Move-in find raises questions of negligence for lawyer

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- We hire them to represent our best interests in the court of law, trusting them with personal information. A recent find by a new homeowner is bringing into question what happens to that personal information we disclose to lawyers after our case is finished.

A West Michigan family said they bought a home from two lawyers, and the lawyers left behind 26 boxes full of case files with information containing everything from Social Security numbers to medical records to client attorney memos. The family said they are trying to give them back to the lawyers but it’s proving to be no easy task.

“We purchased a home from some lawyers. We went through the home with an inspector, and the basement was empty, but when we got the key in possession of the home there were about 26 boxes with documents,” said Colleen Tallen.

She wanted to clean out the basement to get ready for renovations, but thought better of throwing those documents out.

“I had a very ethical dilemma about throwing them out. It’s the golden rule, if that was my information or my family’s information. Who knows who could get a hold of these if they ended up in the Dumpster somewhere?”

Tallen called the State of Michigan Bar, whose employees told them to hand the paperwork back over to the lawyers who she says carelessly left them there. Tallen said one of the lawyers came back over, but started to question if the documents were his.

“I said ‘how could they not be? They have your name on them. They have your lawyer company on top of the papers,’” said Tallen.

She said the lawyer only wanted to take the documents with his name on them, but given the nature of the papers, Tallen told him he needed to take them all.

“I understand I am not a lawyer, but I completely understand confidentiality,” said Tallen.

FOX 17 went to experts to find out if this violates any ethical standards or confidentiality agreements with clients. Mike Hanrahn told FOX 17 what codes and laws that lawyers are expected to abide by with their clients.

“Rule 1.15 is safekeeping client property. You are required under 1.15 to maintain client files and property up to five years. Additionally, the State Bar of Michigan issued an ethics opinion that simply states every single law firm is required to have protocol to maintain client files -- where to keep them, how to dispose of them, what to do with them and so forth,” said Hanrahn.

Hanrahn also says lawyers have a duty to do everything in their power to not knowingly disclose anything to hurt their client in any way, including leaving files behind for the wrong eyes to find.

“If you do leave something like that behind, you could have a complaint filed against you for the attorney grievance commission,” said Hanrahn.

Tallen is already filing a grievance because she says this lawyer is not only being careless, but putting her and her husband in a sticky situation.

“I actually didn’t go through all the boxes because I felt uncomfortable. It had patients’ names, addresses, Social Security numbers, medical records... basically information that went on in the cases. That person is vulnerable,” said Tallen.

The Tallen family said they are not sharing any of this information. They said they have it locked up until they figure out what to do with it.

We spoke to the lawyer in question Thursday evening, who says he did want to pick up the documents, but wanted to examine all of them before taking them out of the boxes. Tallen said she believes he should do this on his own time after taking them away.

Right now, we are not naming this lawyer because he’s not charged with any kind of crime.

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