A truck driver says he was denied justice twice — first by his own lawyer who lied and fabricated documents, then by the law society’s insurer, which refused to compensate him because that same lawyer didn’t follow its rules.
Dale Rindero wanted to sue his former employer, believing he’d been unfairly fired.
He was sure he had a good case since the labour regulator Employment Standards Alberta and Employment Insurance had already sided with him.
But Rindero missed the two-year window to file his wrongful dismissal lawsuit because his lawyer lied and didn’t do the required work.
Kevan Peterson lied about filing a claim with the court and fabricated elaborate documents for a $22,000 settlement he said he’d negotiated with Rindero’s former employer, according to Law Society of Alberta documents.
“He had done nothing except lie to me. When he finally admitted he had not done anything with the courts … he kind of just disappeared,” Rindero told Go Public from his new home in Arborfield, Sask. He used to live in Bonnyville, Alta.
So Rindero turned to the law society’s insurance, the Alberta Lawyers Indemnity Association (ALIA), to file a claim for the money he believes he lost because his case never made it to court.
But the insurer refused to consider the claim — not because Rindero did anything wrong, but because Peterson broke the insurer’s rules. So it cancelled his coverage.
“I don’t understand,” Rindero said of the ALIA decision. “I assume they’re there for a purpose but I have no idea what that is.”
Experts say there’s a gap in the system — which is meant to protect Canadians from bad lawyers — that leaves people like Rindero holding the bag.
In exchange for having what is basically a monopoly on legal services, legal expert Robert Harvie says lawyers are required to have insurance through their provincial law societies to protect and compensate clients when good lawyers make mistakes or bad ones intentionally harm clients.
“The price of that monopoly is to protect [the public], and they’re not doing it,” said Harvie, a lawyer and a former bencher with the Law Society of Alberta, where he assisted with regulatory matters and more.
He says clients who have been wronged can easily be denied claims if their lawyer broke the insurer’s rules.
And those rules can be very particular, he says — ranging from refusing to co-operate with law society investigations to failing to report potential complaints to the society before they even happen.
The ALIA won’t say which rules Peterson broke. Rindero says he was told he had refused to co-operate with a law society investigation against him.
When Rindero was looking for a lawyer, the law society directed him to its referral service, where he found Peterson.
The website showed Peterson was in good standing with no problems. That changed after Rindero hired him in March 2016, but no one from the law society warned Rindero.
He only found out when he called to complain about Peterson in June 2019 and was told the man he thought was still his lawyer had been suspended five months earlier.
“I was just totally dumbfounded,” Rindero said. “They should let you know when your lawyer has been suspended.”
The law society asks the court to appoint a custodian to update clients when a lawyer is in trouble, but in Peterson’s case, that didn’t happen for several months because the society believed he didn’t have any active files, according to Elizabeth J. Osler, the society’s CEO and executive director.
Peterson’s suspension was extended 13 more months on Jan. 25, 2021, after a law society hearing committee found him guilty of 21 violations under its code of conduct involving six clients, including Rindero. Those violations included misconduct, failing to attend court, failing to be honest, creating a false document, practising law while suspended and more.
He was ordered to pay $12,574 to cover the costs of the hearing, but the law society isn’t allowed to use that money to pay restitution to wronged clients.
For four months after being fired, Rindero struggled to find work and when he did, it was temporary manual labour making a fraction of what he used to — which was about $120,000 a year, plus benefits.
The lack of work and compensation hit him hard, he says.
“It’s had a huge, huge impact,” he said. “We were trying to keep up with bills [but] I fell behind on my mortgage payments. We ended up losing our house.”
He has since found another job as a truck driver, but it’s only seasonal, doesn’t pay as well and doesn’t have benefits.
Most lawyers follow the rules and serve their clients well, says Trevor Farrow, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. But he says clients shouldn’t be abandoned when lawyers make mistakes or intentionally do harm.
Those who are disciplined by law societies fall into two categories, he says: ones that make mistakes and own up to them, and rogue lawyers whose wrongdoing results in clients taking the hit.
Farrow says the insurers often compensate clients of the former, while the others can fall through the cracks.
“These are the much more rare cases where it’s not a mistake. It’s someone who’s not playing by the rules and they’ve taken off,” he said.
Osgoode Law School professor Trevor Farrow says clients shouldn’t be left holding the bag when lawyers go rogue. (Submitted by Trevor Farrow)
Farrow says while all Canadian law societies, which regulate the legal profession, require lawyers to have insurance, many also have a separate compensation fund for wronged clients.
The problem is those compensation funds are often limited and only cover specific kinds of wrongdoing.
For example, B.C.’s fund only compensates for theft of money or other property, and Alberta’s only covers cases that involve misappropriation of funds.
“[Rindero’s] is one of those cases that, I think, falls right in the middle of two different sets of regimes that are designed to protect the public … and when those two regimes don’t line up, clients are left holding the bag,” Farrow said.
Both he and Harvie say Rindero should have been compensated.
The Law Society of Alberta, which has a duty to protect the public under the provincial Legal Profession Act, owns the ALIA but the two largely operate independently.
Peterson was suspended by the Law Society of Alberta on Jan. 25, 2021, after being found guilty of 21 citations, including failing to be honest. (Law Society of Alberta)
Go Public asked the ALIA if that duty extends to its own work, but it didn’t answer that or any other questions, including whether it’s fair to deny clients compensation when their lawyer breaks the rules, and whether the ALIA’s system unfairly penalizes people with the bad luck to have been involved with a problem lawyer.
Instead, in a general statement, an ALIA spokesperson said: “In some cases, payment of damages is not available because a Claimant or Subscriber has not met the necessary criteria under the professional liability policy.”
Harvie says the public needs to question the lack of answers from an insurer that should be accountable for its decisions.
“It becomes this little sort of closed club of insiders, and the public doesn’t really understand what the limitations are, what the problems are, because the insiders like it the way it is,” he said.
Rindero is holding out little hope that the ALIA will help him. He hired a new lawyer and filed a lawsuit against Peterson.
“I used to trust people to follow through on their word,” Rindero said. “I don’t know if I can do that anymore. I tell people to watch your back, be careful, because you have no recourse if you hire a bad lawyer.”
Peterson’s suspension was supposed to end Feb. 25, but the law society’s website shows he is still banned from practising law. Lawyers must apply to be reinstated and those applications are confidential, the law society said.
Go Public tried reaching Peterson for comment, but didn’t hear back.
Rosa Marchitelli is a national award winner for her investigative work. As co-host of the CBC News segment Go Public, she has a reputation for asking tough questions and holding companies and individuals to account. Rosa’s work is seen across CBC News platforms.