Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Pacheco-Romero: Funds Not Earned by Disqualified Counsel Should Be Paid to CJA Fund

In United States v. Pacheco-Romero, 19-14446 (Apr. 28, 2021) (William Pryor, Jill Pryor, Self), the Court affirmed the district court's order that funds not earned by disqualified counsel be paid to the CJA fund.    

This appeal involves the question of what happens to money paid to a law firm when that law firm is subsequently disqualified from representing any of the parties in the case based upon a conflict of interest.  Here, six defendants retained the same law firm to represent them in a case where they were charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine.  The law firm had collected a total of $21,000 from the defendants.  After the firm was disqualified, questions arose about whether the law firm had earned the entire fee it had collected, and, if not, whether the portion of the fee that did not belong to the law firm should be refunded to the defendants or used to reimburse the fees and expenses of the defendants' appointed CJA counsel.  Because the law firm refused to disclose what portion of the fee, if any, the law firm had not earned, the district court ordered the law firm to pay $15,000 into the court's registry.  The court then determined that $8,000 of the funds in the registry had been earned.  The district court directed that the remaining $7,000 be paid to the CJA fund.  The law firm appealed the orders directing them to pay $15,000 into the court's registry, and directing that $7,000 of those funds should be paid to the CJA fund.  The United States did not participate in the appeal because it had not been involved in any of the proceedings below.   

This Court affirmed in part and dismissed in part.  First, the Court reviewed its appellate jurisdiction over each of the grounds raised on appeal.  The Court noted that while 28 U.S.C. § 1291 grants appellate courts jurisdiction to review decisions made by district courts in a judicial capacity, orders under 18 U.S.C. § 3006A(f)--directing a person to pay money into the court's registry or directing a court clerk to pay money from the registry to cover the cost of appointed counsel--are administrative in nature, and therefore not reviewable.  The one exception to the rule, however, is that the Court may review district court orders under § 3006A(f) to ensure that the district court complied with the procedural requirements of § 3006A(f).   

Three of the four grounds raised on appeal concerned the exception, and were thus reviewable--(1) the district court lacked the authority to raise sua sponte the question of whether a portion of the fees paid to the law firm were available to the defendants for purposes of the CJA; (2) the district court failed to perform an appropriate inquiry into whether the funds were available to the law firm before compelling payment of funds into the court's registry; and (3) the district court improperly required the law firm to pay funds into the court's registry before any appointed counsel had submitted a payment voucher.  The Court held that it lacked jurisdiction to review the fourth ground--that the district court erred in finding that a portion of the funds were available to the defendants--and dismissed that ground.  

As to the three reviewable grounds, the Court discerned no error, and affirmed the district court.