefore, it would be unethical for an attorney to report a current client to a credit reporting service. Only former clients may be reported. See Florida Ethics Opinion 88-1. In accordance with Rule 4-1.6 and the accompanying Comment, disclosure of confidential information concerning the delinquent former client or the representation must be strictly limited to that information relevant to collection of the debt. Finally, the Committee believes that the reporting of a former client to a credit reporting service is permissible only when the debt is undisputed but has not been paid; if there is a dispute concerning the former client's obligation to pay the fee in question, an attorney's use of a credit reporting service would not be permissible.