Heidi Saas was a Bridgeport solo who, on occasion, served as a Connecticut representative for a Maryland law firm that helps clients negotiate down their credit card debt.
Nothing about that work would be remarkable, except that one client, a woman from Mystic, came away unhappy with the results. She complained to state disciplinary officials, who launched a formal grievance action against Saas.
A state judge recently granted Saas a partial victory, but remanded other aspects of the unauthorized practice of law case back to grievance officials for further investigation.
The case is significant because it’s one of the matters that helped put the Maryland firm of Persels & Associates, of Towson, Md., on the radar of Connecticut officials, who in recent years have had sort of a running battle with the firm’s founder, Neil Ruther.
For one thing, Ruther has filed a legal challenge against implementation of a 2009 state law that requires law firms that focus on debt reduction to buy $800 per lawyer licenses from the state Banking Department. Ruther argues that only court officials, and not executive branch agencies, can regulate law firms.
Connecticut officials have also questioned the Persels business model. When the Maryland firm, which does business in all 50 states, receives a query from a Connecticut-based client, it contacts a Connecticut-licensed attorney with whom it has a business arrangement. The Connecticut attorney then handles the case.
Or at least the Connecticut attorney is supposed to handle the case. The grievance against Saas claims that the heavy legal lifting was largely done by paralegals, which would violate rules barring unauthorized practice of law.
According to court records, Saas’s client, Dawn Colonni, saw a television ad that offered services to settle her credit card debt through a company called CareOne. The woman called the phone number in the ad and was referred to the Persels & Associates in Maryland. Persels, in turn, called on Saas.
A computerized log kept by the Persels firm indicated that paralegal employees contacted Colonni to collect financial information. The records indicate that about a month later, on Jan. 29, 2009, Saas conducted a review of Colonni’s file for "45 minutes to one hour."
At that time did, Saas did a search for other debts in Colonni’s name, and researched whether Colonni had ever filed for bankruptcy. She made a phone call to Colonni, the records indicate, but was unable to reach her. Saas left a voice mail indicating she was the attorney assigned to her case. The two never spoke.
Records indicate Colonni complained to the state Banking Department and grievance officials a few months later, reporting that of the $2,105 she paid to the law firm, just $124 went toward settling her debt. She told the authorities that after speaking with paralegals at the firm, she was told an attempt to settle her debt with the creditors was unsuccessful.
The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel found Saas had violated ethics rules and was deficient in her handling of the case. Specifically, it found that even though Saas had a written agreement to represent the Mystic woman, she did not personally perform any legal work for the client. Further, officials said, she assisted in unauthorized practice of law (UPL) by allowing paralegals to handle virtually the entire case.
The Statewide Grievance Committee ordered Saas, who by then had moved out of state, to attend a continuing legal education course. Saas appealed.
In January, Superior Court Judge William Bright ruled on Saas’s appeal. Bright said the evidence did not support accusations that Saas failed to practice law on Colonni’s behalf.
"[Sass's] initial review of the file involved a number of actions which clearly involved the practice of law," including examining statute of limitations issues, Bright wrote in his opinion. "The fact that her initial review took 45 minutes to an hour does not make the work done any less the practice of law. Nor does the fact that the plaintiff never discussed the case with Colonni mean that her work was not the practice of law. Every day, associates in large law firms practice law by researching legal issues. Many of these attorneys will never speak to the client regarding their work or the client’s case. That does not mean their work is not the practice of law."
But Bright’s ruling does not settle the dispute. He remanded the case back to the Grievance Committee, with instructions that it re-examine the UPL accusation in the context of his decision that Saas did, in fact, practice law on behalf of her client.
Suzanne Sutton, a state deputy disciplinary counsel, said the question now becomes, "did Saas adequately supervise the paralegals in the case?"
"Unfortunately for everybody, she really didn’t do a lot of work on the case. She looked at some credit reports, but primarily the work was done by paralegals and staff of the Percels firm," Sutton said. "Our position is, the lawyer has to do something on the file. Either they have to supervise the [paralegal] staff or do the legal work themselves."
The next step, Sutton said, will be to reach out to Saas and try to settle the matter. "If there’s no agreement, then there will be a whole new trial," Sutton said.
Saas declined to comment on the matter, pointing out that the case remains pending. She was reached at her new job — as the assistant practice manager of Percels & Associates. •