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NJ Judge: Litigation is Just Another ‘Capitalist Enterprise’

October 7, 2019 | Posted in : Ethics & Professional Responsibility, Fee Agreements, Fee Dispute

A recent Law 360 story by Emma Cueto, “Legal Practice Just a ‘Capitalist Enterprise’, Judge Laments,” reports that a New Jersey state judge ruling on an attorney fee dispute lamented that the practice of law has been reduced to "just another capitalist enterprise," before deciding that the former attorney in a personal injury case against Verizon was not entitled to a say in the approval of a potential settlement.

In an order that was deleted for a "typographical error," according to the judge's chambers, Judge Stephen L. Petrillo said that Gregg Stone, the original attorney for a woman who was paralyzed after she was struck by a falling utility pole, would be entitled to seek compensation for the work he put in on the case but could not object if he thought the settlement fee award was too small.

First, however, Judge Petrillo expressed his displeasure that the dispute had arisen at all.  "This unfortunate fee dispute, coming as it does in the midst of seemingly final negotiations of a settlement, should resolve, with certainty, any lingering doubt that the practice of law, that storied profession of Marshall and Jefferson and Lincoln, is really now just another capitalist enterprise," he wrote in the order.

The case was brought in 2017 by Maria Meister and her husband, Peter Meister, against Verizon New Jersey Inc. and two other companies, Altice USA and PSEG Services Corp.  According to the order, Maria Meister was struck by a utility pole that fell after partially rotting through, leaving three of her limbs paralyzed.  Gregg Stone initially represented her, but two years later withdrew due to a breakdown of the attorney-client relationship, citing "incessant emails" as well as "ultimatums and non-physical threats" by Peter Meister, according to his motion.  David Mazie then took over the case, which is potentially nearing a settlement, the decision said.

Stone asked the court that he be allowed to be heard during the settlement approval process, arguing that his retainer agreement entitled him to recover a portion of the funds.  He also argued that Mazie, having taken on the case at the eleventh hour, had no incentive to ensure that any settlement properly reflected the years of effort the case involved.

Judge Petrillo, however, rejected this argument, saying that it was not supported by case law.  Stone would be allowed to petition for a cut of any attorney award based on the work he put in, the judge said, but his retainer agreement stopped being binding when he withdrew from the case, and he did not have the right to intervene in the approval process.

He also said that the whole episode did not reflect well on the legal profession.  "While lawyers may indeed make a client's life better through their advocacy and vigilant protection of that client's interests," the judge wrote, "they are uniquely able to make it seem as though they are not doing so when quarreling, as they are here, over who gets to spell out how much they should be paid from their paralyzed client's recovery and why one is more entitled to do so than another."

He later also lamented in a footnote that the attorneys seemed invested not in deciding who could represent the Meisters' interests, but rather who could have a say in how much the attorneys were paid.  Mazie told Law360 that he believed the judge's displeasure was directed solely at Stone, saying that Stone's request was not in line with the law.  "It is unfortunate that Mr. Stone fails to recognize that the only thing that is important is doing what is best for the clients, not what is best for the lawyers," Mazie said.  "The court clearly got it right here."

The order, which was issued on Wednesday, was deleted on Friday, along with an order on a discovery motion.  Judge Petrillo's chambers told Law360 that the orders were deleted because of a "typographical error" but that the substance of the orders would not be changed.  The judge had no further comment on the case, according to a member of his staff.