On Friday, June 30, 2023, the Supreme Court of Tennessee at Nashville suspended attorney James Ralph Hickman Jr. for failing to establish an appropriate fee arrangement and collecting unreasonably excessive fees while representing a client in a probate matter.

The case is entitled “In the matter of James Ralph Hickman Jr.” with case no. M2022-00755-SC-BAR-BP.

The charges cited Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct 1.5(a), 3.3(a)(1), and 8.4(c).

In a release of information, it was stated that the respondent has been suspended due to multiple violations, including failing to establish an appropriate fee arrangement and collecting unreasonably excessive fees while representing a client in a probate matter. Additionally, he unethically agreed to represent the decedent’s estate despite a conflict of interest with his father being the estate’s personal representative. The respondent also knowingly filed a motion with false statements, failed to comply with court orders, and engaged in dishonest, fraudulent, and deceitful conduct.

The filing states:

“The meeting Marshall requested was held on October 17, 2016. Hickman, Marshall, and Marshall’s son were in attendance. They discussed the probate process generally but did not discuss legal fees or reach any agreement about fees. At some point after the initial meeting with Hickman, Marshall became aware that her sister had executed a holographic will and two codicils, one of which named Hickman’s father — not her — as the personal representative of the estate. 2 Hickman ultimately was retained by his father to represent Lawrence’s estate in the probate proceedings. There was no written agreement between Hickman and his father regarding fees, but Hickman claimed that his father suggested a flat percentage of the value of the gross estate, with the percentage amount based on “a sliding scale which accounted for ‘how big a pain [Marshall] was.’” Hickman agreed to this arrangement because he expected “the time and labor involved in probating [Marshall’s] estate” to be “significantly more than . . . for another similarly – sized estate” due to “Marshall’s reputation, communication style, and role in the administration of the estate.”

The filing continues:

“Hickman presented Marshall with a $77,000 check for her portion of the estate and asked her to sign a receipt and release, which indicated the estate could be closed because the personal representative had properly distributed and administered the estate. Marshall’s son testified that, when Marshall was presented with the document, she became upset and said the administration of the estate had not been handled properly. Frustrated, but knowing that her son wanted her to wrap things up, Marshall eventually said, “Just hand me the damn thing,” and signed the release, but only after Hickman assured her that his father would file and provide her with an inventory and final accounting. She believed that signing the release was the only way to bring the probate matter to a close and receive her share of the estate.”

The filing further states:

“Despite never having entered a verbal or written agreement with Marshall regarding the number of fees to be paid from the estate, Hickman and his father each collected a fee equal to six percent of the gross estate, or $12,000. They calculated the “gross estate” by including real property that did not pass through probate and therefore was not under administration. Excluding this real property, the combined fees received by Hickman and his father amounted to twenty – two percent of the total value of the assets actually under administration. Had Hickman charged his usual hourly rate of $225 for the 14.4 hours he spent representing the estate, he would have earned only $3,240.”

The court has carefully examined the case and compared it with similar situations. It has changed the hearing panel’s judgment and given the respondent a one-year suspension, with six months of active suspension instead of 90 days. The court also explained that the probation period should have a specific length and not be endless.

The Disposition states:

“After considering the nature of Hickman’s conduct, applicable ABA Standards, the balance of aggravating and mitigating factors, and cases involving comparable circumstances, we conclude that the judgment of the hearing panel should be modified to impose a one-year suspension, with six months to be served as active suspension. We clarify that the probation period should be fixed rather than indefinite. We affirm all other conditions of probation imposed by the hearing panel but further clarify that violation of one of those conditions does not automatically result in the reversion of the period of probation to active suspension. Rather, a violation would trigger the procedure outlined in Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, section 14.2. We also order Hickman to comply in all respects with Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 9, especially the obligations and responsibilities of suspended attorneys. Costs of this appeal are taxed to Hickman, for which execution may issue if necessary.”

Mr. Hickman attended the University of Memphis, in 1999. He practices in Sevierville, Tennessee. He is licensed in Tennessee. His info can be found on martindale.com.

A copy of the original filing can be found here.