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Susan K. Francis, left, and Ellyn Riedl, from the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, say Neil J. Lewis’ former clients may need to turn to the state’s Client Protection Fund. (File photo)

Neil Lewis’ ex-clients on hook for medical bills he didn’t pay

They hired Neil J. Lewis to represent them after they were injured in car accidents. But some of his former clients are now finding themselves back in court to pay their portions of what could be more than $1 million in medical bills Lewis was supposed to pay out of settlement proceeds, a transgression that led to his disbarment.

“They are really getting injured a second time,” said Ellyn Riedl, a staff attorney with Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service Inc.

MVLS is beginning to hear from more of Lewis’ former clients, many of whom appear in court without representation and were unaware Lewis did not pay their medical bills — or, in some cases, had contacted Lewis about the unpaid bills and were told “he would take care of it,” according to Riedl.

The doctors’ offices, which are usually seeking between $1,500 and $5,000 per claim, are sympathetic to the clients but say the legal action against them is the only way to get paid.

“Both of us feel horrible about the patients because they are trapped in the middle of this,” said Shawn C. Whittaker, a lawyer for Injury Treatment Center of Maryland LLC, which has filed more 339 claims against Lewis’ former clients seeking a total of more than $700,000.

But “at some point, ITC had to take action,” Whittaker added. “We had no remedy but to sue the patients.”

Lewis, a veteran personal injury attorney known for his “Lewis Law Line” commercials, was disbarred Sept. 1 for multiple violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct, including knowingly using client trust funds for unauthorized purposes. The Attorney Grievance Commission had two open cases with Lewis; in one, filed in July, Bar Counsel alleged Lewis failed to deliver funds owed to ITC, which Whittaker said had been seeing Lewis’ clients for two decades.

Whittaker first reached out to Lewis in November 2012 at the request of ITC. The two men had several conversations in which Lewis said he was “overwhelmed,” according to Whitaker.

“He sat on the phone with me and cried,” said Whittaker, of Whittaker & Associates P.C. in Rockville. “He asked us to give him more time.”

Prior to his disbarment, Lewis would call ITC with “no clue” as to which of his trials were scheduled for the coming week, Whittaker said. Lewis would then pay money owed to ITC on a case-by-case basis.

“That’s when we realized he had the money the whole time,” Whittaker said, adding Lewis has paid ITC about $100,000.

Maryland Healthcare Clinics also received payments from Lewis after suing his clients, according to a company spokesman. The company is owed between $200,000 and $400,000 but is “trying to refrain” from suing its former patients, he said.

“Most don’t have assets or income,” said the spokesman, who declined to be named.

Since MVLS’ clients have limited income, any judgment against them or settlement can result in garnished wages or seized bank accounts, said Susan K. Francis, the organization’s deputy director.

Lewis’ former clients being sued could file a claim with the Judiciary’s Client Protection Fund, which can reimburse for losses caused by theft. But with the Attorney Grievance Commission still sifting through hundreds of Lewis’ cases, many of his former clients might not know they should turn to the Client Protection Fund until after their court cases have been adjudicated, Riedl and Francis said.

“We recognize this is an overwhelming problem,” Francis said. But “during this process, there has been no putting on the brakes for these clients who we believe shouldn’t be liable for these debts.”

Janet C. Moss, executive director of the Client Protection Fund, said there has been an increase in filings made by Lewis’ former clients in the last month but did not have the total number of claims filed.

Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman declined to comment on the investigation.

Riedl was granted a stay in one of her cases involving ITC and ordered by the judge to file a third-party complaint against Lewis as well as proof of a Client Protection Fund claim. While Whittaker said the contract between ITC and a patient states the patient is ultimately responsible for any unpaid bills, Riedl said the contract makes the patient personally responsible only if there is an “unfavorable settlement.” And just because Lewis did not pay the medical bill does not mean the settlement as unfavorable, Riedl said.

“That is one of the problems with people being pro se,” Riedl said. “They don’t know how to articulate that issue to the judge the way a lawyer can.”

Whittaker also confirmed another allegation of Bar Counsel, that in some of their cases “Lewis entered an appearance as counsel for the defendant without defendant’s knowledge … for the purpose of attempting to settle cases while concealing his prior misappropriations.”

In those cases, the clients would call ITC to attempt to settle, only to learn the company would not talk to them because Lewis was representing them.

“He was trying to pay these claims off so he wouldn’t get into more trouble,” Whittaker said.