In our ‘Oh, Really?’ feature, the Biederman Blog’s editors — voracious consumers of all matters pop culture — cast a curious, skeptical, fanciful, fun, and smart end-of-the-week eye on popular productions, sharing their keen observations about legal matters these raise.
Bob’s Burgers, Fox’s facetious American sitcom created by Loren Bouchard, continues to be one of TV’s funniest animated shows, even now in its eighth season.
The show revolves around the Blecher family — parents Bob and Linda, and their three children: Tina, Gene, and Louise. The clan owns and manages a burger joint on Ocean Avenue. Despite enjoying a gaggle of loyal customers, success does not seem to come easy: The business leaves the family with barely enough to live on. Every episode depicts a new dilemma facing the struggling restaurant, with outside, personal issues peppered in, too.
And as the Blechers’ struggle, the show veers from legal reality — whether on child labor law violations, public indecency, or health and safety violations. In, season six, episode eight, aka Sexy Dance Healing, the Blechers also fall prey to their attorney’s ethical violations. This might be more than a laughing matter, as this comedic set-up also offers legal issues worth consideration.
After Jairo (voiced by Jon Glaser) causes Bob (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) to slip and fall on a massage oil slick that he created on the sidewalk, Bob finds himself in a predicament requiring an attorney. Bob has injured his should and will need $6,000 in surgery. He can’t afford his operation, if he can’t use his arm to sling burgers. He hires Tom Innocenti as his lawyer to collect medical fees from Jairo.
Innocenti? He’s oleaginous from the onset. But two specific legal lapses illustrate how this fickle counsel, outside the confines of this fictitious realm, likely would face serious real world consequences: professional discipline for committing ethics violations.
Lapse 1: Attorney fees
At the initial consultation, the lawyer proposes to the Blechers that they jointly sue Jairo for damages, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Innocenti dubs this his “deluxe package.” He says he will seek $300,000 but will settle for $200,000. Flabbergasted by such figures, the Blechers explain that Jairo doesn’t have that kind of money. Their lawyer changes tone, and suggests his hourly rate would better suit this case. Here’s how they discuss the fees, though:
Bob: It seems like you’re talking slower since you started charging by the hour.
Attorney: (slowly) No … this is… the speed… I talk. But that reminds me of a funny story.
Bob: No, no, no, let’s not tell stories. We should go. We’re off the clock. Thank you, bye.
Hmm. This tactic to boost billable time witha client may seem laughable, but what might be an actual outcome from this excessively cunning ploy?
Rule 1.5 of the ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct discusses attorney fees, and counsels that “a lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an unreasonable fee or an unreasonable amount for expenses.” This rule’s Comment 1 also informs that lawyers must charge fees reasonable under the given circumstances.
Is slow talking and slow walking a client’s case, including with off-point yarn spinning, an acceptable billing tactic, as it appears Innocenti would try it? A Bar disciplinary agency likely would deem it dubious, finding fees derived from it unreasonable, precisely because the dawdling aims just to squeeze out as much money as possible from the client Blechers.
Lapse 2: Conflict of interest with a current client
Partly because Jairo wants to avoid legal fees, and partly because it is just in his charismatic nature, he urges Bob to let him use his holistic powers to fix his shoulder. He enters into an agreement with Bob: He will pay for a surgery if he can’t make the shoulder good in 10 treatments. These include Jairo encouraging Bob to make major life changes to lower his stress. Jairo’s therapies seem to be working.
But Bob’s family rebels, and the kids conspire to get rid of Jairo, who at one point ends up moving into the family’s basement after his landlord evicts him (!). They send Jairo a phony cease-and-desist letter on Bob’s behalf, threatening the healer with “death by scrunchy” (it’s an inside joke because Jairo rewards Bob with a different colored hair scrunchy after each appointment).
But Innocenti bursts into the burger stand to confront Bob about the nasty missive. Why? It turns out he also represents Jairo. The lawyer reveals this surprise to Bob, nonchalantly calling Jairo “my client.” Under questioning, he explains that in Bob v. Jairo he is Bob’s lawyer; in Jairo v. Bob, however, he is Jairo’s lawyer.
He asserts this is acceptable because he’s counsel in two totally different cases.
Let’s give him a blast from the Bar canons, shall we? Model Rule 1.7, deals with “Conflict of Interest: Current Clients,” and it states that: A lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest. A concurrent conflict of interest exists if the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client.
Here, representation of Jairo is adverse to Bob. Innocenti must prove the reason why Bob is guilty of falsifying documents and threatening Jairo, factors that all fall back on the lawsuit Bob has filed against Jairo for medical expenses.
Comment 6 explains Model Rule 1.7’s existence, noting that clients for whom representation is directly adverse are likely to feel betrayed. The resulting damage to the lawyer-client relationship also is likely to impair counsels’ ability to represent clients effectively. The comment also raises the common sense doubt that will poison clients’ minds in conflict situations: Whose best interests is my lawyer acting in, mine or the other gal’s, and whose business is this lawyer most interested in keeping?
The Blechers display the very betrayal the Bar rules describe when their lawyer announces he’s also got Jairo as a client. Linda Bechtel says with dismay: “Your client? But you’re our lawyer!” and Bob follows with the anguished query: “How is that legal?!”
Innocenti pour salt in the restaurateurs’ wounds by telling Jairo, in front of Bob, “You’re my favorite client.” How can the burger flipping bunch trust this lawyer after that?
It’s a comedy, of course, and the protagonists all lack legal “clean hands” in this sleazy matter. The Blecher kids try to fix the family mess by sending yet another phony cease-and-desist letter to the landlord to get him to “reverse-evict” Jairo — that is, to put him back in his former apartment.
The landlord, however, can’t be gulled because, as he explains, he used the bogus document tactic to stop his workers from unionizing. But once the kids know this, they leverage the admission to get the unscrupulous landlord to take Jairo back and out of their house. Meantime, his treatments or no, Bob’s shoulder heals. Everything’s back to normal.
But no consequences for any of the many bad actions? Oh, really?