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Category: Unpaid Fees

Update: Kasowitz Wins in Fee Dispute Matter

February 8, 2018

A recent New York Law Journal story by Christine Simmons, “Law Firm Legal Battles That Slipped from the Headlines in 2017,” reports on an update of the Kasowitz Benson Torres unpaid legal fees case.  The story reads:

While law firms have a mixed record of beating back legal malpractice and discrimination cases, they often are successful in obtaining judgments against ex-clients for unpaid legal fees on a quantum meruit basis.  For instance, Kasowitz Benson Torres, which has a history of going to court to get such fees, sued Patriot National Inc. in late May 2017 in Manhattan Supreme Court, seeking $1.097 million in legal fees.

The company, which provided back-office functions to insurance companies, then filed suit against the firm the Florida state court, alleging it engaged in fraudulent billing, malpractice and other misconduct that cost the company millions of dollars. The former CEO of Patriot also sued Kasowitz as well as Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in Florida state court.

Despite the malpractice litigation in Florida, Kasowitz prevailed in its New York collection fee suit: it obtained a $1.185 million judgment against Patriot National in December 2017, after a ruling from Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Gerald Lebovits.

Yet any immediate opportunity to collect the judgment is in doubt. Patriot National filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy papers in late January in Delaware.

Kathryn Coleman, a partner at Hughes Hubbard & Reed representing Patriot in its bankruptcy, did not return a call for comment, neither did Kasowitz’s attorney in the collection matter, partner Joshua Siegel.

NJ Appeal Panel: Prior Fee Suit Bars Malpractice Claims

October 20, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Jeannie O’Sullivan, “Prior Fee Suit Bars Malpractice Claims, NJ Panel Says,” reports that Borrus Goldin Foley Vignuolo Hyman & Stahl dodged a legal malpractice complaint over its representation of a client suing a business partner over allegedly diverted funds, as a New Jersey appeals court affirmed the claims should have been lodged in a prior fee-collection dispute.

The two-judge Appellate Division panel’s decision dealt a blow to Evangelos and Matilde Dimitrakopoulos, agreeing with a trial court’s determination that the couple’s claims against the North Brunswick, New Jersey-based firm over alleged discovery, expert witness and billing gaffes were barred by the entire controversy doctrine.  The doctrine aims to prevent claims arising from the same set of facts from being relitigated.

The panel acknowledged that legal malpractice claims are exempt from the preclusive effect of the entire controversy doctrine, in that they needn’t be asserted in the underlying action that gives rise to the claim.  But the Dimitrakopouloses mistakenly applied the doctrine to the collection action, when the underlying action was actually the couple’s dispute with a former business partner, according to the appeals judges.

By the time the collection action was filed, the couple knew or should have known that their alleged damages were attributable to Borrus Goldin’s alleged professional negligence and could have filed their malpractice claims then, the opinion said.

“Instead, plaintiffs delayed three more years before filing their malpractice complaint.  Our consideration of the facts and equitable factors leads us to conclude that the motion judge correctly determined that the entire controversy doctrine applied here and barred plaintiffs' malpractice complaint,” the opinion said.

The Dimitrakopouloses retained Borrus Goldin in 2009 to assert claims that their business partner in a construction enterprise improperly diverted funds, according to the opinion.  The dispute went to arbitration in December 2010, and Borrus Goldin withdrew as counsel.  The issue was settled in September 2011 after the couple had retained new representation.

Meanwhile, Borrus Goldin had filed a collection action against the Dimitrakopouloses in March 2011 to collect its unpaid legal fees for services rendered in the underlying business dispute, the opinion said.  The court awarded a $121,947.99 judgment in favor of the firm.

The couple filed their malpractice action in September 2015, alleging the firm failed to properly plead claims and obtain consent before agreeing to arbitration, didn’t properly perform discovery and secure expert rebuttal reports, and billed for excessive amounts, the opinion said.  A Middlesex County Superior Court judge dismissed the claims, agreeing with the firm’s argument that the claims were barred by the entire controversy doctrine.

The case is Evangelos Dimitrakopoulos and Matilde Dimitrakopoulos v. Borrus Goldin Foley Vignuolo Hyman & Stahl PC et. al., case no. A-0880-16T3, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

NALFA’s Fee Dispute Mediation Program Achieves 86% Success Rate

July 19, 2017

NALFA’s Fee Dispute Mediation Program is the nation’s only program devoted exclusively to resolving attorney-client fee disputes.  NALFA’s Fee Dispute Mediation Program recently reached an achievement:  Since the program began, NALFA’s Fee Dispute Mediation Program has achieved an 86% success rate—parties who mediate in a session are resolved six out of every seven times.  This rate is significantly higher than most bar-administered fee dispute programs.  NALFA has settled over $5 million in disputed attorney fees between parties in over 40 cases.  The cases were brought by corporate clients and law firms ranging from fee disputes of $32,000 to $975,000 from across the U.S.  One fee dispute case was from the UK.

Attorney fee disputes are the result of a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship.  This breakdown may be a misunderstanding in the fee agreement or confusion over the law firm billing records.  Whatever the cause, mediation is the quickest, simplest, and most cost-effective way to resolve these attorney fee disputes.  NALFA fee dispute program is a private mediation service specifically designed to resolve attorney fee disputes of all types and sizes.

NALFA's fee dispute mediators are uniquely qualified to resolve fee disputes between parties in a cost effective and confidential manner.  These fee dispute mediators are trained neutrals who understand the underlying issues in fee and billing dispute matters.  Our fee dispute mediators are highly knowledgeable on reasonable attorney fees and proper legal billing practices.  They understand the array of issues in fee dispute cases such as fee agreements, hourly rates, billing practices and attorney fee ethics.

Unburden by bar association rules, NALFA provides parties with a mediation process that is flexibility, responsive and cost-effective.  Parties control when and where the mediation will occur, who will serve as the mediator, and whether they will accept a settlement offer.  Unlike most bar-administered programs, NALFA stays with the fee dispute case as long as necessary to bring it to a resolution.

"Our 86% success rate belongs to the outstanding work of our members, some of the nation's top rated fee dispute mediators," said Terry Jesse, Executive Director of NALFA.  "Their understanding of fee issues and their mediation skills are the reason we're celebrating this achievement," Jesse concluded.

Texas High Court to Hear $7.2M Fee Dispute

June 26, 2017

A recent Texas Lawyer story by John Council, “Texas High Court Picks Up Oil Family’s $7.2M Attorney Fee Fight,” reports that one of Dallas' wealthiest families has frustrated federal courts with their bitter trust fund dispute for nearly a decade.  Now the Texas Supreme Court wants to jump in with a $7.2 million attorney fee dispute.

Hunt v. Hill involves a fight between the heirs of the Hunt family's oil fortune.  The case was settled in a U.S. District Court in Dallas in 2010 but continues to live on in numerous federal appeals over the distribution of trust funds and fee disputes among family members and their attorneys.  The Texas high court recently decided to hear one such fee dispute, Albert G. Hill Jr. v. Shamoun & Norman.

In this case, Dallas' Shamoun & Norman sued former client Albert G. Hill Jr. in state court alleging he owed them a multimillion-dollar "performance incentive bonus" for helping settle Hunt v. Hill.  But Hill countered he never signed a contract agreeing to pay that attorney fee.

A Dallas jury later awarded Shamoun & Norman $7.2 million in attorney fees under the theory of quantum meruit for the reasonable value of the services it rendered to settle those suits.  But the trial court set aside the jury's verdict and rendered a take-nothing judgment in Hill's favor — a decision the Fifth Court of Appeals reversed.

Hill appealed the verdict arguing he shouldn't have to pay for a bonus that was never put in writing.  The Texas Supreme Court agreed June 16 to hear the case to determine whether attorneys can recover fees under the theory of quantum meruit if their oral contract is unenforceable.

The opposing parties will bring two of the biggest guns in Texas appellate law with them to the high court's oral arguments.  Shamoun & Norman is represented by former Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson, who is now a partner in Austin's Alexander Dubose Jefferson & Townsend.

Hill is represented by James Ho, a former Texas solicitor general and partner in the Dallas office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, who's mentioned as a potential candidate for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

"This lawsuit exemplifies why so many Texans have such disdain for lawyers.  Texas law prevents attorney fraud and abuse by requiring lawyers to reduce contingency fee agreements to writing," said Ho, who has lined up considerable amici support for Hill's position.  "It is a simple requirement, and we agree with the district judge, the solicitor general, and the business community that it should be enforced, not nullified by lawsuits like this."

Five Tips for Fee Agreement ADR Clauses

April 4, 2017

A recent The Recorder article by Randy Evans and Shari Klevens, “5 Tips for Fee Agreement ADR Clauses,” address ADR clauses in fee agreements.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Attorneys and law firms have been experimenting with strategies to collect unpaid client fees while limiting the risk of malpractice claims.  One approach that is gaining traction involves the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) provisions, including mandatory arbitration clauses, in retainer agreements and engagement letters to address the status of unpaid fees.

ADR has several advantages over litigation.  Most obviously, arbitration or mediation of a fee dispute is often less expensive than litigation.  Additionally, arbitration and mediation proceedings are confidential and do not become matters of public record.  Thus, a client’s assertion of a malpractice counterclaim in an ADR proceeding as justification for his or her failure to pay the fees at issue may stay out of the public realm.  Attorneys should be aware, however, that their professional malpractice insurance will likely require them to report such a potential claim as a condition of coverage (regardless of whether it is confidential).

The American Bar Association (ABA) has provided ethical guidance when using mandatory arbitration clauses in retainer agreements.  In a 2002 Formal Opinion, the ABA advised: “It is ethically permissible to include in a retainer agreement with a client a provision that requires the binding arbitration of fee disputes and malpractice claims provided that (1) the client has been fully apprised of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration and has been given sufficient information to permit her to make an informed decision about whether to agree to the inclusion of the arbitration provision in the retainer agreement, and (2) the arbitration provision does not insulate the lawyer from liability or limit the liability to which she would otherwise be exposed under common and/or statutory law.”

California attorneys and clients may enter into valid and enforceable agreements requiring binding arbitration of both legal malpractice and fee dispute claims at the initiation of their relationship.  Powers v. Dickson, Carlson & Campillo, 54 Cal.App.4th 1102 (1997).  But these agreements do not extinguish a client’s right to nonbinding mandatory fee arbitration (MFA) under Business & Professions Code §6200.  Benjamin, Weill & Mazer v. Kors, 195 Cal.App.4th 40, 53 (2011).  MFA arbitration is mandatory for the lawyer if the client requests arbitration.

Here are five things to keep in mind when including or enforcing an ADR provision in a fee agreement.

Use a proven arbitration clause

There is no need to reinvent the wheel or to take risk testing the general enforceability of an arbitration provision.  The safer option is to use a boilerplate provision or judicially tested language for a binding arbitration clause.  In addition, in the event the attorney-client agreement is treated like other commercial transactions, a generally accepted and commercially enforceable arbitration clause will be a significant asset.

Include the bar association disclosure

Although generally not controlling, ABA Formal Opinion 02-425 certainly is persuasive precedent regarding how a client can be apprised of the significance of the terms of the agreement.  Specifically, in California, an attorney must serve, either personally or by first class mail to the client, the California State Bar’s “Notice of Client’s Right to Arbitrate” form prior to or at the time of serving a summons or claim in an action or other proceeding against the client for recovery of fees that are subject to mandatory arbitration.  If an attorney fails to give the notice, the failure is a ground for dismissal of the action. Bus. & Prof. Code §6201(a).

Most attorneys dealing with this issue, therefore, will ensure that the client has been apprised fully and in writing of the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration and has been given sufficient information to permit an informed decision about whether to agree to the inclusion of the arbitration provision in the agreement.

Advise client of right to independent counsel

California attorneys are required to advise the client of the right to seek independent counsel when there is a malpractice claim and the attorney is seeking to settle the claim with the client.  Specifically, California Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 3-400 provides that a lawyer shall not “settle a claim or potential claim for the member’s liability to the client for the member’s professional malpractice, unless the client is informed in writing that the client may seek the advice of an independent lawyer of the client’s choice regarding the settlement and is given a reasonable opportunity to seek that advice.”

Separate fee disputes from other disputes

The ABA Formal Opinion raises serious questions regarding the enforceability of a mandatory arbitration provision that limits the attorney’s substantive liability.  Rather than risk both binding arbitration for fee disputes and binding arbitration of claims arising out of the representation by combining them, some firms will segregate the two into separate mandatory arbitration provisions.

By doing this, attorneys and law firms can save one, even if the other is lost.  In California, a properly worded provision requiring binding arbitration of legal malpractice claims is not ethically improper, and these provisions are generally enforceable.  See Powers v. Dickson, Carlson & Campillo, 54 Cal. 4th 1102 (1997).  The attorneys just must take care not to prospectively contract with their client in a way that limits the attorneys’ liability to the client for malpractice. Rule 3-400.

Include a severability clause

Like any successful contractual arrangement, a valid and enforceable retainer agreement or fee contract containing a mandatory arbitration clause also typically includes a severability clause.  That way, if a particular state or jurisdiction finds the binding arbitration agreement unenforceable, other protections in the agreement still may remain in effect.

By considering these issues, attorneys can take steps to reach an agreement with their clients that helps protect both sides and reflects the requirements of the bar rules.

Randy Evans is a partner and Shari Klevens is a partner and deputy general counsel at Dentons, which has six offices throughout California.  The authors represent attorneys and law firms and regularly speak and write on issues regarding the practice of law, including “The Lawyer’s Handbook: Ethics Compliance and Claim Avoidance” (ALM 2013) and “California Legal Malpractice Law” (ALM 2014).