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Category: Unpaid Fees

California Appeals Court Clarifies Law on Attorney Fees

March 13, 2021

A recent The Recorder story by Alaina Lancaster, “Appeals Court Rules on ‘Curious Gap’ in State Law Over Attorney Fees,” reports that a California appeals court ruling underlined “a curious gap” in the state law over the recoverability of unpaid fees when attorneys sue clients for breach of contract.  A decision from California’s Second District Court of appeal noted that in 1993, a state bar committee raised the issue of how Business and Professions Code Section 6148 clarifies that an attorney may recover a reasonable fee for services absent a valid fee agreement, but fails to set a standard for fees when clients breach a fee agreement.  Nearly a decade later, the appeals court said it was unable to find a clear standard in the statutory or case law.

In an opinion authored by Associate Justice Anne Egerton, the court held that the terms of the fee agreement control the amount of recoverable fees when an attorney sues a client for a breach of a valid and enforceable contract—even if it exceeds what a lodestar analysis, which measures the number of hours expended multiplied by the hourly rate, would consider a reasonable fee.

“The trial court correctly held a lodestar determination is not required in a breach of contract action where an attorney’s hourly rate is specified in a fee agreement,” wrote Egerton on behalf of Associate Justice Halim Dhanidina and Presiding Justice Lee Smalley Edmon.  “To hold otherwise would ignore the statutorily recognized difference between instances where the attorney has entered into a valid fee agreement with his or her client, and those where the attorney has failed to do so and is limited to a ‘reasonable fee’ under Section 6148.”

In the underlying case, Santa Monica, California, attorney Richard Pech sued owners of a mobile home park to recover more than $1 million in attorney fees and interest he claimed he was owed for representing them in several matters. Los Angeles Superior Court Justice Mary Strobel granted Pech’s applications for attachment of defendants’ assets on the grounds that the attorney had established the probable validity of his breach of contract claims.

The owners of the mobile home park contended that the fees were excessive and unreasonable and that the trial court should have considered the lodestar determination to determine the reasonableness of the fees.  Instead, the court decided to turn to the standard adopted by the 1993 bar committee, which was applied to mandatory fee arbitration, to address “this apparent gap in our law.”  The standard mandates that a fee agreement is not enforceable if it is unconscionable; the attorney’s performance must be consistent with the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing; and a court must determine if the attorney used “reasonable care, skill, and diligence” in responding to the contract.

The ruling determines that the bar standard is consistent with Section 6148’s “implicit recognition” that an attorney and client can agree to a fee that might not be considered “reasonable,” as long as the rate and legal services are disclosed in the contract.  “The standard articulated in Advisory 1993-02 sensibly balances the competing interests that arise when a client breaches a fee agreement by refusing to pay an agreed upon fee,” the opinion states.

Joshua Furman of Joshua Furman Law, which represented the mobile home park owners, said, “While we are gratified that the Court of Appeal recognized the gap in the law concerning standards for attorney fee claims against former clients under written fee agreements, and largely adopted the position we argued—that the standards established by State Bar arbitration advisories should apply—we remain concerned that the standard as articulated by the court is both unclear and too low to effect the public policy of client protection.  Under the standards articulated in this decision, an attorney could bill any number of hours and obtain an attachment order against the former client’s assets without significant scrutiny as long as the hourly rate matched the rate in the fee agreement.  This unfairly disadvantages the client, who may be unable to defend against the attorney’s lawsuit while the client’s assets are subject to attachment.  We remain concerned that the court’s decision does not protect consumers from unscrupulous billing practices by attorneys and continue to evaluate our options moving forward.”

Judge Orders Attorney Fee Dispute to Arbitration

March 9, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Emma Whitford, “Atty Must Arbitrate Fee Dispute With Racehorse Trader,” reports that a California judge ordered an attorney to arbitrate her dispute with a U.K. racehorse auctioneer company, her former client, over fees allegedly due when she represented the company accusing a financier of failing to pay for a racehorse.  Attorney Diana Courteau of California claimed in her April complaint that Tattersalls Ltd., the racehorse company, failed to pay her $73,255.34 for the months of February and March 2020, after firing her that March.  The six-claim complaint also accused Tattersalls and Bracher Rawlins LLP, the company's English counsel, of fraud and intentional misrepresentation.

But Tattersalls and Bracher Rawlins pushed back with a motion to dismiss, pointing to an arbitration provision in their contract with Courteau and claiming that she failed to give them proper notice under the California Mandatory Fee Arbitration Act, which lays out rules for the handling of attorney-client fee disputes.  "Here, it is undisputed that [the] plaintiff did not provide the mandatory notice form to defendants," U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee ruled, adding that the case will be stayed while arbitration goes forward.

"Moreover," Judge Gee added, "the agreement between plaintiff and Tattersalls contains a broad arbitration provision governing the very dispute at issue."  Specifically, a "dispute over legal bills that alleges breach of contract and related claims."  Courteau had argued that Bracher Rawlins could not compel her to arbitrate because the firm is not a signatory to her agreement with Tattersalls.  But Judge Gee disagreed, saying that Bracher Rawlins will be part of the arbitration as an "agent" of Tattersalls.

It is "well settled that a nonsignatory may compel a signatory to arbitrate based on agency principles," Judge Gee wrote, adding that Bracher Rawlins "was only in a position to direct or authorize plaintiff to perform legal work for Tattersalls in its capacity as Tattersalls' agent."  The order is just the latest development in the litigious fallout of Tattersalls' working relationship with Courteau, who represented the company in various matters from 2011 until March of last year.

Last June, in the case Courteau worked for Tattersalls until they fired her, U.S. District Judge Karen S. Crawford ordered Courteau to pay $31,772.62 in sanctions to defendants Gerald Wiener and his entity Finance California Inc., court records show.  The sanctions covered attorney fees for a two-day deposition last January in which the court found that Courteau coached the witness, as well as the cost of preparing the sanctions motion, court records show.

Wiener and Finance California had also sought termination sanctions, a serious sanction that would have ended the case, for Courteau's alleged "abusive" and "hardball" tactics.  But Judge Crawford denied that motion, saying the "worst of this conduct has been addressed" and "monetary sanctions have been imposed which should be enough to deter future misconduct."  Courteau has yet to pay the sanctions, court records show.  Attorneys for Wiener filed a notice of lien in the instant suit on Jan. 15.

In a Feb. 4 declaration to the court, Courteau urged Judge Gee to proceed with a trial for her fee dispute or, in the alternative, send the case to "global mediation" along with the Wiener case, which is currently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit.  "Plaintiff is willing to stipulate (notwithstanding meritorious grounds for appeal) that ... the $31,772,62 (sanctions) can be paid from fees owed by defendants," Courteau wrote.

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.

Law Firm Sues Pharmacy Over $600K in Unpaid Fees

December 29, 2020

A recent Law.com story by Lizzy McLellan, “Winston & Strawn Sues Pharmacy Chain Over $600K in Unpaid Fees,” reports that in another instance of a large, profitable firm suing a client over fees, Winston & Strawn recently brought a case against Tampa, Florida-based Benzer Pharmacy Holding, seeking more than $600,000 in unpaid legal fees and late payment fees.  Winston & Strawn filed its complaint against the client in November, in the Superior Court of Washington, D.C.  On Dec. 23, the firm filed a motion seeking an order of default against Benzer, a privately owned chain of pharmacy stores.

According to the complaint, Benzer originally hired a different law firm in D.C. to represent it, in March 2019.  But when the lawyer representing Benzer joined Winston & Strawn in July of that year, the company signed an engagement letter with the Am Law 50 firm.  The engagement letter, attached to the complaint as an exhibit, listed hourly rates of $745 to $1,650 for partners; $685 to $1,185 for of counsel; $540 to $860 for associates; $195 to $390 for paralegals and legal assistants; and $155 to $600 for practice support personnel.

According to the complaint, Benzer has not paid the firm since Aug. 12. Later that month, the company told the firm it would be transferring its case to another lawyer, and the firm transferred the files in September.  “Winston repeatedly asked Benzer to comply with its payment obligations and attempted to work with Benzer on its outstanding balance,” the complaint said.  The firm is seeking $608,960.99 from its ex-client.

Benzer has not filed any answer to the complaint, and no lawyer has entered an appearance on the company’s behalf.  Winston & Strawn is not the only vendor suing Benzer. McKesson Corp. has sued the company in federal court, alleging that it owes McKesson more than $7 million.  In that case, Benzer has filed an answer and counterclaims related to the supplier agreement with McKesson.

Another example of a large firm suing a client over fees came in October, when U.K. firm Allen & Overy issued a summons against digital currency platform Noble Talents and its former CEO John Betts, alleging that the company failed to pay invoices for services rendered totaling $938,235.  Betts denied the claims, which were filed in New York state court.

Over the summer, Pittsburgh-based Am Law 200 firm Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott sued a former client over nearly $1.5 million in legal fees.  The client, Nexus Services Inc. and Libre by Nexus Inc., which provides bail securitization services, had filed its own suit against Eckert Seamans earlier this summer, alleging that the firm breached its contract with the client by doing significantly more document review than necessary.