The Supreme Court of Iowa finds that an attorney violated the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct by writing a will bequeathing the client’s estate to his own son and improperly purchasing items and real property from the client. In Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board v. Ranniger (Iowa No. 22-0796, October 14, 2022).
Attorney William W. Ranniger has been licensed to practice law in Iowa since 1976 and has maintained a practice in Manning, Iowa. For about 20 years, Mr. Ranniger had a friendship with his client, Michael Liggett Lipton.
Due to Mr. Lipton’s low income, Mr. Ranniger did free legal work for him. They often went out to lunch, and Mr. Ranniger paid the check.
Before Mr. Lipton’s death, Mr. Ranniger purchased several items and real property from Mr. Lipton to help him financially. He accepted the prices Mr. Lipton suggested without negotiation.
Mr. Ranniger also wrote Mr. Lipton’s will, which left significant assets and property to Mr. Ranniger’s son, who was not a relative of Mr. Lipton. The only property the will left to Mr. Lipton’s family were photos and family memorabilia.
The Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission determined that Mr. Ranniger violated Iowa Rule of Professional Conduct 32:1.8(a) by having improper business transactions with a client and rule 32:1.8(c) by creating a will that contained a gift to his son.
On review, the Supreme Court of Iowa agrees. Mr. Ranniger purchased items and real property without following the requirements of the Iowa Rule of Professional Conduct 32:1.8(a). The rule states that business transactions with clients must be fair, reasonable, and fully disclosed in writing. The attorney must also advise the client to seek independent counsel and obtain written consent from the client regarding the terms of the transaction and the attorney’s role in it. The written consent form must specify whether the attorney represents the client in the deal.
Although the transactions were fair and reasonable, Mr. Ranniger never disclosed the nature of the transaction to Mr. Lipton in writing, advised Mr. Lipton to get another attorney, got Mr. Lipton’s consent, or explained his role in the sale. The court finds that Mr. Ranniger’s aims, albeit charitable, did not justify the lack of written documentation, disclosures, and consent.
When he wrote Mr. Lipton’s will, Mr. Ranniger also violated rule 32:1.8(c), which prohibits a lawyer from preparing a testamentary gift from a client to a family member unless the beneficiary is also a member of the client’s family. The Court disagrees with Mr. Ranniger’s assertion that Mr. Lipton was close family. Although they shared a close relationship, they did not live collectively, raise children, or celebrate holidays together.
As the relationship between Mr. Ranniger and Mr. Lipton was a unique case, the Supreme Court of Iowa does not conclude that Mr. Ranniger is unfit to practice law. Instead, the court publicly sanctions Mr. Ranniger.