NJ Law Firm Wins Billing Increments Challenge
May 25, 2023
A recent Law 360 by George Woolston, “NJ Firm Keeps Victory In Retainer Fee Billing Challenge,” reports that the New Jersey state appeals court has backed Arbus Maybruch & Goode LLC's win in an ex-client's suit alleging it failed to disclose the incremental billing structure of its retainer fee, reasoning in a published decision that the firm's bimonthly invoices showed the terms were spelled out. A three-judge panel affirmed a Monmouth County trial judge's decision to award summary judgment to the firm on breach of contract claims against Daniel Cohen and his company Cohen Capital Management over $142,000 in unpaid attorney fees and costs.
Cohen challenged the lower court's decision, claiming that the New Jersey firm's fee and retainer agreements were illegal and unethical under the state's rules of professional conduct for attorneys, according to the opinion. Cohen argued that attorneys are required to include language defining what unit of incremental billing the attorneys planned to use in retainer agreements, despite hourly rates and initial deposits being otherwise clearly defined. The firm had been billing Cohen in increments of one-tenth of an hour, according to the opinion.
In its review of two retainer agreements between the firm and Cohen and the relevant rules and case law, the panel found "no rule as rigorous as the one defendants urge us to adopt" and reached the same conclusion as the trial court — the firm's legal fees were reasonably presented and agreed to by the parties.
"The fees awarded here were based upon a reasonable hourly rate, as determined by the trial judge, who made detailed findings regarding the type of matter involved, the rates charged by other New Jersey attorneys possessing similar experience in like matters, and regional considerations regarding the amount billed," Judge Maritza Berdote Byrne wrote for the panel. The panel also found Cohen's argument that he was not aware of the firm's incremental billing was not supported by the record in the case.
"Further, based upon the parties' course of dealing, where defendants availed themselves of AMG's legal services for more than two years without objecting to any invoices or raising the incremental billing issue, defendants' claim suggests an improper motive," Judge Berdote Byrne wrote.
Arbus Maybruch & Goode represented Cohen and his company for more than two years, starting in 2018, in a negligent construction suit as well as in a separate lawsuit against Cohen by a law firm seeking unpaid attorney fees, according to the appellate opinion. In July 2020, the firm ended its representation of Cohen and a month later filed its breach of contract suit over the unpaid attorney fees. According to the opinion, the first time Cohen argued that the agreements did not permit billing on an "incremental" basis was in its answer to the lawsuit, filed in Oct. 2020.