You can’t say attorney James Berrien wasn’t devoted to Geraldine and Ned McMurtry.
In December 2008 — a fairly typical month, best I can tell — Berrien tended to the elderly siblings’ affairs on 21 different occasions, including Christmas Eve. He frequently dropped by their 135-acre Newberg property, made arrangements to install a new furnace, bought Ned a shaver and signed checks for their caregivers.
Heck, according to his fastidious records, the Hillsboro attorney even lent his shoulder to “extracting” the McMurtrys’ car from a snow drift.
So, yes, Berrien was devoted to Geraldine — 92 at the time — and her 89-year-old brother.
And he billed them accordingly. The bill for December 2008 came to $24,415, including $1,200 for each “visit” with his clients, $720 to check-in on Ned at his rehab center and $25 each time Berrien signed a check.
Between 2003 and 2010, when Berrien had total control of the McMurtrys’ finances, he billed the siblings more than $1,084,000 in attorney fees at his austere hourly rate.
“We have multiple documented charges of $600 an hour,” said Kateri Walsh, spokeswoman for the Oregon State Bar.
In the 32-month period ending in October 2010, Berrien billed the McMurtrys 287 times — or twice a week — for one of those $1,200 “visits.”
Whenever Geraldine asked about the family finances, Berrien assured her they were still millionaires and “doing fine,” according to a formal complaint by the bar.
The siblings were no wiser until only $34,000 was left in their accounts, prompting Geraldine, before her death last May at 95, to write the following to the bar’s disciplinary counsel:
“What we thought were acts of kindness and caring were simply a way to deceive us to gain our trust and to take advantage of two elderly people whose sight and hearing are rapidly failing.”
As you might imagine, Arden Olson — Berrien’s attorney with the Eugene firm of Harrang Long Gary Rudnick — insists, in several lengthy letters, that nothing could be further from the truth.
“It is hard for me to imagine what it may be like for Mr. Berrien to have been turned on, near the end of his career, by clients to which for years he devoted such an inordinate portion of his professional energy,” Olson wrote in October 2011.
Time and again, Olson notes, Berrien dropped anything and everything to respond to Geraldine’s “urgent” directives.
And, Olson adds, other than a timely filing of the McMurtrys’ tax returns — between 2003 and 2008, the IRS four times charged the siblings interest and/or penalties for late payment — Berrien believes he is “guilty principally of failing to document that which now would have been helpful in defending against these complaints.
“He has, unfortunately, only the ring of truth upon which to rely in explaining to you what occurred. In his view, he gave the McMurtrys the kind of care he would have given his own parents.”
Steve Duin: A lawyer’s personal touch, at $600 an hour
November 28, 2012