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Thursday, November 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Lawyer disbarred for over-billing

By Ashley Bach
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

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When Bellevue attorney Diane VanDerbeek was facing a two-year suspension from the state bar association in 2002 for over-billing her clients, she appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

Maybe she shouldn't have.

Instead of overturning her suspension, the state's high court disbarred VanDerbeek yesterday for charging extravagant fees for minuscule tasks to vulnerable clients — including a woman in a child-custody fight and another with an abusive husband.

From 1992 to 2000, VanDerbeek padded her bills for financial gain, such as charging hundreds of dollars for minor clerical work, or charging clients for time spent trying to collect money from them, according to the court's opinion, written by Justice Bobbe Bridge.

VanDerbeek didn't return phone calls yesterday.

In 1996, VanDerbeek settled a lawsuit with 28 former clients over excessive billing for $200,000. She promised she would change her billing software, according to the court record. But the software wasn't changed until 2000.

She "intentionally billed excessive and unreasonable fees for simple form pleadings, one-page letters, and notices of intent to withdraw... ," Bridge wrote. "VanDerbeek failed to end her unethical billing practices even after the 1996 settlement."

A Washington State Bar Association disciplinary board had recommended the two-year suspension in 2002, but VanDerbeek appealed and had been allowed to continue practicing law, said Kathy Henning, a bar association spokeswoman.

VanDerbeek graduated from law school in 1981 and ran a successful practice while her husband, John, handled the bills, according to the court's opinion. John VanDerbeek created an atmosphere in which clients were afraid to question the billing, and Diane VanDerbeek did nothing to change her methods.

To a woman with an abusive husband, Diane VanDerbeek charged $350 for writing two simple documents, including a 1-½-page letter. To a woman facing a child-custody fight, VanDerbeek charged for phone conversations that apparently did not take place, the court said.
 
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The court voted 6-3 in favor of disbarment. Dissenting were Justices Barbara Madsen, Charles Johnson and Faith Ireland.

In a dissenting opinion, Ireland said the majority opinion discounted some mitigating factors that made VanDerbeek more sympathetic, such as the large settlement she paid to her former clients in 1996.

"A settlement is by its nature a voluntary action and was not compelled," Ireland wrote.

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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