Editor's Note: This opinion was originally published as RPC 29 (Revised). For subsequent history, see RPC 216.
Purchase and Use of Title Abstracts
Opinion rules that an attorney may not rely upon title information from a nonlawyer assistant without direct supervision by said attorney.
Attorney picks up a circular for a title or abstract firm, which states that the firm offers title examination services to attorneys for a flat fee of seventy dollars ($70.00) per tract plus copy costs.
Thereafter, attorney speaks with an employee of the firm who states that she can do a title search on a parcel of real property as above stated. She further states that she will telephone with any problems and that she will send a title summary and copies of the relevant documents. She states that she will not render an opinion on the title.
Attorney then gives her a deed book reference for a tract of land and requests a title examination. Thereafter, attorney received a mailing from the firm which includes the following:
1. Summary page indicating an abbreviated property description, the mortgages or deeds of trust, the tax listing information and judgments;
2. "Link" sheet for one descendant's estate;
3. "Link" sheet for the deeds represented to be in the chain of title with a copy of each deed;
4. City ad valorem tax printout signed by a City employee; and
5. Computer printout of the "out" conveyances for two (2) of the parties in the chain of title from the Register of Deeds. (The "out" conveyances for the owners prior to 1982 were listed on the link sheet by the firm's employee because the Registry does not have conveyances prior to such time on the computer.)
Attorney was not telephoned regarding examination or examination process. The firm does not employ an attorney. The work was performed by a nonlicensed person. Attorney did not train or supervise the firm and was not requested to do so. Attorney has no knowledge regarding the firm's financial standing or liability insurance.
May attorney ethically rely upon the firm's "Abstract" or "Title Search" in rendering title opinions to clients, lenders or title insurance companies?
If so, what duty, if any, does attorney owe to investigate, evaluate, train and/or supervise firm's employees?
An attorney is responsible under Rule 3.3(a) to ensure that his firm has procedures which will reasonably assure that the conduct of any nonlawyer either employed or retained by that firm "is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer..." Further, an attorney may not ethically handle any "legal matter without preparation adequate under the circumstances." Rule 6(a)(2). For an attorney to rely on an abstract or title search by a nonlawyer not supervised by the attorney or the firm does not constitute adequate preparation under the circumstances for rendering of a title opinion or drafting a deed in reliance on the information disclosed by this title abstract or search. An attorney is required to supervise and evaluate the nonlawyer assistant. An attorney relying on nonlawyer assistants, whether employed by his firm or contracted with, must make reasonable efforts to ensure that the nonlawyer's conduct is compatible with the lawyer's professional obligations, including his ethical obligations as required by Rule 3.3(a).