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NJ Case Has Lessons on Arbitration Clauses in Attorney Retainers

February 14, 2021

A recent Law 360 article by Hilary Gerzhoy, Deepika Ravi, and Amy Richardson, “NJ Case Has Lessons On Arbitration Clauses in Atty Retainers”, reports on arbitration clauses in attorney retainers in New Jersey.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

On Dec. 21, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued Delaney v. Dickey, an opinion that severely limits the enforceability of arbitration provisions in law firm retainer agreements.  The court held that an arbitration provision in a retainer agreement is only enforceable if an attorney provides "an explanation of the advantages or disadvantages of arbitration" to a client before the client signs the retainer agreement.

The decision, which applies prospectively, tracks and builds on other jurisdictions' limitations on the enforceability of arbitration provisions in retainer agreements.  Attorneys wishing to resolve client disputes via arbitration should take close note of these heightened disclosure obligations.

Delaney v. Dickey

Delaney v. Dickey addressed whether an arbitration provision contained within Sills Cummis & Gross PC's four-page retainer agreement was enforceable.  A Sills attorney provided the retainer agreement to client Brian Delaney during an in-person meeting.  The retainer agreement contained a provision stating that any disputes about the law firm's fees or legal services would be resolved by arbitration.

The arbitration provision stated that the result of any arbitration would not be subject to appeal, and that Delaney's agreement to arbitration waived his right to a trial by jury:

The decision of the Arbitrator will be final and binding and neither the Firm nor you will have the right to appeal such decision, whether in a court or in another arbitration proceeding.  You understand that, by agreeing to arbitrate disputes as provided in this retainer letter, you are waiving any and all statutory and other rights that you may have to a trial by jury in connection with any such dispute, claim, or controversy.

The retainer agreement included a one-page attachment that contained a hyperlink to the JAMS rules.  However, the Sills attorney did not provide Delaney with a hard copy of the JAMS rules at the meeting.  The attachment also stated that the arbitration would be conducted by one impartial arbitrator; that the parties waived any claim for punitive damages; that the arbitration would be binding, nonappealable and confidential; and that the parties would share the arbitrator's fees and expenses, except that the arbitrator could award costs, expenses, and reasonable attorney fees and expert witness costs.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the arbitration provision was unenforceable "[b]ecause Delaney was not given an explanation of the advantages or disadvantages of arbitration."

The court recognized that the Sills attorney had disclosed, in the retainer agreement and attachment, several of the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum — but it found that disclosure insufficient.  Instead, the court required that the attorney provide an "explanation" of these differences — but it did not provide clear guidance on what is required for a sufficient explanation.  Importantly, the court held that an attorney must explain the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum, even when the client is "a sophisticated businessman."

The mere recitation of these differences in the retainer agreement, and the Sills attorney's "[offer] to answer any questions" Delaney had about the retainer agreement was insufficient to meet the attorney's fiduciary obligations.  Instead, the court imposed an obligation to explain the advantages and disadvantages of an arbitration provision either orally or in writing.

Although the court did not explicitly so state, its opinion suggests that an attorney cannot merely list the differences between an arbitral and judicial forum, but rather must explain how those differences might affect the client's interests in the event of a future dispute.

What Happens Outside of New Jersey?

The New Jersey Supreme Court pointed to a string of ethics opinions and case law from other states that support heightened disclosure obligations on an attorney where an arbitration provision is included in a retainer agreement.  The court also pointed to jurisdictions that require a lawyer to go even further and advise a client to seek independent counsel before agreeing to arbitrate future disputes.  Delaney closely tracks the American Bar Association's Formal Opinion 02-425, Retainer Agreement Requiring the Arbitration of Fee Disputes and Malpractice Claims, issued in 2002.

The opinion concluded that a binding arbitration provision requiring all "disputes concerning fees and malpractice claims" to be resolved via arbitration does not violate ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4(b), "provided that the client has been fully apprised of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration and has given her informed consent to the inclusion of the arbitration provision in the retainer agreement" and the arbitration provision does not "insulate ... or limit the liability to which she would otherwise be exposed under common and/or statutory law."

Because a lawyer has a fiduciary "duty to explain matters to a client," she must "advise clients of the possible adverse consequences as well as the benefits that may arise from the execution of an agreement" that includes an arbitration provision.  Accordingly, compliance with Rule 1.4(b) requires that the lawyer "'explain' the implications of the proposed binding arbitration provision 'to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make [an] informed decision' about whether to agree to the [provision's] inclusion" in the retainer agreement.

Unlike the New Jersey opinion, the ABA concluded that just how extensie that disclosure must be will depend on "the sophistication of the client."  However, consistent with Delaney, the lawyer "should make clear that arbitration typically results in the client's waiver of significant rights, such as the waiver of the right to a jury trial, the possible waiver of broad discovery, and the loss of the right to appeal."

For these reasons, the Sills attorney's failure to explain these differences to Delaney would similarly fail under the ABA standard.  While ABA opinions are persuasive, not binding, authority on the states, they are an important road map for attorneys seeking to understand their ethical and practical obligations.

The District of Columbia takes a similar approach.  D.C. Ethics Opinion 376, published in November 2018, concludes that an agreement to arbitrate fee disputes and legal malpractice claims is otherwise permitted by the rules, provided that the lawyer has adequately informed the client about "material risks of and reasonably available alternatives to" the proposed arbitration clause such that the client is "fully informed."

That requires, at minimum, that the attorney inform the client about differences between a judicial and arbitral forum as to (1) the fees to be charged; (2) the scope of discovery; (3) a right to a jury; and (4) a right to an appeal.  Like ABA Formal Opinion 02-425, the D.C. opinion also advises that the scope of the discussion depends on the level of sophistication of the client.

What Should an Attorney Explain to a Client, and How?

While the Delaney case is only controlling in New Jersey, it provides useful guidance for attorneys hoping to create binding arbitration provisions in retainer agreements.  As the Delaney court noted, the differences between resolving an attorney-client dispute in arbitration or before a judicial forum can be communicated orally, in writing, or both.

The New Jersey Superior Court's Appellate Division stated in Delaney that it did not hold that the "reasonable explanation" required of an attorney cannot be contained in the written retainer agreement.  However, the New Jersey Supreme Court's opinion did not directly address that question, suggesting that an attorney can sufficiently explain the advantages and disadvantages of the arbitral forum within the retainer agreement.

Rather, the court held that the disclosure in the case before it — which merely recited several of the differences between a judicial and arbitral forum, with no additional explanation provided orally or in writing about these or other differences — was insufficient.  Recognizing that not all arbitration provisions are alike, the court enumerated several differences between an arbitral and judicial forum about which a client might need to be advised including the following:

1.  An arbitration resolves a dispute before a single arbitrator and not a jury of one's peers.

2.  The arbitrator's decision is final and binding with no right of appeal.

3.  Unlike court proceedings, arbitration proceedings are conducted privately and the outcome will remain confidential.

4.  Unlike court proceedings, the arbitration process offers a more limited right to discovery.

5.  The client may be responsible, in part, for the costs of the arbitration proceedings, including payments to the arbitrator.

6.  A plaintiff prevailing in a judicial forum may be entitled to punitive damages, but that right may be waived in an arbitral forum.

7.  A judicial forum generally does not permit reasonable attorney fees to be imposed against a nonprevailing client in a nonfrivolous malpractice action, whereas an arbitral forum may permit an award that imposes costs, expenses and reasonable attorney fees against the nonprevailing party.

However, the court was silent as to how an attorney is to translate that list into a compliant explanation to a client.  Practically then, attorneys should, at a minimum, explain — not merely recite — these differences to a client prior to the client agreeing to a mandatory arbitration provision.

The attorney's explanation should include, for example, that applicable arbitration procedures offer limited discovery — for instance, the JAMS procedures "limit each party to 'one deposition of an opposing [p]arty or of one individual under the control of the opposing [p]arty'" whereas judicial rules do not have a set limitation on the number of depositions available.

The attorney should also explain that, unlike a court proceeding where neither party pays for a judge's time, parties in arbitration often split the cost of the arbitrator's hourly rate, which can be costly.  And, at least in New Jersey, an attorney must provide a hard copy of the rules governing the arbitration — but note that neither D.C. Ethics Opinion 376 nor ABA Formal Opinion 02-425 imposes that requirement.  And, perhaps most importantly, an attorney must understand the relative benefits and disadvantages of arbitration so as to answer any client questions.

Conclusion

While agreements to arbitrate attorney-client disputes are routinely permitted, attorneys' ability to enforce such agreements will turn on the client's ultimate understanding of the implications of agreeing to arbitration.  Attorneys should, as always, consult the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and related guidance in their jurisdiction — and when in doubt, should err on the side of explaining, both orally and in writing, the benefits and disadvantages of an arbitral forum.

Hilary Gerzhoy is an associate, and Deepika Ravi and Amy Richardson are partners, at Harris Wiltshire & Grannis LLP.

Polsinelli Sued Over Billing Issues

January 22, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Craig Clough, “Polsinelli Says Clients’ ‘Slacking Off’ Claims are “Meritless”, reports that Polsinelli PC urged a Pennsylvania federal judge to toss a lawsuit accusing the firm of overcharging and underperforming while representing a pharmacy and its former CEO in an investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, saying claims the firm "slack[ed] off" are not plausibly alleged.  Philidor Rx Services LLC and former CEO Andrew Davenport said in the suit that Polsinelli shifted much of its legal work to another firm and added unnecessary third-party legal fees, but those arguments don't belong in a breach of contract claim, Polsinelli said.

"Plaintiffs do not allege that Polsinelli breached any specific provision of the engagement letters but instead allege that it negligently performed its obligations such that Philidor allegedly paid more than it should have," Polsinelli said.  "That is a negligence claim.  And as explained below, plaintiffs' negligence claim fails for multiple reasons."

Philidor and Davenport alleged in their November lawsuit that Polsinelli transferred much of its legal work to another firm working on their case, WilmerHale, which charged by the hour and added unnecessary third-party fees.  This way, Polsinelli received the same $14 million capped flat fee, and WilmerHale billed more hours than anticipated, the complaint said.

Davenport was convicted in 2018 for his involvement in a $9.7 million kickback scheme after the SEC investigated Philidor's relationship with Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc.  Philidor hired Polsinelli and former partner Jonathan N. Rosen in 2016 when the SEC investigation was first launched.  Gary Tanner, a former Valeant executive who was a co-defendant in the investigation and trial, hired WilmerHale. Tanner and Davenport agreed to have a joint defense with WilmerHale and Polsinelli attorneys, with Philidor agreeing to pay the flat fee for Polsinelli and the hourly fees for WilmerHale.

The investigation eventually led the government to charge Davenport and Tanner with honest services wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering in 2017.  Philidor claims that once Polsinelli realized the case would likely face trial, the capped flat fee agreement was looking "less and less lucrative" to the firm.  Polsinelli began pushing work to WilmerHale and adding third-party legal fees for work the plaintiffs say the firm should have been able to do in-house and should've been included in the $14 million they paid, such as hiring an outside counsel for Davenport's defense, the complaint alleges.

Philidor was charged over $5 million in expert fees instead of the $2 million initially agreed to and more than $13 million in counsel fees instead of the $2 million agreed to, among other millions of dollars in third-party fees, the complaint alleges.  The company is accusing Polsinelli of one count of breach of contract, one count of unjust enrichment and a third count of mismanagement of litigation.  Philidor is asking for damages in the form of the costs of suit and the counsel fees they were charged because the firm's effort "represented a slacking off and willful rendering of imperfect performance."

Polsinelli said all the claims are "meritless," including the negligence claim, which is time-barred and fails even if it wasn't.  Under Pennsylvania law, there is a two-year statute of limitations for tort claims, and because the trial wrapped in May 2018, all of the alleged breaches occurred before then and the claim is untimely, Polsinelli said.  Under Pennsylvania law, the plaintiffs must also allege Polsinelli failed to "exercise ordinary skill and knowledge" to properly plead the negligence claim, but the claim does not make that allegation, Polsinelli said.  The firm also argued, among other things, that the unjust enrichment claim should be tossed because it "is a quasi-contractual doctrine that does not apply in cases where the parties have a written or express contract."

Article: Granting Arbitrators the Power to Award Attorney Fees

January 4, 2021

A recent Legal Intelligencer article by Abraham J. Gafni, “Unintentionally Granting Arbitrators the Power to Award Attorney Fees” reports on granting the power to award attorney fees in arbitration.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

In this pandemic period, as courts are limited in their ability to conduct civil trials, parties increasingly consider whether and how to settle their disputes through arbitration.  In his article last month in the Legal Intelligencer, “How Pre-Lawsuit Demand Letters Can Undermine Arbitration” (Nov. 16, 2020), Charles Forer, through his erstwhile attorney foil Bob, explained how a party who had entered into an agreement providing for mandatory arbitration almost suffered the unintended consequence of forfeiting that right by threatening litigation in court.

Yet another area in which this “law of unintended consequences” appears to be regularly occurring these days is when a party unintentionally extends authority to the arbitrator to award attorney fees.  The general “American Rule,” of course, is that, in the absence of a contractual agreement or statutory provision, each party is responsible for its own attorney fees.  Similarly, arbitrators generally lack the authority to award attorney fees.  Nonetheless, parties often determine that it is within their interests to include a provision in the arbitration agreement allowing the arbitrators to award them.

Even when the parties have not included such authority in the arbitration agreement, however, they may unexpectedly find that through their arbitration pleadings or other actions during the arbitration proceeding, they have granted such authority and become responsible for the payment of their successful adversaries’ attorney fees.

A recent opinion of the Massachusetts Superior Court, business litigation session, reflected how a party’s own actions authorized an arbitration panel to award attorney’s fees even though the contract did not provide that authority. See Credit Suisse Securities (USA), (Credit Suisse) v. Galli, No. 2020-0709-BLS 2 (Aug. 31, 2020).  The case involved employees who were formerly employed by Credit Suisse.  They filed an arbitration demand against Credit Suisse alleging a violation of the Massachusetts Wage Act (Wage Act) and related contract claims, asserting that Credit Suisse had failed to pay them earned deferred compensation.

Credit Suisse denied these allegations and filed a counterclaim claiming that the employees had breached their contracts with Credit Suisse.  Consequently, in addition to asserting a claim of millions of dollars in compensatory damages it sought “transaction costs, interest and fees.”  In closing arguments, the employees’ counsel specifically sought attorney fees, asserting that the arbitrators could award them pursuant to the Wage Act, and “because we believe that Credit Suisse, in filing their counterclaims … are requesting” not only millions of dollars in compensatory damages but also “related transaction costs and fees.”  Employees’ position was that since both parties were requesting attorney fees and costs, the arbitrators had the authority to award such fees to the successful party.

In response, in its closing arguments, Credit Suisse’s counsel stated that “we do not think there is any legal basis for an award of fees and expense in this case,” but added that if the arbitration panel were to award fees to the employees, the fee application was insufficiently itemized.  However, they did not directly contest the assertion that Credit Suisse had itself requested attorneys’ fees or that by so doing it had given the arbitrators the authority to award such fees even without a finding of a Wage Act violation.  Moreover, at no time in the proceedings, did they make clear to the arbitrators that they were withdrawing any claim for attorneys’ fees should they prevail.

The arbitration panel awarded the employees compensatory damages as well as over $100,000 in attorney fees.  Credit Suisse appealed, arguing that the panel had exceeded its powers in awarding such fees.  In considering this contention, the court noted that judicial review of an arbitral decision “is extremely narrow and exceedingly deferential.”  Among the limited bases for vacating an award under both the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. Section 10(a)(4) and the Wage Act, however, is where the arbitrators have exceeded the scope of their arbitral authority.

Had the arbitration panel found violations of the Wage Act, the employees would have been entitled to attorney fees pursuant to that statute. The court noted, however, that it was unclear whether the findings of the panel had been based upon violations of the Wage Act.

Critically, however, the arbitration panel did not cite the Wage Act as the basis for its award of attorney fees.  Rather, according to the Massachusetts Superior Court, “the panel stated that it had the authority to award fees because each side had requested its fees.  Where the parties mutually request attorney’s fees in an arbitration, courts have concluded that this mutual request can provide the requisite legal basis for an award of fees, even though the general rule is that each party pays its own attorney fees.  This is precisely what happened here.”

In citing other cases containing a similar holding, the court noted that Rule 43(d) of the Commercial Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association at Rule 43(d) also authorizes the award of attorney fees where all parties have requested it.  In short, “by expressly demanding attorney’s fees and then submitting that demand (through its counterclaim) to arbitration, Credit Suisse effectively gave the arbitrators the authority they would not have otherwise had to award such fees to the prevailing party.”

The court distinguished this situation from Matter of Stewart Abori & Chang, 282 A.D. 2d 385, 723 N.Y.S. 2d 492 (App. Div. 2001), in which the court vacated the arbitrator’s award of attorney fees to the prevailing party because prior to the rendering of the award, the opposing party withdrew its claim to recover its own attorney fees and objected to the opponent’s claim for such relief. It was not deemed, therefore, to have acquiesced in the arbitrator’s consideration of that claim.

Finally, Credit Suisse sought to escape this conclusion by arguing that its counterclaim only asked for “fees,” not “attorney fees.”  This contention was also rejected by the court.  It noted that it was clear from the employees’ closing argument that the employees understood the Credit Suisse counterclaim to be seeking attorney fees and the employees’ own counsel were also seeking attorney fees, regardless of whether an award in its favor was based on a Wage Act violation.  In the face of these contentions by the employees, however, Credit Suisse was silent, neither correcting the supposed mischaracterization of its counterclaim nor making clear that Credit Suisse was not seeking attorney fees.  In addition, its only expressed opposition to the award of attorney fees was based solely on the sufficiency of the fee application submitted by the employees.

Otherwise stated, while Credit Suisse did not actively litigate the issue of its own fees, it never expressly withdrew that claim.  In addition, Credit Suisse did not dispute the employees’ assertion in closing arguments that the parties had agreed to submit the question of attorney fees for resolution by the panel.

In summary, whether arbitrators should be granted the authority to award attorney fees is an issue that must always be considered when drafting an arbitration agreement; and, of course, as the nature of any future dispute is not yet known and the incorporation of such a provision will be adopted without any knowledge of the potential financial burden that may result , counsel must always evaluate the likelihood of success in the arbitration, the relative financial situations of the parties, and the ability to bear such further expense in the event of an adverse result.

What has been further demonstrated here is that parties must remain wary of the possibility of becoming responsible for attorney fees, even when the arbitration agreement does not provide for such by making or joining in such a demand or, perhaps, by simply remaining silent and not objecting in the face of the other side’s request for attorney fees.  Unfortunately, this often occurs merely because parties wish to demonstrate that their aggressiveness and confidence match that of their adversaries.  Ignoring the potential risk of this unintended consequence, however, may result in a significant award well beyond what was contemplated by the parties when they agreed to arbitration.

Abraham J. Gafni is a retired judge and mediator/arbitrator with ADR Options.  He is also a professor of law emeritus at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.

Year-End Fee Collection Remain Steady in COVID-19 Era

January 1, 2021

A recent Law.com story by Justin Henry, “Pandemic Be Damned, Year-End Collections Are Steady (So Far)” reports that despite the great anxiety that roiled the legal industry throughout 2020, fee collections at law firms have largely returned to pre-pandemic levels as the fourth quarter comes to a close, law firm leaders and industry observers said, thanks to the successful shift to remote work and a diversity of practice areas bringing in revenue.  As 2020 ends, many firms are now preserving resources to give themselves a head start in 2021.

The fourth quarter is always a high-pressure time to collect fees from clients, especially in a year defined by economic uncertainty.  But the legal industry had one of the most successful rebounds from the pandemic-fueled economic downturn that began in the spring, and the financial strain that many forecasted proved to be short-lived.

At many law firms, however, the results of 2020’s economic turmoil won’t be known until January, with much of collections coming in these last days of the year.  Asked to comment on the net impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their firms’ bottom lines, many firm leaders said to call back in January.  “Our results depend on dollars in the door by a certain date and, not surprisingly, the last few weeks of the year are always important, but it’s always a little hard to predict,” said Tom Froehle, co-chair of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, which formed in 2020 out of the combination of Faegre Baker Daniels and Drinker Biddle & Reath.

While instituting flexible fee arrangements has played an important role in firms maintaining close relationships with clients throughout the pandemic, firm leaders said for the most part they had returned to normal by the closing weeks of 2020, with the exception of a few more economically precarious practice areas.

G. Mark Thompson, president and CEO of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, said the “vast majority” of his firm’s clients that requested payment discounts and deferrals have returned to pre-COVID payment agreements. The firm’s hospital clients and municipal government clients were among those that asked for discounts and deferrals on their fee payments as a result of the pandemic and its financial impacts.

Thompson said while the firm’s hospital clients—which requested flexible fee arrangements due to a downturn in elective surgeries amid an inundation of COVID-19 patients—have returned to their pre-COVID payment rates, Marshall Dennehey’s base of municipal government clients haven’t yet returned to pre-COVID fee arrangements as a result of financial distress.  “That is going to remain a problem going forward,” Thompson said.  Thompson added that one of the ways Marshall Dennehey has braced itself for economic uncertainty is having a diversified set of practice areas.  “That’s given us a competitive advantage that we’re hoping to leverage and expand moving forward,” he said.

Brad Hildebrandt, chairman of Hildebrandt Consulting, said the majority of practice areas that struggled as a result of the pandemic-induced recession—like M&A work, business transactions and in-person litigation—have successfully rebounded by the fourth quarter as attorneys and their clients adapted to a virtual work environment.

The legal industry is historically one of the fastest to rebound from a recession, and this remained true in 2020, Hildebrandt said, due in large part to the reduction in expenses that came with the shift to remote work, combined with a diverse set of high-performing practice areas, like health care and bankruptcy.

“The way the large firms have performed is actually pretty remarkable,” Hildebrandt said.  “It turns out as the last quarter came about, many of the practices were showing a return, like M&A and private equity.  Most firms at the end of the year are going to have increased revenue or at least the same revenue, and profits are going to be very high.”  Some industry observers said firm leaders may be looking to hold onto partner distributions heading into 2021 so they can preserve cash flow into the first quarter, which is historically a lower-performing period—recession or not.

Jeff Lowe, global practice leader of legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, said many firms are less concerned about end-of-year cash flow than they are about setting themselves up financially for a successful 2021.  “If you’ve already had a great year, it just puts pressure on your next year,” Lowe said.  “They would rather know they have accounts receivable coming in in January when it’s going to count toward next year.  It’s sort of like starting the new year with a head start.”

Texas Court Lets Lawyer Keep Fees, Despite Unethical Fee Agreement

December 30, 2020

A recent Texas Lawyer story by Angela Morris, “Court Lets Houston-Area Lawyer Keep $70,000 Fee, Despite Unethical Contract, reports that a Houston-area attorney won’t have to pay back more than $70,000 in fees to two clients who argued the lawyer’s fee agreement was unconscionable, after Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals ruled that the clients’ defensive argument wouldn’t support a recovery.  But one of the justices on the three-judge panel disagreed, explaining that Bellaire lawyer Joe Alfred Izen Jr. had an unconscionable fee agreement with his clients, which breached the attorney’s ethical duties, and that it was right for the trial court to make him return the money.

“In Texas, attorneys are held to the highest standards of ethical conduct in their dealings with their clients.  As a result, attorneys must conduct their business with their clients with inveterate honesty and loyalty, and they must always keep the client’s best interest in mind,” said a concurring and dissenting opinion by Justice Jerry Zimmerer.  “The question of Izen’s fees must be viewed through that prism.”

Izen, who represented himself pro se in the appeal, didn’t immediately respond to a call seeking comment.  And Ralph Kraft, member in Kraft Lege Anseman in Lafayette, Louisiana, who represented Izen’s past clients Brian and Kimberly Laine, declined to comment.

Izen represented the Laines in a 2002 personal injury settlement agreement over Brian Laine’s injury at work, said the 31-page majority opinion by Justice Kevin Jewell, joined by Justice Bourliot.  His employer took care of him after the injury and initiated a settlement for two lump sum payments and a monthly annuity for 30 years, and then the Laines hired Izen to look over the settlement agreement.  The Laines also wanted Izen to research if they may have a claim against any third-party entities—but not to sue Brian Laine’s employer.

An attorney-client agreement between Izen and the Laines was for a 35% contingency fee of the settlement with the employer.  Izen testified at trial they paid him between $70,000 and $90,000 and eventually he expected nearly $229,000 total.  Izen wasn’t licensed to practice in Louisiana and he contracted with an attorney there to represent the Laines in litigation against a third-party entity.  However, Brian Laine eventually dismissed that litigation and he did not owe any contingent fee for it.

In 2007, Brian Laine terminated Izen’s representation because he didn’t need it anymore.  He also quit paying Izen 35% of his monthly annuity payments from the settlement with his employer.  In 2010, Izen sued the Laines alleging they still owed him 35% of the annuity payments.  In response, the Laines argued his fee agreement was unconscionable and filed counterclaims seeking the return of the fees they already paid him.

After a jury trial, the judge granted a directed verdict in favor of the Laines, ruling the fee agreement was unconscionable.  But Izen also got a favorable ruling dismissing the clients’ counterclaims because they weren’t filed within the four-year statute of limitations.  Later, the trial court ordered Izen to disgorge all his fees to the Laines and to pay prejudgment interest spanning back to 2002.  In the appeal, Izen attacked the notion that his attorney fee agreement was unconscionable.

The appellate court ruled that Izen’s work reviewing the Laines’ settlement agreement with Brian Laine’s employer, and going to a meeting where the parties signed the agreement, was representation with little risk or expense to Izen.  His work on litigation against the third-party entity did have some risk, that there would be no recovery—which did happen in the end.

The 14th Court rejected Izen’s “attempt to combine the two separate jobs he was hired to perform.”  He was insisting his 35% fee on the settlement wasn’t unconscionable because the money financed the third-party litigation.  “Any fees Izen collected under the guise of financing the litigation against the Louisiana third party defendants were collected under false pretenses in violation of an attorney’s duty of honesty and loyalty to his clients,” said the opinion.  “Izen is not entitled to any fee on the Louisiana third-party litigation because there was no recovery.”

The appellate court upheld a trial court ruling that said that the Laines should not have to pay Izen any more money under that agreement.  But it also determined that Izen shouldn’t have to pay back the fees the clients had previously paid him.

The clients didn’t file their counterclaims seeking fee forfeiture within the four-year statute of limitations, explained the ruling. It said they couldn’t get back the fees based on an affirmative defense that the agreement was unconscionable.  While the Laines’ defense did defeat Izen’s claims, it could not advance their own claims for relief, the ruling said.